The cabin sat at the edge of the forest below the Beartooth Mountains. Behind the cabin, the boy’s small legs worked to keep pace through the tall grass along the trail. The man stopped when he heard the soft, quick footsteps on the wooden bridge across the irrigation ditch. He put his hand on the boy’s blonde head, smiled without looking, and walked on slower towards the river.
It was a cold morning. The boy could see his breath, and his fathers. He watched the breath leave them silently. The breath was new to him, like the morning was new. The boy knew nothing of cold mornings, or trout streams, or of the cattle behind the cabin in the woods. He did not know of the work it took to keep the land, or the joy that came with the work. He did not know that the children were gone and not coming back. About the struggle beyond this trip to the river. The boy did not know many things, but the man did, so he took him fishing.
The Easy Answers.
We know the easy answers to why we take our children to the river. We see them in their youthful faces, and smile as they play and splash and learn.
There is no debate. My son sleeps better at night after a day on the river. We may be playing more than fishing, but it is another way to keep him active and healthy. Taking kids fly fishing gets them in the outdoors, breathing fresh air, while keeping them active and moving. Walking, wading, jumping, hiking. It makes them strong, and it is a recipe for tuckering out little ones, even if you never catch a fish.
Every morning on the drive to school my son and I tell each other three things we are grateful for. Often the answers are things found in nature. The mountain. The sun. The birds. The river. I like to believe that gratitude comes from the time he has spent in the woods and on the river.
Most fly fishers have a deep respect for nature. Raising a fly fisher is a chance to ingrain that respect at an early age. You can teach your children to pick up litter, the importance of clean water, taking care of the outdoors, and how we are a part of this planet. Fly fishing is a way for them to build a relationship and appreciation for nature.
The older I get, the more I appreciate the value of being alone. Alone with my thoughts and away from distractions. Being on the river is a place to get to know yourself. To listen to your mind. It seems that is harder and harder to do these days. I take my son to the river hoping he learns to know himself.
Part of why we all go fly fishing is because it is fun. A child’s experience is no different. The river is an exciting place for a young person. Water. Rocks. Bugs. Climbing. Gear. Even the car rides are an opportunity for them to roll the windows down and feel the air rush against their face and wave their hand in the wind. It’s fun to stick your hand out the window. It’s fun to catch trout on a fly line.
We have to use our imagination a little to catch fish. Where are they? What fly will they take? Being on the river ignites my son’s imagination as we search for those answers together. He also pretends we are high in the mountains and makes and breaks down camp with each new fishing hole. He imagines himself in another world. I guess, in a way, he is.
Making memories with loved ones is easy on the river. It takes us away from the daily habits and rituals of our lives. The river is always unique. Always different. You do not need to catch fish to make a memory with a child on the river. “Remember, when we saw that beaver Pop?” When he asks me things like that, I know a solid memory was made.
If we forget the easy answers, taking our children fly fishing reminds us. They are seeing and experiencing many of these things for the first time. There is no complacency built into a child’s day on the river.
The Selfish Answer.
I want my son and daughter to connect with fly fishing the way I do. In a way, selfishly. It’s always there. Skittering on the edge of my conscience. I cannot ignore the idea that if my children love to fly fish, it means more time on the river for me.
I believe it is important to acknowledge the selfish reason. Admitting it, helps me be wary to avoid the temptation to push them to go. To never take them for the wrong reasons. It has to be fun for them as well.
Acknowledging the selfish answer also helps me accept that there is no way of truly knowing that my children will share my love for fly fishing or even the outdoors. The older my son becomes, the more I am forced to realize it is more of a hope than a guarantee.
Every day he gains more independence and becomes his own man. It is special to watch, regardless of if he stops wanting to fish with me someday. I always enjoy taking my son to the river, although I wonder sometimes if it will last.
Children are their own people. Spending time with them is special, so I will let them lead me when the time comes. But for now, and for all the easy answers, I will keep taking them. And keep hoping the next cast, they hook the fish that cements a love for fly fishing. I cannot help it. I love catching fish…
The Hard Answer.
Since I started the Wadeoutthere Podcast over a year ago, I have talked with many men and women whose fly fishing stories start as mine did.
“My father took me fishing when I was a child.”
My own earliest memories of my father are on the river. Flashes of light through aspen trees made the river sparkle. Trunks against green grass swaying like toy zebras and the sweet smell of Alfalfa coming in from the hay fields.
I remember being held. Carried over water. Stream washed stones of grey and white and blue speckled silver and glistening back at the sun. Stonefly husks.
I remember being close to him and looking out at splashing water from his knees while he taught me to cast and reel and hold the fish. Seeing the colors flash and arch over the river and then the smooth wet cutthroat in my hand.
Crouching next to him on the bank, clean flames licking my tiny fingers from smooth, bleached driftwood gathered on the bank with sand in my hands.
His voice was a whisper against the rhythm of the river. The beginning of a story. “We are quiet in the woods son.”
How many other fly fishing stories start this way?
The hard answer to why I take my children fly fishing stems from some of the conversations I have had with people on the podcast. People for whom fly fishing is special because they have struggled in life and found peace through chasing fish with a fly rod. They talk about things like stress, anxiety, self-esteem, PTSD, disease, and trauma. Hardships in life that can break people.
And then they tell me how they discovered fly fishing, and it changed them. I hear them say:
“Fly fishing brought me joy.“
“Fly fishing helped me escape.”
“Fly fishing saved my life. “
These are people who are full of joy for life. They say they have fly fishing to thank for it.
The hard answer is difficult to accept. You have to admit that there is pain in life, and that almost certainly as your children grow into adults, they will experience it. How many of us escape life without struggle or hardships?
How we start fly fishing is the variable. Will we know it from a story of our youth, or discover it later in life? I take my children fly fishing, so they never have to discover something I have learned is powerful enough to heal people.
I do not know if my son will watch a fly glide along the river and feel the same joy I feel when a trout tightens the line. Or if one day my daughter will wade through soft riffles and hear me speak to her in memories the way her grandfather spoke to me.
But I do not need my son or daughter to love fly fishing. I only need them to know that it is there. That it exists, and that they can go back someday instead of finding it by chance. When life gets hard, fly fishing is a tool that can help. I want them to have that tool. What a gift for the ones you love.
Why do we take our children fly fishing?
I thought I knew. But the hard answer hit me after having the honor and joy of talking and learning from so many passionate anglers. An opportunity I am most grateful for. They shared their stories with me. Maybe with you. The more stories I heard the more convinced I became. A tiny thought, even a fraction of a memory in my children’s minds, may be all it takes to trigger that trip back to the river when life gets hard.
I pray my children are safe and healthy. That they never need to go back to the river. I smile to think they may want to. Wadeoutthere.