The Fisherman I Knew

By Dominic Carnazzo

As fishermen go, my dad was a master. Those who knew him as I did, who fished with him and tied flies with him, can attest to his wealth of knowledge and persistent mastery of angling skills. That being said, with us, it was never a question of seeking or attaining any kind of mastery. We were students of the art of relentless pursuit. But it was never just about pursuit, either. It was about attention to detail and keen awareness of your surroundings. It was positioning yourself streamside to turn over rocks and at the same time calculating the best possible route to “the spot.” It was the softness of your step into the water, the pinching of the hook barb while tying on your fly, the exactness of the knot, the art of the cast, the sensitivity in your fingertips for the feel of the hit, the quick and precise setting of the hook, the toils of the fight and the cautious finale . . . the landing of the fish. However, it didn’t ever stop there. It continued to the handling of the fish, the removal of the hook from its upper or lower lip, the gentle rocking of the fish in the water’s ripple to help reacclimatize it and lower its stress level when releasing it. It was cleaning your hands, resetting your view of the river, and then readying the fly for the next presentation.

In a gangly vest full of fly boxes, I would slosh around behind him in drip-leaky hip boots to destinations all over the Northwest. Forever teaching and admiring my developing skills, he would often tell me, “Dom, there are fishermen, and then there are fly fishermen.”

There are memorable moments in the lifelong journey of a son and fly fisher. . . . days that are engrained in the mind forever . . . spots in time: honing our casting skills while walking the edges of El Piojo Reservoir in Hunter Liggett, California, casting a little rubber-legged green foam spider that produced hundreds of the tenacious little black-and-red-finned bluegills. Summer vacation trips to Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and Oregon. Fishing the Blue-Winged Olive and Pale Morning Dun hatches on the Henry’s Fork in Harriman Park, Idaho, with its picturesque, windswept, grassy plains separated by sparse wood-and-barbed-wire fencing. Moose and elk would wander in and out of their favorite watering holes as we waded silently nearby. The aspen-laden banks of the Madison River in Yellowstone Park and near the sleepy little town of Ennis, Montana. Days that turned out rainbows, browns, and even a few whitefish. The high-desert terrain surrounding the outskirts of Dillon, Montana, flipping hoppers on the deep-cut banks of the Beaverhead for monster browns. Summers just outside Roseburg, Oregon, on the wide-cut, granite-strewn Umpqua River, home to some of the most beautiful, emerald-backed rainbows and enormous steelhead I’ve ever seen. Ospreys lining the treetops, waiting for just the right moment to fall from the sky in the hunt for a meal. Those sunrise hatches that we’d always try to be up for — once he even helped me design my own fly for them: Dom’s Bomber. The sunny and warm afternoons throwing Muddler Minnow to the bubbling tops of the deep, jade-colored pools filled with jacks and lazy steelhead. And of course, the epic evening caddis and stonefly hatches that would sometimes look as though the water was boiling. He was always there . . . guiding me to the most favorable place and teaching about both the fish and the environment.

I have my own boys now, and Dad schooled them in the arts and crafts of fly fishing with the same patience and fervor with which he taught me. I would stand at a bay window at my mom and dad’s house and peer out as he would lean over the shoulder of my oldest son, Nicholas, giving him tips on how to hold the rod, cast the line, and present the fly. Those bass and bluegills didn’t stand a chance.

Fast forward to last year, when my mom and dad traveled to Idaho, where I live, for an end-of-the-summer visit. I promised dad at least one full day’s float, with me at the oars of my drift boat, and you could sense the excitement and eagerness as we sat and pondered our trip. The day before, I got prepared for at least three different drifts we could shoot for and visited our local fly shop, Jimmy’s All Season Angler, to talk with Jimmy about the alternatives as well as what was working for bugs. It turned out that the first two stretches I had in mind, on the South Fork and North Fork of the Snake River, had not been fishing well that week, so it was set . . . the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River and the float referred to locally as Warm River to Ashton.

We packed up and headed out early to get a head start on the other boats in order to avoid what we sometimes call the “boat hatch.” Fortunately, this was not one of those days when it was on, and the weather was very cooperative. Blue skies with some billowing thunderheads in the distance and a light breeze from the west started the day off nicely. I had prepared lunch early that morning, loaded all of the gear in the boat, and off we floated.

As usual, it didn’t take long for Dad to get a fish on with his patented BBFF (Bill’s Big Fish Fly). As the day progressed, I put him on all of the fishiest spots on the river. He landed some of the largest and most beautiful brown trout I had ever seen caught on that stretch of river, and I managed to snap a photo of the largest of the day just before he released it. How could I have ever imagined that would be the last time I would get to fish with him?

It was one of those extraordinary days, and he would go on to write about the purity of it: “Turnabout being fair play, there’s something awfully nice about being rowed about by one’s son on a brilliant big-sky day drifting a sparkling deep-green river, with nothing but a proven fly between me and huge trout. . . . Sometimes our frazzled world just seems to fall into a semblance of order and beauty, and what’s really important sorts itself out right before our eyes and quietly within our souls, and the rest is simply carried downstream and away by the shifting, passing currents.”

Thanks, Dad, for all of the wonderful memories . . . and among many others, the gift of fly fishing. I’ll look forward to fishing with you again someday in that great river in the sky.