“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.”
- Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of fishing with my Dad and, once they were old enough, my two younger brothers as well. Had circumstances been slightly different, one could have fashioned a narrative of our family’s life through fishing stories as Maclean did in A River Runs Through It.
But as it turns out, shortly before I was born, Mom nearly blinded Dad, hooking him just above the eye as she reared back for a cast. She rarely, if ever, fished after that and, needless to say, a narrative of the Turck family based on fishing tales would be sorely lacking what with Mom not being around. Furthermore, in our family, we were quite ignorant of the notion that John the Disciple was a dry fly fisherman. As far as we knew, he used dynamite and gill nets. And despite growing up in the Catskill Mountains, birthplace of American fly fishing, my brothers and I were completely ignorant of the sport. So while I can’t in clear conscience describe the entirety of our family life using fishing as a metaphor, we (less Mom) nonetheless idled away many an hour – chucking our worms and crawdads as far as we could – waiting for our bobbers to spring into action.
We rarely caught much on those Huck Finn-like summer days – which was a good thing for the fish because when we did, whatever we caught, invariably became dinner. Trout, smallmouth bass, or walleye pike, it mattered not. Keepers went straight to the stringer, and soon thereafter, the frying pan. When you’re fishing with a gob of nightcrawlers catch-and-release doesn’t really make much sense, not that anyone had ever heard the term back in those days.
For years we roamed the diked banks of the Ashokan Reservoir which then, and now, supplies water for New York City. You may think that growing up in Woodstock, NY during the tumultuous 60’s might leave some sort of harmful impression on a developing mind, perhaps even an emotional scar, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, at least until we became teenagers, we were completely oblivious to the turmoil around us. Among other distractions, like Little League baseball, we had fish to catch.
Among many recollections from those days, one has Dad finding a huge jointed Rapala nested in the shoreline rocks. We had never seen anything like this lure – it had two joints and must have measured over 9” long. This thing was as big as the fish we often caught. My brother and I liked reeling it in because it felt like you always had one on. It wasn’t too terribly long before Dad hooked a finned freight train that doubled over his fishin’ pole unlike any fish he’d ever hooked before, at least in our presence. It also wasn’t long before his line snapped with the sound of a sharp slap across the face. His look of dumbfounded resignation I’ll never forget and to this day I wonder what was on the other end of that line. I also figure that double-jointed Rapala is once again nestled somewhere in those shoreline rocks.
But better luck was soon to follow.
I don’t even remember which one of us hooked it because it took all of us to get it in. You don’t need to fish the salt to exhaust yourself fighting a fish, you just need to tangle with a 36” carp at age seven. The epic battle seemed to last all afternoon with my brother and I handing the pole back and forth to each other following each bout of near collapse. Dad had taken on the role of spectator as soon as he realized we were fighting, what he regarded as, the lowly carp. But to his young sons that didn’t matter and that afternoon was the highlight of my early fishing career.
When you’re just a youngster and the fish ain’t biting, boredom sets in rather easily. Luckily my brother Anthony and I had a simple solution when the smallmouths weren’t on the feed which, as you’ve probably guessed by now, was most of the time. We’d fetch ourselves a short stick, say three feet long, scavenge some monofilament from the bank litter so typical of the times, and affix it to the stick (no reel required). We’d then dunk worms along the shorefront rocks for sunfish and rock bass. This technique rarely failed to work and provided us with hours of amusement.
Happily, the fishing wasn’t always slow. Often as the light would begin to fade, the smallmouth would head for shore for their evening meal of minnows. During these times the water would literally appear to boil as the chase went on just below the surface. When we saw this happening, we were supposed to immediately cast into the frenzy, which we did with delight, since it usually meant hooking up with a much coveted bass.
But bass weren’t the only prized fish to inhabit the Ashokan. And after many years as shore bound landlubbers Dad finally broke down and got us our first watercraft, a 14’ john boat. In lieu of a trolling motor we used good old fashioned two-armed horsepower to get around. It wasn’t smallmouth, or even trout, we were after anymore. We wanted a fish you virtually never caught from shore – the revered walleye pike.
The boat, which in our innocence we never even named, was a true revelation and suddenly the Turck family was bringing lots of fish home for dinner – and big ones too. We had located, without the aid of a depth finder mind you, some deeper channels that the walleye seemed to like congregating in. With one of us on the oars we’d troll huge silver-bladed lures with the standard gob of nightcrawlers. It all worked pretty well and left us feeling very satisfied with ourselves since, more often than not, we actually caught fish now.
Dad’s no longer with us, but I often wonder what he would have thought had he lived long enough to see his oldest son become a Wyoming fishing guide. I like to think he would have been proud of that.
P.S. My apologies to Norman Maclean