ATTLEBORO, Mass. — I distanced myself from my son Patrick, not as a precaution against the virus — though he is an emergency room nurse and in the thick of things — but because a novice fly fisherman poses enough danger.
Stand too close and that whip of line he has aloft, tipped with a tiny hook masquerading as a bug, can take a wayward path and snag your shirt. Or your ear. I know this.
The sun was low in the trees and the stream now slid by like ink. A trout nosed the surface beside a half-submerged log and Patrick was in range if he could just keep that line out of the brambles around him. I watched the scene play out from the road bridge while I blew cigar smoke at the midges flitting around my head.
Years ago I sat along streams like this with my oldest brother, Dennis, and watched him roll cigarettes while we scanned the water for the telltale ripple of a feeding trout to target. We were younger and more irresponsible, dropping everything in spring to travel to the Catskills, or the Rockies or the White Mountains — anywhere for the chance to catch magic hours like this when hungry trout rise in waning light and a trance-like stillness closes in.
Now, as I watched Patrick, I felt a twinge of melancholy. Denny, now in his 70s and a dozen years older, lives hours away and we share fewer spring adventures. It didn’t help that in this time of self-isolation and daily death toll announcements he said during one of our more frequent phone calls now that he and his wife, Devina, were getting their affairs in order. All of them. It just seemed timely and prudent, he said.
“We’ve settled on cremation,” he said.
Our mother once termed the early 1970s “the worst years,” so much societal unrest — and worry over Dennis, her oldest. Fresh out of college and then the Peace Corps, Denny had a wanderer’s spirit that took him from coast to coast and to Denver in between. He would light home for a time but then with little warning he’d shoulder his backpack and hike for the highway, to hitch a ride … somewhere.
“Why don’t you ask Dennis to take you fishing?” she once asked, her motive clear even to a boy barely a teenager. Keep him close.
PATRICK AND I LEFT THE STREAM without fooling a fish. Two nights later we were standing on the bank of a nearby pond, ready to try again. Patrick, who is 27, had not until recently shown much interest in my fly-fishing passion. But this virus, he confided one day after another 12-hour shift caring for the gravely ill, “has everyone appreciating things more.” Teach me, he asked.
He watched closely as I tied different flies on our lines and spared me any wise remark as I expounded on the life cycle of trout bugs, from their submerged origins as crawling creatures to their transition to flying adults. “Just pay attention to what’s coming off the water,” I said.
I hooked a nice trout on a submerged nymph pattern and it jumped completely out of the water to try to shake the hook. I handed my rod over to Patrick’s girlfriend, Meg, so she could feel the fish. The trout swam in close and with slack in the line, eventually slipped off. “L.D.R.,” I said. “Long distance release.”
We kept at it for a while but grew frustrated as the magic hour commenced and the trout were leaving bull’s-eyes all over the water but beyond our casting range. We’d decided to call it a night when a stranger walked up holding a plastic shopping bag sagging with something heavy inside.
He spoke with a Russian accent, and with his few words of English we came to understand he had a big trout in the bag he wanted to give us; he didn’t know how to cook it and did not want it to go to waste.
“Caught four,” he said. “Let go the others.”
“Four?,” I said, impressed. “What were you using?”
He nodded. “Mini,” he said, and pressed his thumb and forefinger together to emphasize the small variety.
So much for weighted nymphs and artificial gnats.
We accepted his generous offer, and Meg snapped a photograph of Patrick and I with the fish.
“Well, that was different,” Patrick said, and as we laughed, I thought how I’d retell the story to Denny the next morning, sending first just the photograph as a tease and saving the best part for the question I knew would come: What fly did you use?
Perhaps someday Patrick will remember that the first trout he ever held with the fly rod I bought him, came that spring of the virus when we were all social distancing and simultaneously being drawn closer together.
Thomas Mooney is a journalist in Attleboro, Mass., and a lifetime practitioner of social distancing each spring with the advent of trout season.