June 2015

There is something soothing about a home cooked pie. Back home, I would usually find the pecan variety, but in the Midwest they have a particular fondness for rhubarb. I had my doubts when the dessert was initially offered to me, considering a vegetable pie to be somewhat unappealing but was pleasantly surprised when I took the first bite. “Whoa, that is sweet!”

Mom and I were sitting at the finely set kitchen table of my distant relatives, Amanda and Lant Davis, accompanied by a couple of their friends who shared an interest in fishing. We had pulled into Terra Haute, Indiana from Kentucky, and I was very happy to exchange hugs and introductions before promptly sitting down for dinner after a long day on the water. These were family of my mom who she had not seen in decades, but they warmly welcomed us to stay with them while we targeted our Indiana fish. Though the Davis family did not fish themselves, they had angling friends and were excited to connect us. We ate salmon and talked about distant cousins in typical fashion of any family reunion, the state’s beloved sport of basketball, and the fishing that would be done the following day. There was an empty seat at the table reserved for my fishing partner. While he did not make it dinner, the stories that preceded him instigated anticipation for the day ahead.

Bob McLaughlin’s headlights shined across the Davis household at 8 am sharp. I was waiting out front with my 5 wt. and a box of panfish flies. He climbed out of the car, fishing lanyard swaying below his neck. A tall and well put together gentleman with grey hair, glasses, and a bright, glaring smile. We walked into the house together for a cup of coffee. Bob and my relatives discussed the big happenings in the Terre Haute paper, and I sat thinking about the stories this man must have to tell once we could get to the water.

Bob was 82 years old when we shared our day on the water together. He was a friend of the Davis’s, and when mom first reached out to ask if they would speak with me about my project, or if they had any ideas pertaining to where or with whom I might fish, Bob came to the front of their minds. I had just turned sixteen. I was a high schooler, had a girlfriend, studied, played basketball, and fished. Bob was retired from a plastic dye plant, married, had grandkids, and watched Hoosiers hoops, but also fished. We occupied opposite ends of the spectrum of life experience. We moved at different speeds, held different degrees, I myself not having any, and wore different styles. But we had one thing in common that superseded any of our differences: a passion for fly fishing.

We immediately hit it off. Driving to a friend’s pond, we got right to fish talk, Bob sharing about Montana where he grew up. He had fished all the big rivers, a few of which I knew by experience and the others by dreams. I was happy to elicit our common thread so easily. It was simple. We are both fishermen. We have a trove of lost fish, broken rods, and epic hatches to recall, told in greater grandeur and drama with each recounting. This connection between anglers is one that has been articulated in many mediums. It has been told in countless fishing novels, portrayed in the relationship between Paul, Norman, and Rev. Maclean in A River Runs Through It and other fly-fishing films highlighting the rich relationship shared across generations, adhered by the pursuit of fish on fly. Prior to fishing with Bob, I had partnered with anglers from ages 11 to 78. Bob wins the superlative for oldest fishing buddy.

The stories flowed as we stood next to an old strip pit pond with the owner, Bob’s friend, and spoke with Howard Greninger of the local Tribune-Star paper. We put rods together, discussing each of our experiences with the sport while loading our gear into a small, square boat. Our two seated, flat bottom watercraft was about as long as either of us laying down and at first seemed suboptimal for our quest with flies. It had the makings of perfect habitat for fly lines to catch and tangle themselves into bird nests. But with a small trolling motor on the stern and one man casting while the other sat steering, the boat proved tactical for our pursuit of bass, bream, and crappie along the pond’s edge. While it was no ClackaCraft or skiff as you may expect for a fly fishing vessel, it served its mission well on the still water.

We pushed the boat back out of the reeds to the edge of the pond. The dark green invited us to explore what was beneath. Since initiating my Catch50 project, this was the first warm water fishing I had done. Bob set his rod down against the gunnel of the boat, tip pointed backward. Cautiously he lifted his legs, one at a time, over the side and set himself down in the front chair. A sigh of relief came out as he settled into the leathery cushion and stripped a few yards of fly line between his feet. It was a sigh of comfort. Of being right where he wanted to be, on the front of that boat, about to play his favorite game, one he knew very well.

I slid into the gap between his seat and mine and tucked my rod behind us, excited to watch my senior enjoy his craft. I reached back to grab the handle on our trolling motor and kick the day into gear. As we puttered along the pond’s rim, bluegill were popping up against the bank, darting by the boat when we came to close. Bob started by casting a crawfish pattern and retrieving it slowly from the side. After a few attempts, he insisted I join him. Keeping things simple, I threw a black wooly bugger and ticked it along the bottom. With no success, we decided to switch to poppers, Bob throwing a small one and I tossing one a bit larger. The tight quarters were conducive to us tangling our lines around each other, but after a few hiccups, we got into sync. The bluegill did too.

Bob was on the board first with a nice, hand sized fish. After a few chugs of his small orange popper across the surface, a trail of bubbles appeared behind it where the fish struck and missed just before taking down the fly with a vigor far unmatched by its size. Bob chuckled each time he elicited a strike, displaying a timeless youthfulness in his anticipation for action. He had a gentle smile. Meanwhile, he shared stories from his days chasing big browns and rainbows throughout his home state of Montana as a boy. From the age of 6, these were outings spent connecting with his father and then later his college roommates at Montana State University. I imagined the excitement he showed then was not dissimilar to how he was reacting to the fish in front of us on the small pond in Illinois. I thought back to my own beginning with the sport, just 7 years earlier, and how valuable afternoons spent on a South Georgia farm pond were for me and my dad, hoping to also be able to wet a line 70 years later and experience the same nostalgia and continued passion for chasing fish on the fly.

After catching a smattering of 15 blue gill and sun belly bream, we called the morning. It was nice to simply idle the boat back within eyeshot to where we began our loop around the pond. The little pit pond offered a perfect setting for our morning’s quest. We shared a snack and a Coke while Bob showed me his hand tied flies, mainly created for the bass and bream we were after. Then he decided we should check out another pond where he said, with great excitement, that we might be able to find some big bass.

We headed down the road, meandering through rows of seemingly identical brick houses if not differentiated by the flower arrangements, welcome signs, and yard art that colored them. A short time later we turned on the outskirts of the suburban developments into another friend’s property where we pulled up to a small pond, shaded around the edges by overhanging hardwoods and mulberries. We surveyed the water. It was just clear enough to make out schools of minnows and the occasional bass cruising for prey.

As I got our rods out of the car and began reassembling them, Bob instructed me to leave his broken down. He pointed to the dock in front of us, telling me to go stand on the end. He would sit behind me in a little lawn chair and watch. Though I wanted us to fish together, I obliged to Bob’s request and finished getting my gear together, starting this time with the small orange popper, which he fished so successfully at our previous location. Without turning around, I could hear Bob grinning through his mutters of encouragement each time I came tight to a fish. Per his instruction, I simply casted parallel to the bank, a few feet off, and within a few strips would have a fish on the line.

A simple glance over my shoulders revealed Bob sitting comfortably in the shade, sunken into his nylon seat, gently smiling and flashing a firm thumbs up. The sound of his chuckle drew a smile to my face when I suggested tying on a mouse fly and hooked a bass on the first cast. As a 16-year-old, I was heartened by the encouragement and affirmation of an angler almost 70 years my veteran. Even at a young age, I feel as though there are few hobbies that unite strangers so easily. The sport disables any differences in age, experience, and maturity, disarming those of all walks of life of anything they have but the rod and common quest before them. It bridges generations and certainly brought me to make a new friend in 82-year-old Bob McLaughlin.

Read more about my trip to Indiana in these articles: