About 12 years ago, my son Gage and I first discussed the idea of fishing in every state together. At the time, we were fishing with our friend Dan. Dan writes a monthly outdoor column for a Nevada newspaper, and he was working on a book of outdoor stories. Dan loved the idea, and encouraged me to write about our experiences.
“That would make for a great book,” he said. “Or you can write a series of articles for my column.”
The concept of fishing across the country with my son (and now my daughter Ellie) was a no-brainer, but I was skeptical of my ability to write about it effectively. I knew that, to be interesting, I had to write about more than just fishing. I needed to be willing and able to write about my relationships with my kids, and how those relationships changed as they got older.
Instinctively, I knew that this wouldn’t always be easy. I expected to struggle with the writing part. What I didn’t think much about, and what I’ve learned over the years, is that just having meaningful relationships isn’t easy.
I’ve had to be more attentive, more open, more flexible, and most importantly, willing to admit my own faults. Fishing with my kids has helped me with all of these things.
Our trip last summer to Yellowstone National Park is a good example. We planned the trip to allow us to fish together in at least two more states: Montana and Wyoming.
Before we left, my wife Kristal developed, and got all of us to agree to, a set of Vacation Rules. I don’t remember exactly what the rules were, but they included things like: “don’t make fun of each other”; “everyone’s opinion on what to do matters”; and “be patient and kind”. The gist was this: If we were going to survive 10 days together in close quarters, we needed to do a better job of communicating with one another than we normally do.
With the exception of one notable outburst from me, we mostly followed the Rules, and had a memorable and enjoyable vacation. The outburst was unrelated to fishing, but fishing helped me examine it, and ultimately, deal with the underlying issue that caused it.
Several days into the trip, I asked Gage to clean the breakfast dishes before we started out for the day. It required maybe five minutes of work.
“Those aren’t my dishes. I already washed the ones I used.”
We’d had some tension between us during the trip. Just the normal back-and-forth between a dad and his grown son who’s home from college for summer break, but I exploded.
“Why the hell does that matter? Can’t you think about someone other than yourself and just do the dishes because they need to be done?”
Gage yelled back. “Washing dishes is Ellie’s chore. I shouldn’t have to do it.”
Kristal intervened, reminded us of the Vacation Rules, and did the dishes.
I smoldered all day, saying very little to Gage. I was mad at him for putting up such a stink about five minutes of dish duty. But I was also disappointed in myself for not being able to explain to him why it mattered. This is one of my faults: not being able to communicate with the ones closest to me.
The next day, we met a guide for a day of chasing trout on the Snake River. As we were mapping out our strategy, I said quietly to the guide: “Put Gage in the front of the boat. Focus on him. I’ll take whatever the back of the boat offers.”
This was an important concession. While there was room to fish from the back, the boat was designed so the guide can make quick adjustments to provide casting opportunities to the fisherman in the front. The guide would spot fish, turn the boat and direct Gage where to cast.
In most cases, fisherman take turns in the front of the boat, but I insisted that Gage keep it all day. I did this for two reasons. First, he earned it. He had practiced casting with his fly rod for weeks so that he was skilled enough to land the fly where the guide directed. Because I planned to fish with my Zebco (that’s another story), I hadn’t practiced at all with my fly rod. Second, I truly wanted him to have the best opportunity to catch fish, even if it meant I might not catch any myself.
It was one of those magical days. The weather was perfect, the scenery breathtaking, and we caught a lot of fish. With each cast, with each turn of the river, my anger faded. When Kristal asked me that night how we did, I was ready to talk a little.
“Watching him cast from the front of the boat, I realized what bothered me about his complaining about doing the dishes. We work so hard to provide the best we can for the kids. They have so many opportunities we never had, from college savings accounts to cool vacations. But it’s not just the big things. We do so many little things, like letting Gage have the front of the boat today.”
Kristal remained quiet for a bit and then, taking my hand said: “It’s what a dad does.”
The next day, I got some time fishing by myself. As I cast standing in the iconic Yellowstone River, I thought about what she said. I knew she was right, but I also knew that I needed to do more. To be the dad I wanted to be, I needed to be able to teach my kids to do certain things better than me. I knew I had to talk to Gage and tell him what bothered me.
So, after we returned home, I took Gage aside. “Gage, when I yelled at you, it wasn’t about who should do the dishes. It was about expressing gratitude. I’m not very good at it, and it hurts me when it seems like you aren’t either. You know your mom and I would do anything for you, and most times you don’t have to ask. Just show you recognize and appreciate it. Although I love hearing “thank you,” you don’t even have to say it. Just pitch in. If you see something that needs to be done, just do it. Don’t wait to be asked.”
Three days later, Gage mowed the yard without being asked. And on my birthday this year, he sent me a text that read: “I don’t know if I’ve ever said this but I really appreciate what you do for us. Your work and travel schedules are hell, but you do it for us. Thank you.”