(More) Shared Memories and (More) Lessons Learned

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Author’s note: This is the second in a two-part series in which I look back on fishing with my kids. My aim: compare my memories with theirs to see how far apart our recollections are. I also wanted to compare lessons I hoped to teach them with what they actually learned.

In February, I wrote about an interview with my daughter Ellie. I asked her questions on six topics: first fishing experience; largest fish; next bucket list fish; most fun; lessons learned; lessons taught. This month, I sat down with my son Gage and asked him the same questions. Gage is twenty-three years old and is working on a master’s degree in sports administration at the University of Louisville. He caught his first fish when he was around three.

First Fishing Experience

Mark: Where was the first place you fished?

Gage and Mark with a stringer of trout. Swains Creek, Utah, circa 2005. Submitted photos

Gage: Utah, Duck Creek, Aspen Mirror Lake.

Mark: How old were you?

Gage: Five or six.

Mark: What do you remember about it?

Gage: I think it was the first time I had the attention span to actually focus on fishing. I was with you and Cowpa (his grandpa). We used worms and a bobber and caught a whole stringer full of trout. We cleaned them back at our cabin, wrapped them in tinfoil with butter and spices and steamed them on the grill. I remember how the bones just fell out of the meat.

Mark: Do you like fish cooked that way?

Gage: As a kid, yes. Today, I’d say there are probably better ways to cook trout. I’d pan sear it in butter with maybe some thyme, garlic and rosemary. I’m also saving a recipe I found in one of your outdoor magazines for the next time we go trout fishing. It’s for a dish almost like trout stew.

My take: I smiled as Gage talked about these memories. This isn’t actually the first time Gage fished, but I understand why he remembers it. We had great times fishing with Cowpa before he passed away, and that day at Aspen Mirror Lake was epic. I’m sure Cowpa’s presence is part of the reason Gage’s memories of those times are so vivid and lasting, and I’m grateful for the influence he has had on who Gage has become as a man. But Gage’s answers made me smile for two other reasons. First, it’s telling that his memories include how we cooked the fish and what he would do differently today. As an adult, he loves to cook. He especially likes trying new things and challenging himself with new recipes. I also smiled (and tried to keep my voice from cracking) when he said he has been saving a recipe for “the next time we go trout fishing together.” We’ve fished less and less as Gage has grown into a man and begun his career, and it warms my heart that fishing with me is something he at least occasionally still thinks about.

Largest Fish

Mark: What is the biggest fish you have caught so far?

Gage: The salmon hanging over the door in my room. We caught it when we were fishing in Vancouver.

Mark: What do you remember about that fish?

Gage: Nothing specific, really. I was only eight or nine, and we caught so many fish that trip. I do remember that the salmon were so thick in the water column and so aggressive that we couldn’t get the bait down past them when we tried to fish for halibut.

Mark: How big was it?

Gage: Fifteen pounds? Seventeen maybe?

Mark: You really think it was that big?

Gage: I’m not sure. I know, as salmon go, this one wasn’t a particularly big one, but for a kid my size, it was huge.

Gage with his biggest fish to date.

My take: This is another trip, that like Gage, I remember fondly. But I remember more of the details, especially of his fish. At one point, about two minutes into the fight he said: “Um, Dad. A little help here. I’m going to need you to take over. I’m not strong enough to land him.” As much as I was tempted to help him, I said: “Yes, you are strong enough. Besides, you have to do it yourself or it doesn’t count.” If you are thinking that’s a strange thing to tell an eight-year-old kid who has hooked into the biggest fish of his life, you’d be right. I took a big risk making him do it himself. But he buckled down and landed the fish. It was probably closer to twelve pounds, though.

Next Fish on the Bucket List

Mark: What is the next fish on your bucket list?

Gage: Oooh. That’s a good question. I’d say fly fishing for steelhead somewhere on the West Coast. Maybe Washington or Oregon.

Mark: Why the West Coast?

Gage: I think it’s the only place you can catch steelhead. Plus, I’d like to see that part of the country.

Mark: Would it surprise that some of the best steelhead fishing in the world occurs in New York?

Gage: Really? Where?

Mark: In the Salmon River, near Pulaski. I’ll send you an article about it. Maybe it’s a trip we can do together.

Gage: Sure, though I’d like to do the West Coast too.

Mark: Why is this on your bucket list?

Gage: It’s three things, really. First, it’s the location. I would have to go somewhere I haven’t been before. Second, it’s the fish. Steelhead are supposed to be terrific fighters. But mostly, it’s about fly fishing. I prefer it to other types of fishing, especially if I’m going to make a trip out of it.

Mark: Why do you prefer fly fishing?

On the Farmington River. Gage fly fished. Mark caught fish.

Gage: It makes me feel more connected to nature. It’s hard to explain, but there’s something about standing for an hour in a river, letting it flow past you. It’s therapeutic. Fly fishing is also challenging, and the challenge is what I like best. You have to be actively engaged: constantly observing, casting, changing flies. You know that if you’re going to catch a fish, you’re really going to have to earn it. And yet the reward is in the effort and the process, not necessarily in the catching of fish.

Mark: So, you’re saying if you went fly fishing ninety-nine times and never caught a fish, you’d still go back for the hundredth time?

Gage: Yes. Catching fish is a bonus, not the goal.

My take: Here is where I lost the kid. When people ask me if I fly fish, I usually answer by saying: “No. I actually like to catch fish.” I mean, come on. You can enjoy nature without all the failure. But, to each his own.

Most Fun

Mark: What’s the most fun you’ve had fishing?

Gage: Floating down the Snake River in Montana. It had everything we’ve talked about: fly fishing, iconic native cutthroat trout, and lots of beautiful country we’ve never seen before.

Mark: Do you remember any specific fish?

Gage: The biggest fish was the last one of the day. I caught it right before we had to get off the river. It was a very big cutthroat. The guide saw it holding in a pool of deep water just off the bank. He held the boat steady with both oars as he coached me where to cast the fly so that it would land upstream of the trout and sweep over its head. It took me like ten minutes of casting to get it right, but the fish finally took it.

Mark: Did I catch any fish that day?

Gage: Yes, with your Zebco reel. You caught fewer than me, but that’s because you let me stay in the front of the boat where the guide could focus on providing me with all of the best casting angles. Even so, you caught the only brown trout.

My take: Father-son relationships can be hard at times. Partly because we expect our sons to inherit and exhibit our good traits and avoid our faults. We can be both simultaneously proud and disappointed when we see ourselves in our sons. Fishing, I think, has helped Gage and I with this, as evidenced by the fact that he recognized the value of being in the front of the boat and was willing and able to express gratitude for the opportunity. That was not the case four years ago when we took the trip, and at the time I was frustrated with him and myself. I am not very good at expressing gratitude, especially to the ones I love the most, and I struggled with the notion that I wasn’t teaching him any better. But our experience gave us the opportunity to talk about it, and today we’re better off for it. Plus, we caught fish in beautiful country we’ve never seen before.

Lessons Learned: Gage

Mark: What’s the most valuable lesson I’ve taught you?

Gage: In fishing, or in life?

Mark: Start with fishing.

Gage: You taught me to use fishing as a conduit to enjoy other things, like spending time together.

Mark: How did I teach you that?

Gage: I learned by watching. By seeing the joy you’ve brought people and the memories you’ve created with family, friends and even guides. You had as much fun talking to our Snake River guide as you did fishing. I bet he still remembers you and your Zebco. And hell, you gave Cowpa one of the best last days of his life, when he knew he was dying of cancer.

Mark: And in life?

Gage: When I was young, too young to appreciate it, you told me: “Whenever you walk into a room, you can’t control whether you’re the smartest or most experienced person, but you can make sure that you are the most prepared.”

Mark: I do remember telling you that. It’s actually helped you?

Gage: Absolutely.

Mark: Give me an example.

Gage: Football. I knew I was never going to be the biggest, fastest or most gifted player. I made myself into a football player by being the most prepared. I studied film; watched every play. So, when I was on the field, I knew what the other team was going to do before they did it. And now it’s helping me in my career. Working in the Cardinal Athletic Fund, I’m always around people more experienced than me, but I work hard to prepare as much as I can before meetings and events.

Recently, the head of our department called to ask me to do a project for him. On short notice, he needed a spreadsheet ranking the top fifty colleges based on their success in recruiting football players. At the time he called, he didn’t know my name. He knows it now. It took me 25 minutes to prepare the spreadsheet, but I spent two days doing extra research so I could provide him background information, analysis and answers to questions I anticipated he would have.

My take: This is what every father wants to hear. Advice that was heard, remembered and useful. And, more importantly, a son who is willing to tell you so.

Lessons Learned: Mark

Mark: What is one thing you hope I’ve learned from you?

Gage: That it’s beneficial to have a growth mindset. You have a fixed mindset. Practice having a more growth mindset. Be more willing to look at new things, and at old things from new angles. And honestly, I think you are doing that more, in part because I’ve challenged you to do so.

My take: A while ago, my wife Kristal bought the entire family copies of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. The main premise of the book (which, to Kristal’s chagrin I have not read, but I’m sure Gage has) is: “People with a fixed mindset—those who believe that abilities are fixed—are less likely to flourish than those with a growth mindset—those who believe that abilities can be developed.”

At my age, I don’t know how much flourishing I have left, but I do have the opportunity to help others flourish—we all do. Perhaps, at some level, that is what Gage is hoping I have learned: not to actually practice growth mindset for my own benefit, but to support him and others in their efforts to do so. I can do that. I’ll start with the next time we go fishing and break out the fly rod I never use.