Milestones come in many forms.
At the risk of typecasting my calendar year before it’s over, 2016 has thus far been a year of “ﬁrsts.” I watched my dad and brother-in-law catch their ﬁrst sturgeon. I was in the boat when my son hooked and landed his ﬁrst smallmouth bass without assistance. I fooled my ﬁrst mirror carp on the ﬂy—the eager (or stupid?) ﬁsh ate a Clouser Minnow, if you can believe that. But what very well may be the year’s most memorable “ﬁrst” might also be the opening scene of my all-time “ﬁrsts” highlight reel.
Early this year, I received an invite from my friends Brooks Hansen and Ryan Neeley of Camp Chef to a small group ﬁshing, camping, and cooking rendezvous in Eastern Idaho. What’s more, they graciously allowed me to take my seven-year-old son, Samuel. It was his ﬁrst (official) multiple-day ﬂy ﬁshing excursion, and what better place to jump in with both feet than the waters and mountains surrounding the South Fork of the Snake River.
From the start, Samuel never stopped smiling and never uttered a complaint. He overturned rocks and captured his ﬁrst stoneﬂy nymph, watched small clouds of PMDs migrate upstream, dipped his Buff and ball cap into the water to beat the heat, and waded through what he described as “the coldest water I’ve ever felt.”
We ﬂoated and caught cutthroat, rainbow, and brown trout on the river’s surface and beneath it, tended the campﬁre, stayed up late dealing Uno cards on a cooler lid, and portioned out Grandma Romans’s famous cookies to anyone who wanted a little sugar with their morning coffee. It was the type of adventure most dads dream about, and most sons remember for the rest of their lives.
But the best “ﬁrst” didn’t occur on the Snake or casually after a streamside lunch. Instead of tackling the big river, we satiated our “inner cowboy” and rode horses into a high-mountain drainage on our ﬁnal day, far upstream of the dozens of beaver dams and pools holding wild ﬁsh that likely never saw a ﬂy. Near the water’s source, we dismounted and ate lunch in a large meadow under the watchful eyes of four bull elk spying us from a sharp ridge. A storm rolled in, replete with blinding lightning ﬂashes and earthshaking thunder. Rather than whim-per or retreat, Samuel casually zipped up his raincoat and ﬁnished a second sandwich. When the food was gone and the storm faded, we trudged to the creek with a 3-weight in hand.
Despite the hundreds of other ﬂies in my box, a lone size 14 Royal Wulff made Samuel’s eye sparkle. How could it not; it’s a classic. I knotted the ﬂy to the leader and offered to help him cast, strip line from the reel, point where ﬁsh might be holding, anything at all. “That’s why I’m here,” I said. But he declined, and insisted on doing it all on his own.
So I set him loose, and from afar, I watched him pluck his ﬁrst spunky, wild cutthroat from a shallow pool on his third cast. It was a sobering moment of clarity; an unspoken realization that my little boy, who turned eight a week later, is growing up faster than I’d like, and while I may occasionally grumble about untangling his knots for a third time, or complain while fetching a snagged ﬂy from a tree limb, I know there’s going to be a day when I’ll miss it.