Fishing in My Memories
By Kelly McDonald
As I walk down the trail from Mount Timpanogos Park, I can see the water of the Provo River, now at its low point before the spring runoff begins. In a month, perhaps less if the weather quickly warms up, this quiet stream will become a raging rush of angry water. For many years, I’ve lived within easy driving distance to the Provo River. For most of my life, I have observed at a distance its many moods throughout the year.
But this year I want a closer look. I slip off of the trail, through the brush to the water’s edge. I can see a fly-fisherman standing knee-deep in the cold water, about 50 yards upstream from me. My mind instinctively searches the river banks for slow patches of running water. Almost unconsciously, I’m looking for good fishing holes that might harbor a large trout. I imagine the fish, nervously swimming beneath the surface, waiting for its next meal to appear on the calm water. Yet I am not now a fisherman. I haven’t cast a fly line or angled a worm for almost 50 years.
I consider the early spring river during my Provo River Parkway jaunt. The water is too low for fishing in most places. The slow water next to the bank usually runs under an overhanging bush which shades the pooling water, preventing shadows from spooking the fish that may be hiding within. I know that the best way to fish this location is from across the river, casting bait upstream from the pool, allowing it to float into the slow water. A large duck, a multi-colored male, calmly swims upstream across the imaginary fishing line that I had mentally cast its way. The duck also seems to be searching for something, slowly probing along the riverbanks, no doubt quietly quacking for its mate as it calmly swims along the river.
I know something about the personality of this 68-mile river, from its very beginning in the Uintah Mountains, to its demise as it empties into Utah Lake. In my youth, I once trudged along some of its banks lined with thick brush, looking for prime fishing holes to throw a line into. Fishing this river was once my connection to the natural world. It was also my connection to my father, an avid fisherman.
My father, Claud, was a strong man, though he didn’t have a muscular physique that would normally be present with such strength. He had a lifetime of subtle toughness which came from working in physically demanding jobs, milking cows, cutting timber, then underground mining, the role I remember most. Although he was only in his mid-forties when I began fishing with him, his hair was already white, cut short—military-style—and except for Sunday dress, he always wore a pair of bib overalls over a long-sleeved shirt. My father worked long hours to provide for our family. I seldom talked to him when I was home from school. He was either reading the newspaper then dozing off to sleep, or was absent because he was working the night shift and wouldn’t return home until after I was in bed. When he was around, he was quiet, answering my questions, seldom initiating a conversation. But he liked to fish, and luckily for me, he often took me along on his short fishing excursions, usually to the Provo River, close to our hometown of Kamas, Utah.
I was about 8 or 9 years old when my father first took me fishing with him. Before that, my fishing experience was the occasional reeling in a fish during a family picnic. I was the youngest of his five sons, and by now he had accumulated enough fishing gear so I could learn to fish with my own equipment. We packed his old Dodge pickup with tools for every contingency, taking special care to make sure that nothing was forgotten. On our trips, we mostly talked about the art of fishing, from the time we left home until we returned. He taught me all the finer points of the craft, from stringing the worm on a hook, to cleaning the trout that I had just caught. During all of our many fishing trips to the Provo River, I experienced the natural world first hand.
We always seemed to be in the right place to observe the wildlife that also relied on this river for their own sustenance. We usually caught our legal limit of fish. For me, it was four. My father knew where to look along the river for the best fishing, and he usually caught his limit of eight fish as well.
When we returned home with a dozen rainbow trout, my mother, Vera, took charge of the cooking operation. She expected the fish to be cleaned and ready for cooking, though she spent a significant amount of time re-washing each fish, cutting off their heads and tails, preparing them for her time-worn recipe of a boneless trout dinner. My mother always seemed to have an apron tied around her waist as if she was ready for any surprise cooking request. She took down the large cast-iron skillet hanging on the wall next to the stove, set it over the gas burner, and placed a generous supply of homemade butter into the pan. Sometimes when she cooked, I would hear her humming a melody that I didn’t recognize. As I watched, the fish began to sizzle, and I knew it was nearly time for my mother to work her cooking magic and remove the many fishbones that made for tedious eating. If the fish weren’t cooked long enough, many bones would be left in the flesh to catch in my throat during dinner. If cooked too long, the meat would crumble into a pile onto my plate. She knew just the right cooking time to make it perfect—a firm fish filet without a single bone protruding.
Unlike the fly-fisherman I observed on my river walk, Dad wasn’t big on fly fishing. He would rather angle for his fish, probably because it took less attention to tend his fishing and allowed him more time for supervising my instruction. I liked to fish with flies and spinners because they seemed to create more energy in the following fight for survival that usually accompanied a trout strike. Upper Falls, near the head of the Provo River, was a great place for fishing with spinners and other artificial lures. I didn’t have to gather nightcrawlers, large earthworms, the evening before our fishing trip when we decided to use spinners for bait.
But when we went to a lake for fishing, it was my job to collect as many worms as possible the night before. Dad would have my mother water the lawn while he was at work. Then after dark, we went out into the back yard with an empty can and a flashlight covered with red cellophane. I was told that the nightcrawlers couldn’t see the red light, and it seemed to be true. We usually collected a few dozen worms for bait, every night we hunted for them. One summer, as a teenager, I collected and sold nightcrawlers to fishermen driving by, on their way to the Provo River and elsewhere. However, I always saved the largest ones for our own fishing excursions, which happened almost every week during the summer vacations. As my father grew older, we hiked less and began to fish the lakes and reservoirs along the Provo River. Deer Creek Reservoir was often our main fishing destination.
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As I continued to walk along the riverbank, making my way downstream along the parkway, the water deepened as I neared some type of obstruction to the water flow. This seemed like prime fishing conditions, even at a time of low water. Although Rainbow Trout is a hardy species, swimming upstream in rapids to lay their eggs, they still congregate where the water is calmer. I struggled to recall what type of fishing fly would have the most impact on this type of water condition. I mentally selected the Royal Coachman because it was the only name of a fishing-fly that I knew as a child. I thought of them as the ‘orange one’ or that ‘fancy silver one’.
I concluded my Provo River Parkway nature stroll by taking one last look at the fly-fisherman, as I walked back to my car. I wondered if he had caught any fish, and how long he had been standing in the river. I didn’t see any action while I observed his familiar fishing process. Fly-fishing along this stretch of the Provo River is closely regulated, requiring most fish to be returned to the stream after capture. Only a few, over a certain size, are allowed to be kept.
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After I returned from a Church mission, followed closely by marriage and family, fishing was no longer a part of my life nor did it help in the parenting of our own six sons and daughter. Although we would occasionally take them to a fishing-farm, just to broaden their life’s experience by catching a fish, this once-important, now-distant memory from my own youth did not figure at all into the interactions and relationships which I formed with my own children. As parents, we chose other ways to relate to them.
But when my sons were pre-teens, my father, their doting grandfather, would occasionally take them fishing to Deer Creek Reservoir, or some other place along the Provo River. If I were to ask any of them now, as middle-aged adults about their memories of their youth, their answers would undoubtedly be laced with stories about their fishing trips with Grandpa, describing the fish they had caught, but they would speak little else about him. That’s the way my memories are of him as well.
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Then my fishing reverie was over. But I have thought a lot about this exercise in recalling fond memories, since reacquainting myself with the river’s springtime behavior. It seems that parents seek and choose some type of connection-medium to relate with their children. For my own, it was mostly their sports or other school work and activities that we could connect through and talk about. My interest in their important youth events went a long way toward building bonds of acceptance, that even today still allows me to act as their trusted advisor. For my own father, fishing filled that same role in my younger years. It has left me not only with a warm recollection of my youthful experiences in nature, but it connects me even now, nearly twenty years after my father’s death, to the rare conversations we had about life while fishing along the banks of the Provo River and elsewhere. I don’t need to be on the stream to remember and feel them. I can still connect with him, whether wandering along the Provo River in person or simply in my memory.