In honor of Take-Your-Daughter-to-Work Day, I am taking my daughters to fish. I am not much of a worker and even less of a fisherman, but everyone knows that fishing is more fun than work. Also, it requires two tons of mojo to raise a girl. Girls are scary. A girl will sometimes pretend not to know another girl just because a cute boy is nearby. Fishing, I suspect, is good medicine.
Now, I could tell my eight-year-old daughter this--the three-month-old being still oblivious--or I could show her. The choice is clear. Today I will show her sixteen-year-old fly-fishing champion Genna McClure fishing with her mentor, fishing buddy and grandfather Pete Parker.
All winter long, Pete Parker and Genna McClure tie flies. The results of this hobby are as rare and beautiful as expensive jewelry in a private collection. I think so, at least.
When they take out the small plastic box filled with hand-tied flies, I crane forward to get a look. It is very sunny in the parking lot, and the glass beads deep inside the woolly bodies of the fake bugs glint blindingly. I would not have a clue as to which one to pick.
"Oh, well, it's not that complicated," says Pete, who knows that, in fact, it is, but has good manners. "We could go catch a bug. Then we find a fly that looks like that bug. Maybe some fish will want to eat it."
Genna takes a look at Wyckham's Fancy, a classic fly that dates from the 1860s. "Hmm," she says. She is wearing neoprene waders, a tank top, sunglasses and a baseball cap with fishing logos and her name sewn onto it. In one hand is the fly, in the other the Sage RPL Plus fly rod given her by the Sage rod company of Bainbridge Island, Washington--her most impressive sponsor thus far.
"No," Pete tells her. "Those flies all have British accents."
"Oh. So they'll work in Wales?"
"Right." Pete hands her a workman-like caddis fly, a little chewed up by previous fish. "If truth be told," he says, "fish love them that way. We just don't want you to know that. We want you to keep buying brand-new flies."
"So how do I tie this?" Genna asks.
"You tie it...like that. Exactly like that. It's a perfect, perfect knot."
Satisfied, Genna takes her perfect, perfect rod--"which is such an awesome change from fishing with a Snoopy rod, which is what I've had all these years"--and walks down to a grassy strip just below where the Evergreen Dam spills over. Both Genna and Pete are reasonably sure that a few enormous Tiger muskie are hanging out here, although none of them--not the grandfather, not the granddaughter, not the fish--are in any particular hurry to become better acquainted.
Pete considers fishing nearby but decides against it. "I have a tendency to be a stage-door father," he says. "I need to just let her go."
"You say 'father'," I point out. "But aren't you her grandfather? Does she have a father? Where is he?"
"Oh, him? He was a bozo. Genna and her mom came to live with us when she was three, four months old." Pete pauses a moment. "Bozo. That's spelled B-O-Z-O. My wife and I thought it would be better that way than to have Genna's mom struggling as a single mother. Anyway, if it was up to me, my children would never leave home. It's possible I'm a better parent now. More patient, or that's what they tell me."
Wherever Pete went, Genna went, and where he usually went was fishing. A California native who had lived in New York City and on Long Island before quitting his corporate job and moving to Colorado, Pete had learned how to tie flies and fish from his own father, and he became increasingly obsessed with the sport as he grew older.
These days Pete spends each January and February running "fly-tying theaters" on a nationwide circuit of fishing expositions. "It's been eight years, and I'm still star-struck," he says. "I get to take calls from my idols on a daily basis, and it's fun, and I make a buck."
Genna began fishing with Pete ten years ago, when she was six. Two months ago she was named to one of only six spots on the International Federation of Sport Fly Fishing's junior team. Adults from the U.S. and Europe have competed on such teams for years, but this is the first time a division for fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds has been added. Pete was excited about the situation long before his granddaughter had any connection with it.
Historically, U.S. fly-fishing teams have done "terrible, because they're always made up of wealthy men who can afford it," Pete says. "The kids will do better. With them, it has nothing to do with money, only ability and talent."
With the help of sponsors and fundraising trout dinners held across the country, the junior team will go to Wales this summer to compete. If Genna learns her British flies, lake techniques and nerve-steadying, she could make her mark. Already, Pete says, in the "tiny pond" where he is nationally known as a tyer of flies, he is sometimes identified as "Genna McClure's grandfather."
How he feels about that is almost impossible to describe without using a hackneyed phrase like "bursting with pride." Okay. Pete Parker is bursting with pride. I don't blame him.
Down by the water's edge, my daughter has been hooked. First by Genna's appearance--the tall-blond-goddess-in-waders look--and then by the hypnotic rhythm of her "short-line nymphing," a form of fishing that is Colorado to the core. Also, there is the time-honored kid activity of catching bugs, which all of a sudden turns out to have a purpose. My younger daughter has slept through everything so far. But still.
"What are the odds?" I ask Pete. "How come she went for fish instead of Barbie?"
"Oh, I just lucked out," he says, "but isn't it neat? She loves fishy people and she loves to fish."
"And he said when I could cast sixty feet, he would take me to Mexico to fish," says Genna, who has come over in search of a better fly. "I can cast sixty feet. The last time I checked, it was 73. But he's been teaching me since I was little; he gives me lessons on what to tie, he takes me lake fishing to prepare me for Wales, and he taught me to be patient when I wasn't used to letting the line drift and all I wanted was to catch a fish right now. I didn't realize at first that you never have nothing to do. You're always doing something when you're fishing."
Even when you catch nothing, you're catching nothing in the wilds, which is hard to hate, and you could get used to the sweet challenge of trying for the even-more-perfect cast, especially if what you mostly hear is what a good job you're doing. And you could always get a sandwich out of your grandfather's RV and think about what's not working and what might. In this way, you might eventually learn concentration.
"Like at the Denver Sportsman's Show this winter," Pete recalls. "They have the Best of the West casting competition, which Genna wanted to enter. I, for example, didn't. What if I embarrassed myself? But she doesn't care about all that. She practiced for two days solid. There were blisters on her hand and blood running down her wrist, and she got nervous on the day of the competition and only came in fourth, and she was heartbroken."
Pete trotted out the usual fatherly things: You did your best, you showed them what you could do, you should be proud. "But in my heart," he remembers, "I didn't believe any of it."
Meanwhile, the International Federation's junior team had one opening left on its six-man squad, and the rep from the Sage rod company, who had seen Genna cast in Denver, suggested they make it five men and one woman.
"Yes, that's the beauty!" Pete says. "It's all even in fly fishing. If you set some record and you're a woman, there's no asterisk next to your name--you just win!"
"Are you listening to this?" I ask my older daughter, who doesn't hear me over the sound of the spillway. Then, as if she had known him all her life, she begins to pat down the pockets of Pete's fishing vest, turning up--and correctly identifying--a fly that is supposed to look like a half-dead ant. Satisfied, she wanders back to the water.
Pete seizes the opportunity to explain his fishing-for-girls approach, which centers on one crucial step: Let her catch a fish or watch her get bored. "A bluegill," he suggests. "That's a real dumb fish, easy to catch. And then you'll be forced to take it home and cook it, like I did. Or lose it in the back of the freezer--that's workable."
Or take her to one of those pay-per-trout ponds. "I always did with Genna, and she always caught four or five fish," he recalls. "It was expensive, so I didn't catch any. So her memory is of being much better at fishing than I am. And after a while, come to think of it, she was."
"What's this for?" my daughter asks, her fingers poking through the mesh of the net that hangs from Pete's back.
"It's easier on the fish if you pick him up with the net--a lot easier than your hands," Pete says. "We catch them and release them. They don't really taste that good, anyway."
Genna sighs. So far, not a bite.
"What do your friends think?" I ask. "Is it cool to fish?"
She just looks at me.
"You were cruel to that one young man," Pete offers.
"Oh, he said he didn't fish, and I said, 'You're history,'" Genna recalls. "But I was kidding."
"Really?" Pete asks.
"Hmm," Genna says. "Anyway, I have taken a lot of my friends fishing. And a lot of them still fish."
"What about you?" I ask. "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
"An actress. A fishing actress. I want to go to Broadway! I mean, I want to go to Broadway and do river-and-lake conservation, too. And fish."
"With that RV, we can be ready to go," Pete points out. "It's rigged with any kind of rod you could possibly need."
"We might be gone all day. We might get home at midnight. It's the thing to do," Genna says. "I might be upset when I start fishing, but I can't think about that after a while. It's an escape and an adventure."
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Of course, she's been brainwashed. For the past ten years, just before hitting the road on a fishing trip with his granddaughter, Pete has always turned to Genna and said, "Well, kid, ready for an adventure?"
"I didn't know what he meant at first when he said it," she recalls. "But now I get mad if he doesn't."
In the middle of our adventure, there is a state-of-the-art fishing pause. No one is talking, but everyone's doing something. My three-month-old is napping. Genna is fishing, her line making a loop as it falls into the water.
Pete is a few yards away, and he has decided to teach my eight-year-old to cast. "That's it," he says, "exactly, perfect, perfect," and she already has that perfect-perfect look on her face.