Monday, April 26, 2010


(Photo by Kennedy Tanaka)

Yesterday was Opening Day of the trout fishing season in the Sierra. It was also Closing Day of the alpine ski season at the resort where my wife and I spend many winter Sundays skiing with our niece and nephew. I guess it’s Transition Day for the four of us.

Closing Day came complete with a young man wearing nothing but a speedo swimsuit and a snowburned-strawberry on his pale-skinned hip; skiers in cartoon-character costumes that included my personal favorite, the Tasmanian Devil; a three-piece classic-rock band cranking out songs that triggered flashbacks to dances in my high school gym; and a parking lot full of tailgate barbeques.

As much fun as all of this is, my favorite part of Transition Day is checking out the creek below the meadow with the kids. Actually, we keep track of it all winter. We enjoy aerial vantages from the chairlift and mountain ridges, and ground-level inspections at the end of a ski day. In the dead of winter we watched a midge hatch above several brook trout that simply looked too cold to care. At least that’s how it looked to us.

The creek looked especially cold yesterday. When we’re fishing, we bring along a thermometer but I didn’t think to bring one along on Transition Day. We found out just how cold the water felt, though, by taking turns taking underwater snapshots with our point-and-shoot camera. This is an entirely new way for us to explore the creek. Stick your hand in the water, click the shutter, pull your nearly-numb hand out of the water, then view the image on the screen to see what’s going on in there.

This is the same creek we splash around in during summer backpacking trips. This is the creek where my nephew caught his first trout on a dry fly; where I woke early one brisk morning and spotted my niece already up and sitting on a stump beside our fly rods—patiently waiting for me to roll out of my warm sleeping bag. This creek is the place where the idea of what a watershed is took concrete, physical shape in their minds. “Uncle Shawn, is this the same water we skied on in the winter?” I couldn’t have been prouder.

These watershed moments with the kids are especially important to me. I want them to understand their watershed—this most essential part of where they live. By getting out and moving through the landscape with them, across the four seasons, I feel like we’re providing a vital element of their education. And fly fishing adds so much to this experience. Words like caddis and brookie are part of their vocabulary—along with alder, Pygmy Nuthatch, and black bear.

Fly fishing is not only a way to learn about the lives and habits of the various fish that inhabit the watershed’s ecosystem, it is also an effective way to learn about the bugs that share the land-and-waterscape. Engaging these creatures through the science of fly fishing is a way to get a hands-on understanding of the food chain. Eventually, creatures that start out in one’s mind as nothing more than fish food become exciting beings in their own right.

On Closing Day of the ski season, we gathered around a barbeque in the parking lot with the kids and three delightful friends. We grilled asparagus and prawns and sausages while telling stories and bad jokes. The kids enjoyed the fact that they’re collecting their own stories to tell—stories from their own experiences in the watershed. Stories about long hikes, tricky stream crossings, wild trout, and things that go bump in the night.

While talking with my friends I came to realize how much it matters to me that my niece and nephew can pitch a tent, catch a fish, start a fire—that they’re starting to understand the map and compass. There’s a fundamental confidence about themselves in relationship to the world that I can see in the way they move.

One of the things Trout Unlimited asks its members to do is take a kid fishing. I whole-heartedly agree. And I’ll offer this corollary: Take a kid outside. As John Muir put it: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world."