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I say this with complete sincerity and honesty: fly fishing saved my life.
The story begins many decades before I was born, in the coal mines of West Virginia to be exact. Growing up, my dad told me many stories of his childhood and our family history, but some of the most poignant stories involved his early years in the coal mines. His father Claude, after dropping out of high school to take care of his nine siblings and serving in the Navy during Pearl Harbor and World War II, found himself working the coal mines to support his wife – my Nana – and his son – my future dad. Based on Dad’s stories, I have a mental image of a tight-knit, hard-working community that looked out for each other while the men tackled one of the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs imaginable. Regrettably, not everyone came home to their families at the end of the day. Dad vividly remembers the loss of a beloved uncle to a mining explosion, and that was the final straw that prompted Claude, his Pa, to get his family out of that lifestyle so they would never have to worry about him not coming home from work.
Pa knew he wanted to leave West Virginia, but he didn’t have any particular destination in mind at first, other than simply away from the coal mines. He loved fly fishing, however, and wanted to move someplace near pristine streams and rivers ideal for trout. That’s how he found out about the Clinch River in Tennessee. Stories of cold, clear waters and record-size trout captured his attention, and the Clinch became something like a holy grail. From the perspective of a humble coal miner, Tennessee seemed like an entire country away or even the Promised Land, and he was but a simple pilgrim.
Even though Pa didn’t finish high school, he had the intelligence and business savvy that was worth its weight in gold. Thanks to networking and a few good connections, he landed a job in a glass plant in Kingsport, Tennessee and moved his family to a state well-renowned for gorgeous trails, the Appalachian Mountains, and of course, his beloved Clinch River.
At the end of the day, it was fly fishing that got my dad out of the coal mines, and sometimes I think about what might have happened if his Pa had chosen a different path. Perhaps Pa would have worked in the coal mines for the rest of his life, and my dad might have followed in his footsteps and missed out on meeting my mom in North Carolina. Maybe my soul would have inhabited a different body born to a different woman, and I also could have been born into the coal mining community. Or perhaps Dad could have left the coal mines as an adult and still kept his predestined meeting with my Mom. Obviously I have no way of knowing, but any small deviation from Pa’s chosen path could have altered the course of Dad’s life and, by extension, mine as well. Even if I had been born right on schedule, it could have been in a different state, and as I grew up, I might have missed out on the college, grad school, and career choices that eventually led me to meeting my own husband.
Today I look at my family – my husband and dogs, as well as my parents – and can still trace our origin back to fly fishing. Pa passed away before I was born, but I still feel like I know him through the stories Dad told me. They shared an incredible bond and a love of fly fishing, and as Dad taught me the subtle techniques of fly casting, I got to experience a little bit of that bond with Pa as well. As I work the fly line on my old 6-weight rod and feel its gentle weight and rhythm, sometimes I can imagine Pa looking over my shoulder to offer helpful pointers and encouragement.
And at the end of the day, when we’re driving home from the river, I’ll send up a silent little prayer and ask God to thank Pa for me. One day I’ll tell him myself, but only after I’ve had enough years to accumulate enough worthy fishing stories for him.
Comment Questions: Do you have any family history stories related to fly fishing? Did you learn from a parent or other relative? If so, we would love to hear your stories! Check us out on Facebook, Twitter (@chotachief), Google+ (Chota Chief), and Instagram (chota_outdoor_gear).
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