Last month, at a Christmas party, the question was posed, “What was your favorite childhood Christmas present?” Not surprising, everyone’s favorite gift was remarkable in its simplicity. A pocket knife. A bow and arrow. A cherished book. As for me, mine was a poster titled The Freshwater Fish of North Carolina. My dad gave it to me on my seventh Christmas. I have a photo of that Christmas morning; I’m holding the poster for all to see, and my dad is looking at me with a subtle smile. I no longer have the poster, but I do have the picture.
I can’t remember when I started to learn how to fish. I have clear memories of camping by the farm pond behind the house and waking up early in the morning to fish. I remember having Sunday School classes out to the pond for social events that always included fishing. I remember many occasions sitting on the bank or in a john boat with my dad; we’d fish and talk. He’d spit tobacco juice into the pond convinced that it somehow baited the fish; that the fish are as susceptible to nicotine as we are! When my dad would hook a good size fish, he’d hand me the rod and let me reel it in.
As I grew up, I became a better and more independent fisherman. I no longer needed my dad to hand me rod. I was confident with bait casting rods and becoming more and more interested in fly fishing. One afternoon, my dad and I were fishing from the bank and I hooked the fish of a lifetime: a 9.5 pound largemouth bass! My dad could see the fish from the other side of the pond. We dropped his rod and sprinted over to my side to admire the fish, congratulate me, find a camera and take a picture. I’ve still got that picture.
Over the years, dad and I have fished together less and less. As I’ve become more interested in scampering through slick creeks hunting those little mountain “brookies,” my dad has gotten older and can’t get around as good anymore. No more sprinting across pond banks. Certainly no climbing up mountain streams.
A few years ago, I was visiting dad on a weekend. It had not been long after mom’s death. After a bit of breakfast, I said, “Let’s go to the river. Let’s fish together.” We got our stuff and drove over to the shoals of the Yadkin River and waded out for a while. We fished for a couple of hours and saw no signs of fish life at all. So, we took a rest on a rock that juts out of the old river and sat and talked for a while. Both of us, having stopped using tobacco years ago, nervously chewed on some gum and chatted about stuff for a while. As we got up to leave, I looked to the left and saw what looked like a deep hole on the other side of the rock. “Hey dad, toss your fly over there before we go home. It looks awfully fishy.” The fly flew straight over the hole and landed. Less than a second later a massive smallmouth bass inhaled the fly. Dad’s rod doubled over and then my father, led by instinct and not good sense, looked at me and shouted, “Here son, you take the rod!” As soon as dad tried to hand me the rod, that fish outsmarted both of us and slipped the hook. We laughed for a while and having no reason to take a picture, we went home talking the whole way about the one that got away from us!
I shared this story with the youth this past weekend at Winter Retreat. The theme for their retreat was Joy. In truth, I don’t really know very much about joy – it seems unknowable sometimes. But, this much I do know. Joy cannot be contained to the Christmas present or the big fish or the times in life that cause us to whip out a camera. Joy, for me and my dad, is found in the countless hours sitting together while the fish aren’t biting. Sometimes we talk and sometimes we are silent. There is no reason to take a picture. Doing so would be sacrilege.