When my kids were young and impressionable, I stumbled into one of the great secret weapons of fatherhood: be mythical, it helps you out of human-scaled dilemmas.
Every father could use a moment like the one I experienced and that lives on today. It is like the power of the Wizard before Toto pulls back the curtain and reveals the weak and ordinary man.
At first, I was reluctant to reveal the truth about this incident – that it was a coincidence, dumb luck over which I had no control – and lose this secret weapon over my kids. But, I recently realized the truth of the matter will not and cannot ever change the epic, heroic, legendary event because of the way it is emblazoned in their minds. My mythological stature will remain in tact forever.
Years ago, over breakfast, a friend of mine recounted his recent week on a houseboat on Lake Powell. It sounded relaxing and I convinced my wife that we should take our 3 kids aged 11, 7 and 2 on this adventure.
Lake Powell is technically a man-made lake, a reservoir created in 1966 when the Glen Canyon Dam harnessed the Colorado River and flooded what was once Glen Canyon, turning it from a desert into a vacation destination lake like you would find in Northern Minnesota that boasts boating, water skiing, fishing and swimming.
Lake Powell covers 108,335 square miles and holds 7,925,358,407,494 of water. The significance of this scope and scale will be made clearer when we start talking about the thickness of monofilament line being 3/1000 of an inch.
My family made a driving tour of the southwest that ended in Bullfrog Marina, Utah where we rented a houseboat and a tag-a-long speedboat for a week. The speedboat was recommended for sightseeing trips up the “finger canyons” or for recreation or if you needed to get to civilization quickly in the event of an emergency.
It took hours to sign all the waivers and disclaimers that would allow us to pilot the boat away from the marina and out into the wilds of Lake Powell. During this time, our middle son, Alexander, as he was prone to do, wandered around the shop and collected things that he wanted me to buy for him.
One of the items was a pint-sized plastic fishing kit: a rod and reel along with some worthless rubber lures and a tackle box. While I signed the papers Alex pleaded with me. All I could think about were hooks flying around the houseboat and impaling our toddler daughter in the eye; of line tangling at someone’s feet and tripping them, launching them overboard.
Because I was distracted with the legality of renting the boat, but also because I love Alexander a great deal, I acquiesced. He clutched that package for 8 hours until we arrived at our first night’s campsite, constantly asking, “Here? Can I fish here? Are the fish here?”
When he finally opened that kit and started fishing he was so happy. His success was monstrous. I don’t know what lives in Lake Powell but, for the most part, I would assume, all marine life was brought in, stocked. 30 years ago this was, after all, a desert canyon. The fishing reports will tell you the lake is teeming with smallmouth bass, striped bass, walleye, bluegill. All Alex caught were enormous, prehistoric catfish that looked like whiskered old men. They were huge, much bigger than his 7 year-old arms should have been able to handle, but he kept landing them, one after the other using a variety of live bait from the shop, which was starting to run low, and scraps from the kitchen.
That night, our daughter had a serious asthma attack. We unpacked her nebulizer and scoured the boat for an AC outlet, to no avail. The boat had lights and water pumps powered by a generator but it offered no way to fire up the nebulizer, which would have given her relief.
Her attack worsened. She was in distress. My wife and I began to prep the speedboat but soon realized driving at top speeds in the wind across choppy water and what was certain to be a pitch-black night was probably not the safest decision. The panic of it all, we reasoned, might put our daughter in further anguish. Desperate, my wife grabbed our daughter and plunged into the cold water off the side of the boat – a typical Scandinavian response, I guess. The two of them bobbed as I defended to the boys our decision not to take the speedboat out at night. On some level, I now understand, they believed their sister was dying. But soon enough the Scandinavian response took effect and their sister’s lungs relaxed into normal.
The next morning, Alex arose before dawn and started fishing again. Between the stress of the night before and his Christmas morning-like excitement for his new rod he had not slept well. I found him dozing in the back of the speedboat, his fishing pole resting between his knees and his bait sitting next to him at the ready: a pack of Gummy Bears, haphazardly torn open.
I left him to sleep and stood on the deck of the houseboat to drink coffee and make sure he would be safe.
Suddenly, his fishing pole jerked so violently that the butt cap on the handle swung up and smacked him in the face, startling him awake. In an instant, he realized what was happening and pulled his hands from the confines of his warm hoodie marsupium and reached for the escaping rod.
But it was too late and his little body shook with disbelief and grief as his beloved fishing pole sunk out of sight, down into the 500-foot depths of Lake Powell.
That day was difficult. Alex was sad. And he felt a sense of failure, inadequacy. He was bored. I read to him from HANK THE COWDOG. I found a deck of cards and taught him to play GO FISH (ha, ha).
But what he really wanted for me to do was get in the speedboat, motor back to Bullfrog and buy him another fishing pole. Even if I really, really wanted to do this for him, to make him happy again, how could I? I’d left the speedboat moored the night before during the asthma attack. Years later, how could I explain that?
And then I did something I didn’t really want to do. I let him use my handcrafted fly rod. I had only brought it onboard because I didn’t want it to sit in the car all week and possibly get heat damaged. Alex lit up.
Using a fly rod is very different from casting a spinning reel. A spinning reel – like the one Alex had lost in the lake – has a mechanism that assists you. A fly rod is all manual coordination, timing, muscle control and it takes some practice. Alex didn’t want to practice. He just wanted to land fish but instead was getting himself tangled up in the line. So, I helped him. I cast as far out as I could and let him reel in. The further I cast out – 100, 150 feet – the longer he could reel in and feel like he was fishing, even though this set up yielded no success, not even a nibble.
On my eighth cast after the fly hit the water and I was organizing the line in the reel I felt a strike; a gentle, slow strike but definitive and strong. I pulled up on the rod and the tip arced radically downward toward the water. Whatever it was, it was big and not really fighting back as much as it was hunkering down. It didn’t wiggle, like a fighting fish would, but it didn’t give an inch.
“Dad got a big one!” Alex screamed, and everyone came out on the deck to witness the landing of Lake Powell’s new record fish. Or, so I hoped.
I put Alex between my arms and let him turn the reel as I held onto the rod (for dear life). The finely machined mechanics of the fly reel purred revolution after revolution for what seemed like five minutes. Curiously, the line was clearly spooling onto the reel but out there on the horizon of the lake it didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the boat or the surface of the water.
The moment became very surreal for me as I began to think about a corpse or something more inexplicable on the end of the line with my entire family watching. But I let Alex continue to turn the reel.
And then, 100 feet out from the boat my empty hook broke the surface of the water and hung, suspended, in spite of Alex’s continued reeling efforts, six inches above the water, as though someone from the heavens had dropped a fishing line straight down into Lake Powell. The hook swayed and glistened in the afternoon sun. Droplets of water slid down the monofilament and dangled at the base of the hook before plunging into the lake and rejoining the trillions and trillions of droplets just like them that make up this portion of the Colorado River.
We were all confused and spiraling into surreal free fall as we stared at the suspended, motionless hook.
Alex was being gentle, perhaps too respectful of my fly kit and I wanted to muscle us out of this moment before someone fainted. I took the rod and turned the reel furiously as the hook moved toward the boat, clearly dragging something stubborn. I raised the rod high above my six foot frame thinking I could affect some change out there and that’s when I saw, cradled in the bend of the hook, secured by the millimeter long barb, another piece of monofilament, which arched down from the hook on either side creating a pyramid shape that glistened and sparkled before either end of this second monofilament line disappeared down into the water.
So, I surmised, we’d caught someone’s lost fishing line but being the neurotic, worrisome father that I am, I assumed the fisherman was still on the other end.
My options now were to continue on and drag this object into the boat, or pitch my handcrafted rod into the lake and put a stop to something that could possibly end very badly. There was no middle ground.
I carried on, turning and turning, drawing the object closer and closer to the boat.
And then it broke the surface with a small suction sound and hung a foot above the water, two feet away from the aft. There it was, a trophy greater than any record fish: Alexander’s rod and reel, intact with a piece of Gummy Bear still speared on the hook. In every moment that I remember this story, I like to remind myself that Lake Powell covers 108,335 square miles and holds 7,925,358,407,494 of water; and that the gap of a fishing hook is less than half an inch and a piece of monofilament line is 3/1000 of an inch.
I carefully landed the rod and reel, organized the line, shook off the water and handed it all to Alex. He looked up at me, smiled and cast a gummy bear out into the lake.
There’s a saying or a prayer or a country music lyric that goes, “Lord, let me be the man my dog thinks I am.”
Well, I have spent the past quarter century trying to be the man that Alex knew I was in that moment. Maybe the secret is actually his weapon to keep me in line.