First off, no, you are not trying to catch flies. They call it "fly-fishing" because you are using them for bait. Well, not real flies. They're little fake bugs that guys with patience and magnifying glasses sit around for hours making out of ... I'm not sure what. Thread or hair or something.
The CD player and cell phone were silent for the moment. Lunch was thawing out on the dashboard -- ham and cheese sandwiches I slapped together and froze the night before. Winding along a quiet mountain highway, it seemed the perfect time to explain the finer points of fly-fishing to my 12-year-old son.
FOR THE RECORD - An article about fly-fishing in Sunday's Travel section was accompanied by a photograph of a fish that was misidentified as a trout. The fish was actually a sucker.
The fact that I don't know much about fly-fishing was not about to stop me.
For I am Dad.
Now, you don't cast like you do with a regular rod and reel. You use a long, skinny rod and you whip it back and forth in the air to let line out. Then you gently land the fly in the water. The fish -- trout, I think -- sees it, thinks it's a bug, and bites.
We were on our way to a lodge in Western Maryland -- not exclusively a fishing lodge, but, according to its owner, "about as close as you are going to come in this part of the country."
We have fished before, my son and I, in lakes and oceans and once on a "camping" trip where, after a rigorous day of catching no fish, we slept -- or tried to -- in the back of my pickup truck on a leaky air mattress. Neither of us, we learned then, excelled at fishing, roughing it or building campfires.
(This wood must be a little wet. Tear a few more pages out of the car owner's manual and maybe we can get it going.)
This trip, though, was a first, on two levels.
For one thing, we were going to try, after a lesson, to fly-fish -- fly-fishing being to regular fishing what Lenny Bruce is to Jerry Lewis, what brie is to Velveeta. It's thinking man's fishing. Fly fishermen pride themselves, sometimes to the point of snobbery, in matching wits with a fish and coming out on top.
For another thing, we were staying at a lodge, in a cabin, and, as if that weren't rugged and manly enough, Savage River Lodge -- 42 acres surrounded by state forest, with a river running through it and, should it warm up enough for them to come out of hibernation, bears traipsing around it.
"Does it have electricity?" my son asked. Yes.
"Does it have toilets?" Yes.
"Does it have TV?" No.
"Will there be stuff to do?" Sure, lots of stuff.
As usual, Joe had a million questions, and I had about four answers -- fewer yet when it came to fly-fishing.
Ten years have passed since I read A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean's timeless fly-fishing memoir, and the only time I fly-fished was 35 years ago, when my father, who had never fly-fished, signed us up for a lesson during a Rocky Mountain vacation.
We caught no fish, and at 15 -- while I deemed it preferable to the stomach-emptying deep-sea fishing "adventure" my father had taken me on earlier -- I failed to develop an appreciation for fly-fishing. It seemed like an awful lot of motion with very few results.
Perhaps now, I realized as we snaked through the mountains of Garrett County, frozen ham sandwiches sliding to and fro on the dashboard, I was destined to repeat my father's mistakes. Perhaps I was about to force fly-fishing on one too young to appreciate it. Perhaps, too, I was overcompensating for being a long-distance Dad, trying to, all at once, thrill my son, bond with him and instill some good old-fashioned values.
Fishing is just one of those things, like throwing a baseball, that dads and sons are supposed to do. George H.W. Bush took George W. Andy took Opie. I don't know about the Bushes, but Andy did some of his best parenting at the fishing hole, always returning with a full string of fish to boot.
Meeting the river
On first impression, the Savage River does not look savage at all -- not even slightly rowdy.
Crossing the small bridge over it on the way to the lodge, we looked down to see a gently flowing stream.
As it turns out, the Savage River, while it roars wildly in places, most likely is not named for its fury, for the Indians who once occupied these parts or for the fierce winter winds that whip through the area.
Most locals believe it was named after John Savage, a surveyor who -- long before the invention of cell phones and individually wrapped cheese slices -- came close to being the catch of the day.
Stranded in 1736 at the confluence of what are now known as the Potomac and Savage rivers, the starving crew of which he was part (apparently unable to survive on their fishing skills) made a desperate decision: to eat the "most useless person among them," Virginia land commissioner William Byrd later wrote.
Ailing and going blind, Savage either volunteered or was chosen -- accounts vary -- and he was spared only when a rescue party showed up at the last minute. As the story goes, the river and mountains were named after him as a tribute to the sacrifice he almost made.