Confession time: for nearly 30 years, I encouraged adolescent boys and girls to lie. I taught hundreds of innocent young people to become disciples of deception, to perfect the untruths of fishing. As a professional interpretive naturalist, I taught fly fishing every summer. Kids would learn about the natural history of fish, their haunts, and how to catch them.
In the first minutes of our first-day gathering, I would lean toward the kids and, in a hushed tone, tell them, “This is a class where we learn the art of lying.”
Nodding toward the grinning faces, I clarified this intent. “Fishing is about presenting a lie to the fish. You want to create a fly that resembles their real food. That fly or even live bait you cast into the water is meant to deceive the fish. It is a lie. The better you lie, the more fish you will hook.”
With a finger in the air, I added with a smile, “Fishing is a sport where once you catch a fish, it often becomes longer and heavier afterwards. Why, it’s not unusual for a fish to grow half a pound or a few inches by the time you share your success story with your family and friends.”
At that point I had them hooked. I taught them to tie simple flies such as foam-bodied poppers and wooly buggers.
One summer, a student stood out for all the wrong reasons. Twelve-year-old Nils was an overly energetic, blonde-haired boy who had problems sitting still. In fact, his father had warned me of some of his behavior issues when he dropped Nils off on the first day of class. He got fidgety and impatient when trying to tie fishing flies. His practice casts did not resemble the ballet of a typical fly fishing angler. Instead, he flailed his rod like a Roman chariot driver whipping his horses.
My tongue-in-cheek teaching approach was sorely tested one sunny day while we fished a local trout stream at the end of the week of angling lessons. This was our first day on a legitimate trout stream. The excited kids hurried out of the van and began to uncase and assemble the fly rods we provided. I gave explicit instructions on how they should fish this stretch of water. I told them to spread out and not crowd each other and gave them landmarks to serve as limits of fishing boundaries. After all, as the sole teacher and shepherd, I had to keep my flock of fishers in line.
I reminded them to pay attention to the stream’s current, the drift lines and pools. “These fish have survived by being alert and cautious and they will easily spook, so be aware of trout hideouts beneath an undercut bank, under a wind-fallen tree in the water, or in the dark shadows of an overhead canopy of trees. You need to think like a fish and act like a predator.”
Over the next few hours, I prowled the stream’s edge, watching the kids and offering advice and encouragement. Few fish were caught, but I was impressed by their perseverance.
Suddenly I realized I had not seen Nils. Where was he?
I asked one of his buddies if he had seen him. With a wave of his arm, he replied that he had last saw Nils fishing upstream. I headed that direction and soon found myself in an overgrown stretch of the river. I looked ahead and felt a wave of relief when I caught sight of Nils. He was alone and keenly focused. He moved slowly, with the stealth of a hunting heron. He was unaware that I was watching.
Nils cast towards a dark-watered pool. From my slightly elevated position on the riverbank, I spotted the target of his attention. A school of white suckers finned lazily in the slow current. The dozen or so fish were all about the length of Nil’s forearm. These bottom feeding fish were unaware of Nils. Nor were they interested in his fly.
At that moment, Nils caught sight of me. With a face that was all business and a confident nod of his head toward the fish, he murmured to me that there was a school of big trout just ahead of him.
White suckers rarely take a fly that emulates an aquatic insect. All week I had preached of the virtues and beauty of the trout. Not once had I even mentioned suckers.
I was about to tell him that these were a rough fish, scorned and considered trash fish by many, but I caught myself. Here was a boy, an image of concentration, turned angler. He was practicing all he had learned as he stalked his quarry.
I wondered if I should perpetuate this lie. Should I tell him the difference between suckers and trout? Would it embarrass him that these trophies were not the beloved trout he sought? Who was I to steal his moment of discovery?
I watched him cast. I realized he would never forget his close encounter with not one but a school of big “trout.” Often it is these magical and maddening moments of being so close to the prize that become indelible lifetime bookmarks.
Nils had engaged with the natural world where he, as a potential predator, was an intimate participant. There is no better assurance of helping a young person fall in love with wild places than to orchestrate quiet moments of astonishment, wonder, and discovery.
That streamside afternoon happened years ago. Nils has long since graduated from high school and could easily be a father by now. I like to think that he might someday share the story with his own children of a day when he was a boy stalking giant trout in the shadows of a woodland stream that harbored trout, dreams, and yes, even untruths.