“Fishing and hunting trips are not singular episodes. Instead, they are like chapters in a book. One chapter does not tell the entire story. These trips add up to one long adventure. If they were predictable, there would be no reason to go,” –Tim Tipton, Outdoor Sage and Amateur Philosopher.
Unlike many longtime anglers, I can’t recall the first fish I caught. I have my suspicions about it, but no solid memories float up to my frequently forgetful brain. I have two excuses I often trot out for this short circuitry in my cranial matter. I spent 16 years getting hit in the head, as an amateur and professional boxer; Also, my brain, like the rest of me, is now solidly in its mid-50’s.
My wife, whom I’ve been married to for 31 years, says my long-term memory is surprisingly good, but I often forget things that happened yesterday. I can still remember the first time I kissed her goodnight on her parent’s front porch in October of 1987, but alas, I can’t recall that first fish.
My best guess is that my first fish relates to one of my grandfathers. Both were avid anglers, but from opposite sides of the fishing spectrum. My grandpa Lawrence Tipton, who was known to everyone as “Cactus,” lived across the street from us in a rural, two street subdivision in the small community of Brooks, Kentucky. One of the advantages of living so close, was not only did we get to see him every day, but he also owned a pontoon boat, and a lakeview lot on Rough River Lake, in the central part of the state.
Grandpa Tipton loved to fish, particularly if there were catfish involved. As a kid, we spent a lot of time at Grandpa’s lake lot, fishing, swimming, water skiing, playing badminton, volleyball, and the always exciting lawn darts. I miss lawn darts. Young people today will not know the thrill of dodging a sharp-edged projectile hurled through the air by a kid with little to no hand-eye coordination and only a vague notion of where the dart will land. Fortunately, none of us were ever seriously injured.
Grandpa would allow me to tag along on some of his early morning fishing excursions. I was afforded this opportunity if I would get up early, stay quiet, keep out of the way, and bait my own hook. I would accomplish most of the rules but staying quiet was a problem. Most people that know me will tell you it is still difficult for me. They are not wrong.
My dad, also named Lawrence, but called Buddy, would sometimes join us. Other times he would take us down the water and let us fish off the back of the anchored pontoon. I was able to get in a lot of fishing, even though I didn’t really know what I was doing much of the time.
I began my serious fishing when I was around nineteen or twenty years old. My grandfather Patton, who I always called papaw, or papaw Tom, bought a small bass boat with a foot-operated trolling motor when he was in his late seventies. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for myself and a couple of my cousins, he was unable to haul the boat and could never get the hang of the trolling motor, so he needed one of us to fish with him.
We would fish many reservoirs within a two-hour drive of us. We learned to use baitcasting reels and throw artificial lures for largemouth and smallmouth bass. We also fished for other species and enjoyed catching any fish that we could entice to bite, but at the time, bass were our passion. We joined B.A.S.S. and read Bassmaster from cover-to-cover each month. We bought the latest and greatest lures and between the two of us, we had enough tackle to stock a small sporting goods store. We bought used rods and reels from my cousin Scott, who was a professional bass tournament angler and a guide. We also picked his brain about the newest lures and techniques. We never became experts, but we did get competent at catching bass.
It was around this time in my life that fly fishing was beginning to creep into my thoughts. I was working at a newspaper covering sports, something that had begun as a dream, I was working, helping my wife as we raised two young children, but I wasn’t fishing much. I still saw papaw or talked to him by phone nearly every day. During a stretch of this time, he even lived with us. Unfortunately, it was physically taxing on him every time we fished, so trips were few and far between. Most of the fishing I was doing now was on a stream near my office at the newspaper. The stream held smallmouth bass, and during parts of the year, was stocked with rainbow trout. I bought a pair of cheap waders and a light action spinning rod and reel. I would hit the creek tossing small soft plastic baits, and little hard bodied crankbaits. This usually resulted in a lot of small fish, which were a lot of fun, but there was something missing.
By sheer chance, I learned there was a small fly fishing shop in Louisville and I decided to check it out. I already owned a cheap fly rod and reel and an extremely small selection of flies, most of which, I didn’t know anything about. I had even lucked into some fish on my fly rod, even though I didn’t know how to make a good cast. I found my way to the fly shop, which was tucked in behind a sporting goods store that catered to mountain bikers, canoe and kayakers and backpackers. It turned into an expensive visit. When I was finished with my shopping, it took me three trips to my car to get all my new gear loaded. I had a new, nine-foot, six-weight rod and reel, a fishing vest, a few dozen flies in various patterns, colors, and sizes, and a pair of Orvis waders.
I threw myself into the sport, devouring everything I could, videos, instruction manuals and magazines. I started reading books about the sport. Some were instructive, written by guys like Lefty Kreh, and others. Many of them, the ones I enjoyed best, took a more philosophical approach to the sport. The authors seemed to infer that there were deeper meanings to fly fishing than just catching fish. These books were written by guys named Gierach, Leeson, Maclean, Traver and McGuane. I bought a book at the fly shop by a guy named Schwiebert. It was all about bugs and was confusing to me because I don’t know Latin. I also took a casting lesson (It was worth the money). Before long, I was becoming a competent fly fisherman, or at least I was catching more fish on a fly rod.
Over two decades later, I am still in love with the sport. I now manage to fish quite often, and I am usually accompanied by my wife Jennifer. Over three decades later we are still enjoying life together, with kids and grandkids now. Even today, I can still recall that warm October night on her front porch and that first awkward kiss. Unfortunately, I still can’t recall that first fish.