My father didn't hunt or fish, but he had a profound influence on my dedication to those sports and the love of the outdoors in general. When I was growing up, most boys were introduced to the outdoor sports by parents, grandparents or some other male family member, almost as a rite of passage, so if the men in your family hunted or fished, it was almost a certainty you would be introduced to those activities at an early age. In spite of not having much direct guidance from family members, a deep desire and fascination for all things outdoors drove me to learn those things on my own.
Maybe the greatest contribution my Dad made to my lifelong connection to the outdoors was to raise me and the rest of our family in the country. As a young man, my father worked for the railroad, but soon after he married my mother, he decided to buy some land and start his own business.
My parents settled on some property in Antis Township near Bellwood that bordered Bells Gap Run, which was stocked with trout back then. Even though Dad wasn't a fisherman, the idea of being able to go trout fishing literally a stone's throw from his own front door seemed appealing and was the deciding factor in his purchasing that particular piece of land.
In a cruel twist of fate, Bells Gap Run was wiped out by acid mine drainage one spring shortly after we moved there. I was much too young to remember the event, but that environmental disaster so embittered my father that he never thought about fishing again.
I, on the other hand, still developed the desire to be a fisherman, even though I was robbed of the chance to grow up so close to a trout stream or to fish with my father. Bells Gap Run did eventually clean up sufficiently to support trout again, and stocking was resumed there in the early 1980s, long after I had left home.
Although there were no trout to fish for there, all of us kids still spent plenty of time along the creek catching minnows, frogs or snakes. We dammed one of its larger pools for our swimming hole. The nearby woods were also our frequent playground. We climbed trees, ate apples and berries, and built forts. I was particularly fascinated by all the birds and other wildlife that lived all around us.
I read everything I could find about nature and the outdoor sports, especially the major outdoor magazines of those days, Outdoor Life, Field & Stream and Sports Afield. The columnists for those magazines, such as Joe Brooks, A. J. McClane, Jack O'Conner, Ted Trueblood and Ray Bergman, served as my earliest outdoor mentors. And one of those magazine articles sparked one of the defining moments of my young life.
I was about 12 years old when I read an article about how to make your own bass poppers. I don't think I had even caught a bass at that point in my life, and I didn't own a fly rod, but I couldn't resist trying to construct my own lures. I scrounged together some hooks, corks, feathers and paint and generally spent most of the weekend making a royal mess on the kitchen table. Somehow Dad noticed my enthusiasm and commitment to that project.
"Here," he said one day as he handed me a box. "If you like making those things, you might as well have this." It was a fly-tying kit. I marveled at all the brightly colored feathers, pieces of fur and hair, and other materials it contained. And that small box started me on an odyssey that continues to this day. I spent every spare moment learning to tie flies from whatever books and articles I could find.
A few months later I had saved enough money to buy my first fly rod and reel so I could learn to catch fish on my creations. My collection of fly-tying materials engulfed most of my bedroom. My dedication and countless hours hunched over my fly-tying vise allowed me to master the craft. Although I would likely have taken up fly tying on my own at some point, my father is the one who got me started.
My father never taught me to tie a fly or cast a line or shoot a shotgun, but he made me better at all those things through his example. Dad was a master craftsman in every sense of the word. His favored trade was that of a cabinetmaker and carpenter, but he was truly a mechanical genius who could literally build or fix almost anything with his own talented hands.
Being around him and watching him worktaught me craftsmanship, the value of a good work ethic and that most things worth doing or accomplishing were usually achieved with time, patience and hard work. Those were precious life lessons that have served me well, not only in my outdoor pursuits but most other endeavors as well.
Dad passed away five years ago after a long and productive life. No, he never took me fishing, but an obscure little gift 50 years ago from him in concert with the standards he set allowed me to win many awards and gain a small amount of fame as a fly tier and fisherman.
As satisfying as those accolades have been, I'm even more grateful for all the other things my father tried to teach me. They've enriched my life beyond measure.