Originally published for Tenkara Angler
My dad told the story again in late June in Jonathan’s workshop, with saltwater, spin, and fly rods hanging on hooks above his head and Jonathan, my fly fishing sensei, sitting with a fat cigar in mouth on a stool beside his tying table, listening.
“I would set Brian up, then I would tell him: don’t reel it in until you feel a bite,” Dad recounted. In this story, he turns to my brother, Victor, and sets his bobber and hooks on a small minnow we had caught in a stream feeding the small lake in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. Before Victor can cast I’m already reeling in my line. “Did you feel a bite?” Yeah, yeah, I say. On the other end the dying minnow, whole, flaps in the water.
It’s one of hundreds of stories of his sons’ fishing failures—of Victor and me hooking into each other on ambitious casts, or bird’s nests and tangles so bad we’d have to set our rods down and wait for my dad, shaking his head from further down the bank, to come to our rescue, spoiling the few precious hours he got on the water.
For my entire life, fishing, for my dad, was about being at peace—even when his sons did little to make it peaceful. An immigrant from a riverside city in the Argentinian lowlands, he arrived in the New York City area in the late 1980s and spent almost every hour of my early years working an assortment of manual labor jobs. There were entire days I’d miss seeing him; he came home after I had gone to bed and was out of the house again before I woke up. By the time he found his footing as a plumber, when I was in elementary school, he would go out late nights to fish for trout in New Jersey’s streams or catch fluke (known most places as summer flounder), bluefish, and striped bass in saltwater.
On weekends, he took Victor and me to stocked trout ponds in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to a channel in Keansburg to squeal in joyous hysteria as we caught what seemed to our boyish minds like hundreds of snapper bluefish and porgy, and to surf fish for stripers during late-night high tides on Staten Island when the rest of our schoolmates were asleep at home under city lights. Now he’s one of Bayonne’s notable fishermen—dropping off his catches for neighbors and Egyptian gas station attendants who still occasionally ask me when I drop into town after nearly 10 years away, “Your dad, he got any fish?”
In 2019, I decided to fish again for the first time in nearly a decade. A grown man, and now a father with a five-month old daughter I’ll one day teach to fish, I sought to reconnect with my dad. For two decades, he had tried his best to pass the tradition he grew up with on to sons he raised in the most concrete of urban jungles. When I moved to Knoxville after college, he had given me two spin rods and some of his old lures in a bag. East Tennessee is a freshwater fishing mecca, but it took years before I finally pulled the gear from the closet. Soon I was able to catch the occasional decent-sized bass in local ponds and on Fort Loudoun Lake.
Jonathan, who I’d met at the gym, told me about fly fishing after hearing my stories of growing up on the water with my dad. If I was serious about catching fish, I needed to try it, he said. A year ago, he took me out on the Holston River and showed me how to cast a 5-weight rod with a squirmy worm underneath a strike indicator. It was hard. He kept taking me out to the Holston, Clinch, and Watauga rivers, letting me borrow his equipment. As my dad used to do, he’d sometimes hook into a fish and hand me the rod to show me how to fight it. Naturally, I’d lose it.
In about eight trips and dozens of hours on the water, I had caught nothing. But I wasn’t giving up. “You have the patience of Job,” Jonathan told me. Really, he was the one with the patience; standing behind me, showing me, giving me instructions.
In May, Jonathan invited me to fish the Smoky Mountains. “We’re gonna try tenkara,” he told me. In his shop while we smoked tobacco pipes, he pulled out his Tenkara USA Rhodo rod, extended it, and explained to me how it works. As he spoke, I thought of old-timers on creeks with cane poles, horse-hair lines, a hook, catching trout and panfish on a worm or a grasshopper.
Our first trip to the Little River, we parked beside the road and walked down to a few of his favorite holes for teaching beginners. He set up a dry dropper rig with two of his favorite flies and showed me how to cast: looking up and sideways to the trees, always knowing where I could play the fish and where I’d risk getting caught in an overhanging branch.
In that first hole, I caught two wild rainbows. My first trout on a fly rod. By the end of the trip, I had landed seven.
For graduating from his school of fly fishing, Jonathan gave me a Tenkara USA Hane rod, a spool of level line, and an assortment of flies.
With the Hane, I’ve gone on several of my own trips. I’ve cut work days short or started late so I could drive the hour-and-a-half to a spot and fish for three or four hours. I’ve bought my own flies, lines, tippet, and other gear. I’ve learned from the men at the Townsend fly shop, Little River Outfitters, about what’s best to throw when. I’ve explored creeks and streams where I’ve caught Southern Appalachian brook trout.
Every time one of these fish rises toward my dry fly, it feels momentarily like my breathing has stopped—the same feeling you get when you wake suddenly from a dream where you’re falling. It’s shocking in a way I rarely use that word anymore: to be on a creek you’ve hiked miles into, not another person in sight, surrounded by green trees and sprawling rhododendron, and to lay a cast just at the head of a plunge pool.
The fly drifts perfectly for a few feet. Suddenly a trout breaks through the surface of the water drowning the fly. You raise the rod tip instinctively, feel the fish tugging violently on the other end of the line, then fight to bring it to your net. The largest brookie I’ve caught may have been just under 10 inches, but it fought me in the way I imagine Jacob wrestled God in the wilderness.
I’m still learning. Jonathan is teaching me to tie midges, and I’ve got a small assortment of dries and nymphs I keep in the breast of my fly fishing vest at the ready for when the urge comes. I’ve found a way to prop my phone up on a plastic ledge in the bathroom so I can watch fishing videos while I shower. My wife laughs at me. Sometimes I even wake up suddenly in the night convinced I hear Tom Rosenbauer’s voice in my sleep.
When I’m in the mountains with my tenkara rod, I think I feel what my dad did so many years ago, the feeling that spurred on the fascination that drove him to the water after bruising 14-hour work shifts in basements and on construction sites. I net the trout and remove the fly. Then I hold the fish in my hand and admire its colors. I watch it breathe—the fish in focus, the ripples of the water blurring in the background. I’m teaching myself to soak in the moment. I hold the fish in the water and wait until it’s ready. It leaves my hand and I sit back for a second. This must be peace.