A new baseball bat? A fishing reel? A dog? How about his own room instead of sharing cramped quarters with his younger brother? Ask him what he wants, and he’ll jump for any of those things. (There will also be a strong emphasis on the puppy — accompanied by a long, persuasive argument.) But what does he need most?
I barely remember my life at eleven years old. Fifth grade, Little League, fishing, a few video games, and . . . hey, that’s just like his life right now. Yes, by no surprise, my son is a lot like me. And I understand what drives and motivates him.
He’s been spending hours at a time in the woods this year, on solitary walks with a pair of binoculars or a walking stick. And I get that too. I think I spent half my childhood roaming the twelve acres of my parents’ land and hiking across neighboring fields and dirt roads. I knew my surroundings, and I expanded my perimeter as I grew. He’s doing the same now, and on many after-school evenings this fall, he geared up with boots, waders, rod and vest. Then he walked down the hill toward our home water and fished. That’s something I was missing at eleven. But he has access to one of the best wild trout rivers in the state.
Every time he returns from one of these solitary hikes or fishing trips, my son seems a little older, somehow more mature. He also returns more peacefully than when he left. I feel that in him. I understand what the woods and the water do for a soul.
But I’m also surprised. While I’m classically introverted, he’s clearly an extrovert — and that alone is our major difference. I’ve gone to the river for an escape my whole life, to get away from the people, places and things that wear me down after an overflow of exposure. So seeing him seek out that same experience reminds me how there’s more to being in nature than just escaping things. It’s the feeling of independence, the connection to life without language, to things that exist free of judgment. Nature just is. It lives. It thrives. And the space between the branches and riverbanks harbors time itself. These places change, but they are more constant than shifting, more lasting than fading. The stream that I fished as a boy every April still holds the same trout, and I follow those familiar bends upstream around rocky mountains. Fallen trees have diverted the channels enough to move the main flow twenty yards east or west, but permanence is more powerful. Here, change is minimal. And that’s comforting.
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He feels it too. And so he’s drawn to the woods, to these places larger than his small life that often seems too big. I’ve been doing the same for forty-four years.
But what else does he need?
More than anything, I feel his desire for my companionship, for my leadership, for some instruction and for my love. The closest bonds I’ve formed with other men in my life have been forged on the river. I get it. So my son and I fish. And we walk through the forest when he asks. He wants to hunt, so we’ll do that too. Anything that brings us together, outside and with dirt and water under our feet, I’m in.
Ed O’Neil said the following, on the TV show, Modern Family: Ninety percent of being a Dad is just showing up.” This nod to Woody Allen’s phrase about showing up for life in general hits home for me. I’ve spent much of my time following through on the commitments and promises I’ve made to myself. After playing guitar for a few months in my late teens, I realized that I’d only progress if I dedicated a part of myself to the instrument. So I vowed to play the guitar every day — at least one chord — no matter what. To fulfill that promise, I took it with me everywhere. I played every day. Always. And on those days when I picked it up merely to fulfill my obligation — to play one chord — I was predictably tempted by the muse to play more. And an hour later, my fingertips were sore from a good workout. All of that eventually led to a rewarding career in music for seventeen years.
I fished as a kid. And I fished a lot more when I turned sixteen. Finally, I could drive to the next county, toward better water with elusive wild trout. But I always wanted a good stream in my backyard too. And in 2003, when my wife and I moved to central PA, I had it. So I made a promise to myself, to fish five days a week, no matter what, in all four seasons. I did that for six years, until my first son was born. Then those fishing hours turned into Dad hours. Being a father is the greatest opportunity I’ve been given. So I show up. And I do my best to balance other responsibilities with dedicated time for both of my sons.
And when my oldest seems a little lost, a little confused or overwhelmed because he’s eleven years old, I take him fishing. Or we go for a walk among the pines and look for squirrels. Because both of us need nothing as much as we need what the woods gives back to us.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
Great piece, Dominic. I too grew up like you and your boy, lucky enough to have space to tromp through, and be alone without being too far from home. Like you, it has made me who I am. But, when you asked, “What does he need?”, I immediately thought of the place in central Arizona where I grew up. It is now covered in subdivisions. No more will anyone be able to hunt dove and quail there, or have access to the creek I fished and swam in. So, while I completely agree kids need time, they also need a place. And, if for no other reason, we need to protect those places as fiercely as we protect our children.
Keep up the good work. I love your evocative and heartful writing.
Peace, and tight lines,
Very nice! I wish you both well on your journey.
Dom, what an important piece you’ve written here. As a dad of 4 and now grandpa to 7 grandkids, I’d say you are amazingly in tune with what your son needs, and yes, showing up and listening is the main thing. My observation is that kids need a healthy, balanced diet of the predictable along with a culture of possibility. Yes, we need to teach them, but also stand next to them as they explore and discover their own voice and path. Being outside provides both of those things in huge measure.
Great piece, “just showing up” is what many are missing from their Dad’s. I helped run an Outdoor Adventure class for high school students and couldn’t believe how many said “this is great, my Dad would never take me to do this”. It was sad, but they were super appreciative of the opportunities!
Just a great article Dom. My son is eleven this year and God has been so generous to bless me with his companionship in fly fishing. It bonds us like nothing else right now and I’m beyond grateful for it. Thank you for putting your well thought words here on the subject.
Great observations. I had to teach myself how to fly fish and tie flies at that age growing up along Duck Run in Mackeyville. My Dad didn’t have the knowledge or patience for my high energy and questionable personality. I remember how grown up I felt when I trekked across the Cow pasture to fish the big Fishing Creek . When I came home that evening and told Dad, he just nodded and said “good work, you’re learning valuable lessons”. When I became a father of two, I made sure I coached soccer, became a Scout Leader, went to all the musicals and band concerts and didn’t miss a soccer goal by my daughter and saved goals by my son. Love your articles and the time you guided me on Penns Creek. Enjoy, they grow like weeds and become teenagers in no time.
Any man could be a father, but not every father is a Dad.
Great article, Nothing better that taken and or spending time with your children. My daughter is now 27 and son is 23 and started to take them fishing as soon as they could walk. My daughter caught her first trout on the Letort Spring Run and son regularly fishes with me as we speak. We had the opportunity to fish this past year on the Big Horn in Montana with my father as well. Many years have passed from running my daughter to dance class and son to soccer and football practice but the memories will be with me forever.
Wow….fantastic piece, and I’m sure will resonate for many as it does for me.
Really a lovely essay, Dom. I am sure your boys will grow into really fine men given the way you steward them. Made me think of my years roaming around the woods and fields behind my house. I might hv Been extra blessed- I started driving to go fishing at 12! Honest, you could do that in a tiny town.
I really enjoy your writing and this one really hits home as the father of two young boys. I’d love to read about how you teach your boys the basics of fishing. I’ve been working on that but would love more direction.
Excellent piece Dom. You are clearly on the right path in teaching your son valuable lessons. I hope you are patient unlike myself. They will be grown before you know it.
My little boy is six and he and his sister are my greatest joy. This was a great piece. He’s a lucky kid your boy.