The Perfect Fly, 2016 First Place Winners’ Circle
By Les Tanner
The package came this morning.
I assumed it was just another of those tardy gifts we send each other far too often. Instead, nestled in the ugly plastic peanuts, was a nicked and dusty wooden frame; inside it rested a faded photograph. Our grandson had found it in a box of family keepsakes. Since no one there recognized the photo’s subject, he sent it on to us.
The grey-haired man is kneeling at a river’s edge. His grin says he doesn’t care that he’s wet almost to the waist. A monstrous fish is cradled in his hands. Visible on the fish’s upper lip is a bit of white, a fishing fly.
In the top right corner is a small square of yellowed paper. The object hooked to the paper is faded but is otherwise in precisely the condition it was when it was placed there more than a half-century ago. Taped to the glass below the paper is a similar but quite bedraggled object.
And suddenly it was the day I met Pop Smith.
It was May 29 to be exact, the opening day of Idaho’s 1954 trout season.
I’d been fishing hard since daylight. The North Fork was unusually clear for late May and only moderately high, and fishing had been good. My creel was heavy; I needed just one more to limit out.
But they’d quit hitting. As I worked the last pool that I had time to fish before I headed home, I hadn’t had a strike for far too long. My casts were getting sloppy and I was muttering to myself. Two leaky boots weren’t helping matters.
One fly was in a bush, and I’d snapped off a second, when a fair-sized fish took my latest offering. Taken by surprise, I set the hook too hard, breaking off the fish. I hollered in frustration, and dug into my vest for yet another fly.
“Nice fish you lost there, son.”
I whirled around to see who’d spoken and as I did, I slipped. Icy water spilled into my boots.
He was sitting not thirty feet away, a small man in worn and faded overalls. Clenched in his teeth was an old briar pipe, and leaning against the log beside him was a bamboo fly-rod.
Embarrassed, and angry at myself, I clambered up the bank and sat down on the grass. I yanked off my boots and poured out at least two gallons of North Fork water.
“Didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Not a problem,” I said, not really meaning it.
“Been here quite a while,” he replied. “My old bones needed a little rest, so I sat down to smoke a pipeful. When I saw you coming, I just stayed put so I could watch.”
“I had no idea there was anyone within miles,” I responded, realizing suddenly that I’d not only shown him my worst side but fished his pool, as well.
“No harm done,” he replied gently. He got off the stump and came to sit beside me. “My name’s Pop—Pop Smith.”
“I’m Jimmie Franklin.”
“You’re pretty good with that fly-rod, Jimmie.”.
I couldn’t imagine why he thought so, given what he’d seen. “Thanks,” I replied. No one had ever told me that before. “My grandfather got me started years ago.”
“Me, I’m just learning,” said Pop. “Can’t seem to get the hang of it, though. Always been short of what it takes to do things like that.”
I’d always steered away from the entanglements that come with knowing others well. Yet there was something about this friendly little man…
“I’d be happy to teach you what I know,” I said, surprising myself.
Early the following Saturday, I drove from my digs in Orofino up to Smith’s isolated cabin, near Headquarters. Pop met me at the door, and before I could protest, his wife had sat me down and fed me more breakfast than I had eaten in a week.
As I ate, they talked, often both at once. They were Florence and Newell to each other, but Mom and Pop to everybody else. Pop had bossed a county road crew in Iowa, where they’d raised seven children and were foster parents to at least that many more. They moved to Phoenix when Pop retired, but the Arizona heat drove them to find cooler summer climes. On one trip, they’d discovered the North Fork of the Clearwater and its environs.
It was the perfect place for them. The fields and woods had seemingly been created just for Mom to paint and critter-watch, and the streams for Pop to fish. He’d fished the ponds and murky rivers of Iowa, but was not prepared for the thrill he got when he’d pulled his first trout from the swift, cold waters of the North Fork. After watching a fly-casting angler catch cutthroat after cutthroat one afternoon, Pop knew he had to learn that art.
And, as I discovered quickly, he had a lot to learn. He cast as one might sling a shovelful of gravel, and I was never able to get him to do it differently. He was an apt pupil in other aspects, however, and soon he was catching fish without my suggesting what fly to use or where to cast.
I had learned fly-tying from my grandfather, and Pop asked one day if I could teach him. His first few efforts were spectacularly bad, but by summer’s end he was fooling an occasional small trout with his creations.
There was another teacher there that summer—and another student.
“Take it easy, son,” he’d caution quietly. “And slow down. Nobody’s chasing us.” Rare was the day that we didn’t stop to watch squirrels or dipper birds, or marvel at a sunset, or just lean back against a tree and talk.
That summer passed far too quickly; before we knew it, Labor Day had come and gone. The Smiths left early in October to return to Arizona.
At Christmas, Mom sent a ton of cookies, and Pop sent some flies. He was no expert yet, but these were far better than the first he’d tied.
They called at Easter to say they’d be up in time for opening day. Pop’s closing words were, “I’ve tied the perfect fly!”
That summer began where the last had ended, and it got better week by week. I spent many weekends at their cabin, eating, talking, laughing, sharing—the kinds of things that families do.
Of course, we fished, Pop and I. We were an odd pair, a tall and gangly red-head calling out instructions to a short and stubby man nearly four times his age.
Pop caught fish, too, and most of them on flies he’d tied. Though his fingers were thick and calloused and his eyes were bad, the flies he created were works of art. When he first placed his “perfect fly” onto my palm, I thought it might crawl away.
But he refused to use it. “Nope,” he’d protest when I suggested that he tie it on, “I’m saving it for the big one.”
Big, however, is a relative term. Pop had yet to catch a fish much over twelve, much less one that would go fifteen. It didn’t keep him from dreaming, though, about that eighteen-incher waiting for him somewhere.
His chance came on our last trip that summer. The water was low and clear, and the fishing had been spectacular. We were fishing the hole where I’d first met Pop when he stopped dead in mid-cast.
“Look at the size of that one,” whispered Pop. I followed his gaze and caught my breath. There, sipping insects from the foam-flecked surface of a small eddy, was a trout that might be twenty inches long, a true monster for the North Fork.
“Go get him,” I said. “Here’s your chance to try your ‘perfect fly’.”
Luckily I’d brought my camera, stashed in my fishing vest. It would be great to capture Pop on film.
Buck fever hit him hard, and twice he dropped his fly-box, spilling flies everywhere. Finally, in spite of trembling fingers and squinting eyes, he was ready, perfect fly and all.
I was as nervous as Pop was by the time he began working his line out across the pool. But as awkward as that gravel-slinging style of his was, it served him well that day. On his third cast, he reached out an extra foot and placed the fly just right, a yard above the fish, with enough slack leader for the perfect drift.
The fly was easy to see. Pop had tied it with some white on top, a necessary beacon for the aging eyes of its creator. The gentle current moved the fly down into the eddy, and then it disappeared. Thinking that the fly had sunk, Pop raised the rod to try another cast.
And the pool exploded.
What seemed to be a yard of North Fork trout shot up into the sunlight, flinging water droplets everywhere. The instant it hit the water again, the fish tore downstream. Forgetting he wore no wading boots, Pop splashed in and stumbled after it.
“I’ve got him. I’ve got him!”
His line was far into the backing when the trout reached the lower end of the pool. There it changed its mind, and headed home again. If the fish got into the tangle of driftwood that was its lair, things would be over, so Pop grabbed the line and held on for dear life. The flexible rod and the long silk line cushioned the shock as the fish reached the end of its tether, where it came sailing out of the water once again.
But the battle had just begun. In its fight to survive, the trout raced up and down the pool, leaping, thrashing, bull-dogging its way toward the safety of its home. If the tackle held, the outcome would depend upon which opponent would outlast the other.
Finally a very weary Pop led an equally weary fish into the shallow water near where I stood. Wet to the waist and bone-tired, Pop sank to his knees in the water.
“That fly did it! I knew it was the perfect fly.”
He looked down at the magnificent creature lying in the water beside him. Its gills were heaving but its eyes were bright. Then Pop said something which I wouldn’t—couldn’t—have said back in those days when one kept everything he caught: “I’m going to let him go. Nobody will believe either one of us, though, so go ahead and take our picture.”
Dumbly, I looked down at the camera in my hand. In the excitement, I hadn’t used it even once.
It’s too bad the picture’s black and white. It doesn’t begin to do justice to that crimson-sided, black-spotted, silvery work of art. But the shine in my good friend’s eyes is there for all to see.
I worked the hook from the fish’s jaw, then watched as Pop gently moved his catch so that water filled its gills. When he released it, the huge trout stayed where it was for several moments, finning easily. Then, slowly and majestically, it glided back into the current and out of sight.
While Pop went back to the car to change into some dry clothes, I gathered up his gear. Remembering that he’d spilled his flies twice earlier, I went to where I’d seen them fall. Sure enough, a fly lay there on the sand. I picked it up, glanced at it—and then I looked at it again.
It was Pop’s “Perfect Fly”!
Did he have two of them? I was certain he had just one, but if so, what had I extracted from the fish’s lip?
I grabbed Pop’s rod and pulled in line until I reached the fly. There I found, not a “Perfect Fly” but the tattered remains of one of Pop’s first, sad efforts to tie a Royal Coachman.
I cut it off and stuck it in my hatband. In its place I tied Pop’s fly, which I dipped in the water to make it appear recently used. Back at the car, I found Pop in dry clothes, warm and glowing with the knowledge of success.
Pop fell and wrenched his knee a few days later. When they found it wasn’t getting better, the Smiths decided to cut short their summer stay.
They were waiting for me at my Forest Service office in Orofino when I came back from lunch one Friday, to say goodbye. Pop was limping badly, but it didn’t stop him from telling my buddies all about the fish, and showing them the fly.
As I walked them to the car, Pop told me he’d returned to the pool the evening before. He’d seen ‘His’ fish there, feeding in its eddy, just as though nothing had happened. We were both quite pleased.
Just before they pulled away, Pop rolled down the window. “Make sure you send me a copy of that picture.” Then they were gone.
The photo turned out fine. I sent Pop an 8×10 print, along with a few wallet-sized copies for his bragging sessions.
The phone call came a few days after Thanksgiving. “Newell’s gone,” Mom said quietly. “The doctor said his heart just stopped. The service is on Thursday, back in Ottumwa. Will you come?”
At the funeral, I met the rest of Pop’s family for the first time. They were wonderful folks, and in every one of them I could see some of that kind and gentle man.
The next morning, Mom handed me a package. “Newell fixed this up for you for Christmas. He thought the world of you, and I do, too.” She kissed me on the cheek. “Thank you so much being our friend.”
My throat grew tight, but I finally managed to whisper, “It was so easy. How could I not have loved you both?
“I think I’ll wait till Christmas to open this,” I added.
Mom just smiled and nodded.
When I tore the wrapper off the package on Christmas eve, a card fell out. “Merry Christmas to a great teacher and a wonderful friend,” was written there. “See you in May! Love, Pop.”
And there was my photo of Pop and his big fish, enclosed in a beautiful hand-made walnut frame. In one corner was a square of paper to which he’d hooked his special fly.
I dug out my fishing hat the next day and was relieved to find, in the band right where I’d stuck it, the old and battered Royal Coachman that Pop had used to catch the fish. I taped it to the glass just below the other fly.
Now the picture was complete. Now what Pop had written at the bottom said it all.
“The Perfect Day, the Perfect Fish, the Perfect Fly.”