“If our father had had his way, nobody who did not know how to fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching it.” — Norman Maclean, “A River Runs Through It”
Fly-fishing is humbling.
“You’re casting too fast,” my older friend advised from the stern of a Shorty Bilt canoe. “Pause on the back cast to allow the fly-line to straighten out and then cast forward,” he added. The green floating fly-line looped around my neck and shoulder before the Royal Coachman fly took hold of the brim of my red wool Crusher hat.
It was late August 1970, and my first fly-fishing lesson had been humiliating. I caught one little brown bat and zero trout. In a few weeks, I would begin my freshman year as a wildlife student at the University of New Hampshire. Dr. Joseph Marshall had taken me to Rock Pond ostensibly to fly-fish for squaretails — not once did he call the colorful fish brook trout. We had left his cabins on Spencer Lake at 5 p.m., and 45 minutes later his museum quality canvas and cedar canoe slipped into the pond. The evening outing, I soon discovered, had more to do with his casting words of wisdom than fishing.
“A golden opportunity awaits you in college. Grasp it,” he said, netting a handsome 14-inch squaretail. Doc anticipated my teenage stiffness. No college-bound 18-year-old appreciates lectures about proper study habits and limiting keg party indulgences. “I was your age,” he said, softening his delivery, “when I attended Colby College in 1940. Beer and hanging out at Onnie’s Pool Hall was fun extra-curricular activity.” Maybe I’m off the hook, I thought, since he’s shifting the conversation.
“One winter evening,” Doc continued, “several college buddies barged into my room and said, ‘Let’s drive into Waterville for beers and pool.’ I grabbed a coat, glanced across the Kennebec River (in 1940, Colby’s campus stood between College Avenue and the river) and saw the Scott Paper mill aglow in lights. I knew that in one of those well-lit rooms my mother was working very hard to pay my tuition. I slumped into a desk chair and thought, ‘Gee, my mother is sacrificing to make my life better. I’ll honor her by studying hard. Partying didn’t feel right anymore.’” His message stuck like an arrow hitting the bull’s-eye of a target. Doc’s inspiring words about honoring parental sacrifices prevented me from flunking out of college while on probation.
In the summer of 1971, when landing a well-paying construction job didn’t pan out, Doc hired my twin brother, Don, an English major at Colby, and me to work as carpenter aides at his home. The following December, we each received a Christmas card and a $100 check. “Merry Christmas,” he wrote, in barely legible handwriting taught universally in medical schools. “In checking my books, I discovered that I had underpaid you last summer. Please stop by for a visit during the holidays.”
My brother phoned me from a Colby dormitory. Doc had not short-changed us, we concluded. He knew that my father, his high school friend and patient, was an unemployed welder that Christmas, and he had little money to spend on presents. The “underpaid you” story was fabricated because Doc didn’t want to upstage my parents by giving us Christmas money when they couldn’t.
In April, Dr. Joseph Marshall, age 94, died at Waterville’s Thayer Hospital, where he practiced medicine for 40 years. He had been my family’s doctor since my birth in 1952. Our lifelong friendship began in 1967 when Doc invited me to join him and his 17-year-old nephew, Jimmy, my high school friend, on a fishing trip to his cabins in Maine’s western mountains.
He became my surrogate father, and I became his surrogate son. Nowadays, to keep his spirit alive, I often repeat a favorite story: In August 1965, Doc had taken Jimmy fishing at Rock Pond, which, Jimmy and I concluded years later, was Doc’s equivalent of a psychologist’s couch. The pond was where serious two-way talks were exchanged in the confines of a canoe. It was a beautiful summer evening, Jimmy recounted, with so many fish rising, the surface dimpled in every direction, as if being hit by raindrops. Doc’s message: Good decision-making leads to good outcomes. As his uncle played a fish, Jimmy quickly removed the gullet from a trout at his feet, fastened the meat to a hook and lowered the bait on monofilament line into a pond that he knew was fly-fishing only.
Hiding behind a large red spruce was a Maine game warden with binoculars. “Leave the lines in the water,” the warden yelled, “and paddle ashore.” Doc seethed when Jimmy confessed: “Sorry, uncle. I made a bad decision.” The warden admonished Doc: “You should be ashamed of yourself for teaching a youngster how to fish illegally. What’s this world coming to when adults can’t be better role models?” Doc said nothing and accepted the $25 fine. “The warden was furious with me,” Doc told me years later. “But if I had told the truth and blamed Jimmy, he might have doubled the fine.”
I miss my old friend and his endless fishing tips and stories. Doc taught me to be humble, grateful, hard working, loyal, loving and generous. Fly-fishing and life lessons are synonymous, he often reminded Jimmy and me. Each teaches the importance of patience, faith in the unseen and capitalizing when opportunities strike.
“In fly-fishing and in life,” he said, “the memorable moments, big and small, are captured when you’re fully invested in the present.”
Ron Joseph is a retired Maine wildlife biologist. He lives in Waterville.