Bill didn’t know anything about fly fishing. That’s not my judgment; he told me so. In fact, it was the first thing he told me. Standing on the bow of the skiff, staring into a Bahamian flat, looking for a fish he’d only heard of, he was as out of his element as a cat on roller skates.
A tire salesman from Wisconsin, he’d walked into the local fly shop and told the guy behind the counter, “I want to catch a tarpon on a fly. What do I need?”
The shop guy told him you don’t just buy a fly rod and catch a tarpon. He knew about the Gink and Gasoline Bonefish School and said, “Go on this guy’s trip. He’ll teach you what you need to know to catch a tarpon.”
When Bill told me that story, I thought, hell yes! I’ll fish with this guy any day. I don’t care if he doesn’t know which end of the rod to hold.
The first day Bill and I fished together was not a great day for a beginner. We had some sun but the wind was howling. I’m sure Bill had some thoughts about how much he’d spent on that new eight-weight rod, that must have felt worthless in that wind. When I stepped up and punched my clearing cast into the wind, he moaned,
“Jesus! Right into the wind,” and rested his face in his hands. I’ve heard folks, mostly folks who know less than Bill about fly fishing say, “It’s all in the wrist.” Of course, it isn’t. It’s no more in the wrist than it is in the rod, the line or the fly. It’s not in a book or a video. It isn’t even in your head. Fly fishing is in your heart, and I didn’t have to spend much time with Bill to see that his was full.
Bill didn’t want to catch a tarpon because it would make him cool, or even because it was a challenge. He didn’t want to do it so he could post the photo on Facebook or brag to his buddies. His buddies wouldn’t even know what a tarpon was. Bill wanted to catch his tarpon for one simple reason. His doctor had told him he was going to die. Soon, and for what ever reason, catching a tarpon on the fly was the one thing he wanted to do first.
When Bill told me that, the weight of it came down on me like a falling piano. He already had a tarpon trip to Belize booked. He’d showed up in the Bahamas so I could teach him to catch a tarpon. A skill that takes most anglers years to develop, and I had one week and ten other anglers to teach. I couldn’t bear the thought of letting him down.
I must have seemed like a drill sergeant, the way I pushed Bill that week. So much information to cram in. So many variables, so many contradictions. So much, “Yes, unless, if so, then…” I don’t know how he made sense of it but his concentration never lapsed. He never got discouraged, he never took his mind off of that singular goal. Bill caught his first bonefish on the fly that day, and plenty more, but he never stopped thinking about that tarpon.
It was a great week but a week goes by pretty fast. Faster I imagine, when you have cancer. Bill had learned a lot in a short time but, when we shook hands and said goodbye at the airport, I was not confident that he was going to get his tarpon, or that I would ever hear from Bill again.
But fly fishing is in the heart, and the heart is full of surprises.
It was raining sideways when Bill showed up at the dock. His Belizean guides hoped he’d—no, expected—he’d cancel. They’d never met Bill though, and the panga was ankle deep in rain water by the time they reached the first flat. The guide said there would be no tarpon but maybe they could catch a bonefish. Bill was not excited about that but went along with the program. Before long he’d put his new found skills to work and was holding a bonefish. Not as big as the ones he’d caught in the Bahamas. Still, a fish, but not what he’d come for. He tried one more time to impress on the head guide that he really had come for tarpon. The guide gave in and fired up the motor to go on, what seemed, a fool’s errand.
It was shortly after lunch, still pissing rain and gray when Bill made his next cast, stripped the fly and felt the eat. The water exploded as the big silver fish leapt into the air. It was no more complicated than that. He landed the fish and it was done. The last thing he wanted out of life. The slate was clean. The bucket list complete. Only one thing left to do.
Of course, it was only mid-afternoon, and Bill didn’t feel like dying, so he did the only logical thing. He stepped back up on the bow and stripped off some line. He got into his ready position, just like I’d taught him, and when his guide called for a shot, he made the cast. “I never saw the fish,” he told me later. “I knew it must be good, ‘cause the guides were whooping and high fiving.”
Bill had never even heard of a grand slam and he didn’t know why the guides were so excited about this fish that just looked like a big jack to him. The guides were excited though, so they exchanged high fives, had a beer and called it a day.
So, a tire salesman from Wisconsin walks into a fly shop and says, I want to catch a tarpon. It sounds like a joke, until he goes to Belize and catches a grand slam. How do you top that? Your doctor tells you that your cancer is in remission, that’s how.
Bill and I remained friends and emailed once in a while for years. He quit the job selling tires and spent a lot of time in Belize. He got saltier and browner and much better with a fly rod. Last June, when I announced a last-minute cancelation for the Bonefish School, I was thrilled to get an email from Bill saying he’d take the spot. We hadn’t finished our first Kalik on the beach when he told me his cancer was back. “Do I have time for one more fishing trip?” He asked the doctor. “Why not,” the doctor replied.
Every morning when I rolled out of my room, Bill was sitting on the beach watching the sunrise. His heart still full, but heavy. You could see him soaking it in, slowing every second with all of his will. Wondering how many more sunrises he’d see. He was weaker than before. Not as sure of his footing. He fished well, but he fished with an erie resolve. Not sadness exactly, but with an informed perspective. This time he knew what he was doing and that he was likely doing it for the last time.
It was shortly after that trip that I got an email from Simms, an advertisement—you might even call it junk mail. The graphic said, “You Get One Life. Fish it well.” It was the only time my inbox ever made me cry. Fly fishing is in the heart. I can’t explain it. I can’t rationalize it. I can’t even justify it and if it’s in your heart I don’t have to. My friend Bill may not be the most skilled angler I have ever known but I hope that one day, if I work very hard, maybe I will have a heart as full as his.
Whether we realize it or not, we all take our lives one day at a time. It’s been almost a year and Bill is responding well to treatment, feeling good, and planning his next fishing trip. I hope I’m there to see it.