Fifteen years ago Dad and I first fished Birch Creek together and we have loved it ever since. This past Memorial Day Weekend, Dad was supposed to go on our annual family camping trip to Birch Creek, but he passed away on March 31, 2014. To say I miss him does not even begin to capture the emotions I have experienced with his loss.
Thursday night before our Memorial Day camping trip, I experienced mixed emotions: Excitement to go camping and fishing at this sacred place, but apprehension about going to Birch Creek without Dad for the first time. Since I was up, I killed some time on Instagram looking at photos. On my sister Jodi’s Instagram wall, I came across a photo of Dad and Jodi fishing on the Buffalo River, another special place for our family. At that moment, I keenly felt Dad’s loss and wept.
I commented on Jodi’s picture: “I’m going to really miss Dad this weekend . . . Birch Creek for the first time without him.”
To my surprise, although it was super early, Jodi quickly responded back: “I know you will. But when it’s quiet, just remember, he will be there. He will. Cheers.”
I was moved by Jodi’s response and I hoped she was right.
I had to work Friday morning and we did not end up getting on the road to Birch Creek until 4:30 p.m. We reached the campground around 6:00 p.m. and most of our regular camping areas were already taken except the one next to the public latrine. This happened to be the same spot where we shot pellet guns with Dad, my brother Scott, and his kids back in 2012. My family and I quickly set up the tent trailer.
After completing the work, I strung up the Riverwatch Kispiox Valley bamboo rod I inherited from Dad and went fishing on the stretch that Dad and I had fished so many times together. My daughter Lily tagged along. I hooked numerous fish, handed her the rod, and she reeled them in. When our friends, the Warmoths and the Drapers, showed up sometime after 7:00 p.m., I fished with the Draper’s daughters, Kenya and Jasmine, and with my daughter, Nessy and son, Ben and they all got to reel in numerous fish. We had fun.
When we all had our fill, I went back to camp, plopped into a camp chair, with my arm draped over the back and a big smile on my face. Lois Draper looked at me and said, “You are content, aren’t you?” I could only agree. After all, this is one of my favorite places on earth.
As we sat around the fire after dinner, my good friend, Cliff Warmoth grabbed my daughter Lily and cradled her like a little baby with his meaty arms and said with a chuckle, “Do you want me to rock you to sleep?” My Dad used to do and say that to my kids all the time and it totally reminded me of him. I instantly thought about Jodi’s comment on Instagram. It was like Cliff had uncannily channeled Dad’s energy for a split second.
When the sun hit the water Saturday morning, I again started fishing with the kids for a while. As usual, I hooked the fish and then handed the rod over to the kids. After a while, I had some fish strike my indicator, so I switched over to a Red-Butted Double Renegade tied by Dad and caught a few fish on the surface before breakfast. The bamboo rod seemed to cast so much smoother with the dry fly (as opposed to a weighted nymph).
After breakfast, I went back to fishing. Nessy also strung up the G-Loomis rod I gave to her when she was 9 after she caught a fish all by herself with this rod on this very same stretch of creek. On this day, five years later, she caught 5 or 6 fish on her own.
I worked my way upstream to a big bend in the creek. My son Tommy followed and I urged him to take off his shoes and try to catch a fish on the fly, but he would not leave the bank. At around 11:00 a.m., dark black clouds suddenly blanketed the sky witnessing that a storm was quickly coming. This sure looked and felt familiar!
The first time I fished this stretch with Dad in 1999, we had a similar storm blow in. Back then, with the first few drops of rain, the fishing turned from good to phenomenal. In my book, Heaven on Earth, I wrote the following about this experience:
After a while, we decided to explore other stretches of Birch Creek in its sparsely settled valley. To the north of Lone Pine, we found a good looking section of river with small waterfalls and plunge pools. Dad and I fished the same spot for over an hour and caught many nice fish.
Overhead the skies turned black bearing witness that rain was imminent. The first few drops of rain descended sparking a feeding frenzy of the abundant fish. In three or four consecutive casts, I hooked and landed fish, each one bigger than the previous. It is amazing how weather can trigger the fish to aggressively feed like that. After landing each fish, I unhooked and released them as quickly as possible in hopes of more nonstop action.
I have witnessed that same phenomena on other occasions. As the funny outdoor writer Patrick McManus aptly coined, “The best two times to fish is when it’s rainin’ and when it ain’t.” Dad and I learned this lesson firsthand that unforgettable afternoon.
As before, with the first few drops of rain on the water, the fish started to bite nearly every cast. I again challenged Tommy to get in the water and catch a fish, but with the looming skies, Tommy quickly retreated back to camp.
I realized, however, that something special was happening. I then proceeded to catch fish after fish after fish just like that day with Dad fifteen years ago. I’ve often heard this quote which criticizes a person’s intelligence because they have “no sense to come in out of the rain.” Honestly, with the swarm of activity and success, I did not mind the rain one bit. I continued fishing through the storm for about ten minutes until I saw lightning. Fortunately, I had enough sense to get out of the river and seek shelter from the storm.
As I stepped onto the bank, something happened that was both intriguing and terrifying; the little Ross Cimarron reel that I also inherited from Dad started to buzz with electricity. It sounded like line was peeling off the drag, but it was not moving. At that moment, I was so relieved to be holding a bamboo rod (as opposed to a graphite lightning rod) and to be out of the water.
When I got back to camp, I found my family and others taking shelter in the trailer. Nessy reported that as she was moving our stuff out of the rain, she was electrocuted when she picked up the graphite rods such that she could not remove them from her hand without Kristin’s help. I am glad no one got hurt. What a storm!
With the trailer crowded, I went and sat in the Yukon and watched the rain and hail pound down. As I sat in the front seat, I reflected on the similarity of this experience to mine and Dad’s all those years ago. I wondered if it was a sign that Dad was near and that he was aware of me and my circumstances just as Jodi had promised.
At Dad’s funeral, I was blessed to speak for my family about Dad and his wonderful life. I commented about how Dad did everything in life with a gusto unmatched by most. Everyone laughed when I said that Dad’s motto was “Go big or go home!” Why would he be any different on the other side? Okay, maybe he had a little help. Until someone from the other side tells me otherwise, I will take this whole experience as a sign. It was awesome fishing with you again, Dad!