My dad ties a lot of knots. 

The first time I noticed his weird habit was in the 1980s or early ’90s, when we were in my parents’ dining/knot-tying room in the house they’d rented.

That mental snapshot is fading, so when I first talked to my parents about a timeline for this story, I thought it had taken place in New Orleans, just before Hurricane Bonnie rattled our boarded-up windows and threatened to uproot the young magnolia that punctuated our front yard. We lived in Metairie, a community in Jefferson Parish that Hurricane Katrina would later boil, broil, swallow and spit out like some ancient witch.

But the image of Dad sitting with a handful of fine thread is from Dallas, from another little bungalow we’d rented while my dad was doing his residency. Not while he was in medical school, like I’d thought. 

He tucked strands of suture thread into or under a heavy book — Schwartz’s Principles of Surgery, probably, a big yellow brick — then began to pull and wrap that thread into and through itself and over again. 

I remember it as silent poetry, a weird, kinetic iambic pentameter. But I remember little else about that day. That is, beyond the smell of my mother’s mirepoix and butter and garlic beneath the steam roar of the vent fan and the comforting hum of the evening news. It was certainly late winter or early spring. So, the trees weren’t to bud, and the bricks and sidewalks hadn’t yet sweated, either. 

Today, I understand that the knot-tying was a means to a living. Now, every time I fish, I hope to mimic the way my dad’s hands — surgeon’s hands — moved so lithely that day.

Decades after Dallas, I started learning to fly-fish along a private stretch of the Little Colorado River at the X Diamond Ranch. It was late spring, and the Earth was quiet because of the pandemic. While other people were punching sourdough and learning to play chess and finding new versions of God, I was trying to tie knots. And learning a lot about bugs.

Photograph by Scott Baxter
Brown trout are one of several trout species in Arizona’s waterways. The fish are notable for their red and brown spots. 

The river runs a rough and sometimes dry course beginning from two forks, one born on the northern flank of Mount Baldy and the other not far from there. The forks join each other near Greer, and then the river turns north, dumping into reservoirs, picking up other rivers — the Zuni and the Puerco — before meandering onto the Navajo Nation. At the end of its 340-mile course, it pours into the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. 

As rivers go, the Little Colorado isn’t really a big one, but it is big on fish, especially brown and rainbow trout. The X Diamond’s owner, Wink Crigler, stocks her stretch of river each spring, but there are wild fish in those waters, too. 

I have yet to catch one. Any of them.

I avoided fishing for a good, long time. Said I didn’t have the demeanor for it, the patience. Then I hit my late 30s and started to wonder if fishing might be the thing to save me from the drumbeat of self-imposed chaos. I hoped my world might paint itself a Norman Maclean hue. More than that, I hoped that the hobby would make another writer’s words ring true. Words that years-dead glutton for wine, women and moving water Jim Harrison penned: “Fishing makes us less the hostages to the horrors of making a living.”

Fishing is capable of that, maybe, because in its purest and intended form, it’s a meditation. But it’s also gloriously, wildly, violently frustrating. Line is nearly invisible. Wind is a menace. Choosing the right flies and how much line to put out is an exercise in both instinct and science. It is a sport of superstition and secret spots. 

I watch the people who’ve tried to teach me in fits and starts over the past few years — my husband, Christian, and Scott Baxter, whose photographs accompany this piece — and the choreography of their casts feels ethereal and magical, gentle and effective. I really should stop launching my line. I need to watch my backcast, take half a beat, release, try to be in every small movement of my hands like one of the small, winged things the trout want to eat. 

So, we study hatch charts. Peppered with phrases such as “blue winged olive” and “pale evening dun,” the charts tell us which tiny, feathered faux insect to tie to our line, always smashing the barbs to make sure our release is far gentler than the fight of the catch.

All of this comes naturally to my daughter, who nearly two years ago, after untangling a wretched wind knot in the pouring rain, pulled a cutthroat trout from the Middle Fork of Colorado’s Cimarron River. She wore my red rain jacket, and although I have a digital photograph, I think the scenes from that day will play back in my memory for a good, long time. I wait for her to tell the story when fishing comes up, wait for her to lean into that cold and wet and wonderful summer afternoon.

And maybe that’s the meditation. Just being out on the water, no matter where and no matter the conditions. Fly-fishing rarely, if ever, takes place in an ugly landscape. Just here in Arizona, we have fished the
Little Colorado, as well as smaller creeks. On one particularly ridiculous day in the middle of a workweek, when we were the only people in one of my favorite canyons, I watched Christian catch trout after trout while our dog paddled around like an otter. I think I had a few bites that day, too, but was too captivated by a small snake sunning itself on a rock to really do anything about them. 

Once, I plucked an odd little chub from an ephem­eral stream on a ranch between Globe and Young. But no trout. 

Finally, though, two Septembers ago, in a place I won’t mention (except to say that it was along the White River), I had a moment. My knots felt right; that fly felt good. I watched the cast, paused. Everything felt fluid. The tip of my rod bent as I saw the metallic flash, the splash as the trout realized what it had done. It was a young native brown trout, and it was back in the water as soon as it was out, its spots glinting as it took off downstream.

I lost my favorite hat that day, some Patagonia relic long discolored by the sweat of thousands of miles of urban hikes and backcountry backpacks and kayaking adventures. I’d worn it during more than a year’s worth of (trying at) fishing, too. 

The hat was a fair sacrifice, I suppose. 

Last year, I started thinking that I’d like to go fishing with my dad. That was after I realized I probably couldn’t teach him anything about it, because he’d be a lot better at it than I am — what with all of that knot-tying and all. 

He’s been talking more lately about maybe cutting back at work. I can’t imagine how hard it might be for him to say that he will after all these decades. 

But if he does, there will be knots for him to tie.