December 27, 2011
I was a counselor in my mid-twenties, working with troubled kids at a local elementary school, when we met. But I, and the other counselors who were there that day, also worked with the kids outside the classroom, trying to keep them on track, trying to teach them a few social skills that might turn them from the dangerous path they were already following at such a young age. This day, we took the kids fishing. We had just set the kids' bobbers and bait when I heard some rustling behind me. I was correcting two kids who had already begun fighting with each other when out of the underbrush stumbled a thin man with a butterfly net. I chuckled to myself, looking at this man and his net, and thought, "Great, another person with questionable mental capacity is not what I need right now." I turned to face him as he walked briskly behind me. He paused and said, "Hi. I'm Charlie Meck."
Though I had the kids fishing with bait, I also had my own rod along. It was a fly rod. My father and I were planning to fish the Green Drake hatch that night on Canoe Creek, a little unimportant stocked trout stream not far from my home in Altoona, PA. I knew who Charlie Meck was. I had read his books. So did my father. We would often joke with each other during our fishing trips that just around the bend, when we were out of each other's sight, we met Mr. Meck and caught hundreds of trout.
Just then an enormous mayfly lifted from the small stream and landed on Charlie's blue shirt. "Oh, a Litobranch recurvata," Charlie exclaimed. "A Dark Green Drake. I was looking for one of these. Did you notice how it landed on my shirt? Nature loves the color blue." He then thanked me (to this day, I'm still not sure what I did), and told me to come with him. He had something he wanted to give me.
I left the kids momentarily with the other counselors and followed Charlie Meck. He walked me back to his car. Inside, a small lady with kind eyes was reading a book. Charlie introduced us. It was his wife, Shirley. She shook my hand and I felt her bent fingers, badly twisted from rheumatoid arthritis. She smiled, and it seemed like Charlie appearing at the car with a stranger was something she was used to seeing. "Give him one of the flies," said Charlie. Shirley reached down into a bag and handed me a small Lucite box with a Patriot dry fly and an olive beadhead inside. "Tied by Charlie Meck," was printed on the outside of the box.
Charlie said goodbye and was climbing into his car when I asked him if we could fish together sometime. I felt a little guilty and nervous asking him. I was sure that people asked to fish with Charlie all the time. Why would he go fishing with me? He was a famous fly fisherman, and I was just some kid he met along a stream. But Charlie didn't hesitate. He said, "Sure," and pulled out a business card, writing his home telephone number on it before handing it to me."Call me sometime and we'll go fishing," he said before he drove away.
I waited two weeks before I called him, and I was nervous again when I finally did call. Would he remember me? Would he make an excuse about why he couldn't fish with me? But when he answered the phone, he immediately knew who I was. You see, I didn't know Charlie then as I do now. I didn't know how kind and gracious he is to others, even strangers. I didn't realize how much making other people happy matters to Charlie. Charlie invited me to fish the Spruce Creek Rod and Gun Club water with him. And I did. But I also didn't know that he had to pay for me to fish with him that day because the club charges guests to fish. Or that over the years Charlie has paid for hundreds of people to fish the club water with him, never once mentioning the money to any of them. If I hadn't noticed a small sign explaining the fees the third or fourth time I fished the club water with him, he'd still be paying for me to go. That's just who Charlie Meck is. In an industry with too many self-aggrandizing, egomaniac "celebrities" always looking to get something for themselves, Charlie is one of the exceptions. He is a good man who gives often to others. And I would be proud and lucky to call him my friend even if we didn't share a passion for aquatic insects and flyfishing.
Take a look at Charlie's books. He has written 15 of them. Many fishing writers name-drop in their books, trying to let their readers know how connected they are in our sport. But Charlie doesn't. He's much more likely to talk about some unkown fisherman's knowledge or accomplishments than to mention his many fly fishing celebrity friends or even his own accomplishments. And though Charlie is one of our sport's most recognizeable names, he is still the same person he's always been. Charlie is as freely giving with his time as he is with his money. He volunteers for the Wounded Warriors project. This group takes wounded military service members fishing, and Charlie is very proud to be involved. Recently, Charlie has been volunteering at a local high school, teaching the kids about aquatic entomology and fly fishing.
Charlie is often unaware of his importance to the fly fishing world. He is full of self-deprecating humor that often includes his unforgettable snorting laugh when he tells a story. One of my favorite stories happened a few years ago at the Rod and Gun Club. Charlie had spent the night there with a group of friends and was just leaving breakfast to go fishing when he suddenly felt strange. Charlie told me that he couldn't see, that he thought he was having a stroke. He tried to walk down the club's front porch stairs and his eyesight worsened. He fell. Charlie didn't know what was happening. Just then the bamboo rod builder, Walt Carpenter, appeared and said "Charlie! Are you alright? I think you're wearing my glasses!" Thankfully, Charlie was fine, but just telling that story here has me snorting and laughing.
Charlie doesn't consider himself a great angler, though I've listened to him extol the abilities of others often. But Charlie is as good as any angler I know when it comes to putting trout in their net. I've watched him pull fish out of what was the front lawn of the fishing lodge I managed after a flood ruined one of our trips. Charlie once taught a seminar in Montana, and he had to get a Montana guide's license to do it. I remember how excited he was, telling me how he never imagined that one day he would be a licensed guide in Montana. A few years ago, he was asked to attend a ceremony for the opening of a new fly fishing project area on a local stream. Charlie was surprised that they would even think to invite him and humbled by the many wonderful things the anglers said about him.
I have become very close to Charlie and his wife, Shirley, during the 15 years I've known them. If it wasn't for Charlie's support, advice, and constant encouragement, I don't believe I would have ever had a professional fly fishing career. He mentored me when I began writing, patiently teaching me how to become a better writer and never being critical to the point of discouraging me. He taught me much of what I know about entomology, always listening to my theories and observations and never dismissing them. When times were financially tough for my wife and me, as we tried to eek out a living in the Catskill Mountain's fly fishing arena, Charlie offered to buy as many flies as I could tie. He would have just given me the money I needed, but he knew that I would have never agreed to a loan. We made it through, and I didn't have to accept his kind offer. But how many people would do something like that?
Shirley Meck died in May 2010. I still miss her deeply. There were several times over the years when I told my wife that I was going to call Charlie, and I locked myself and the telephone in my tying room for an hour. When I reemerged, my wife would ask how Charlie was doing. But I didn't know. Charlie wasn't home. I had spoken to Shirley the entire time, listening to stories about their son Bryan or daughter Lynne and their children. Shirley often called me her "second son" when I called. I don't think she ever really knew how much that meant to me.
In many ways, we are living in fly fishing's golden age. Our streams are healthier than they've been in a generation. We have an amazing number of books, magazines, and web sites dedicated to our sport. Our tackle has never been better or more reasonably priced. But through all of our sport's growth and advancements perhaps no one shines brighter than my friend, Charles R. Meck. Thank you Charlie.
Visit Charlie's website here: http://charlesmeck.com/