November 17, 2021
This article was originally title "Fashion Plate" in the June-July 2013 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
Some time ago, I found a photograph of my father and Uncle John. The picture was taken in the 1950s when my family lived in Madawaska, Maine, in what appears to be the house my parents rented. I think at the time my family consisted of only my parents, my younger brother, and me.
The vintage of the photograph matters because it places my father somewhere in his late thirties. Uncle John would have been a year or two older. Both, now gone, were young men by my reckoning—or so I think as I near sixty.
Each man is holding up two large brook trout, the result of a day’s outing somewhere in or near the Allagash. As you know, by today’s standards, one does not usually display dead fish. It’s a faux pas in this age of catch-and-release. Today, displaying dead trout is akin to asking someone how many guns they own. Here, in rural northern Maine, where almost every household has a rifle, shotgun, or pistol, it’s considered bad form for someone to ask if, what, or how many, unless the subject is properly broached. Gun etiquette, however, is a subject for another day.
The fish are also interesting because they are what my late brother called “troglodytes”—prehistoric, archetypal trout of such prodigious age, length, and weight that one only finds them in the cold, remote recesses of unnamed calciferous ponds. These Jurassic trout would seriously strain a 7-weight rod, let alone the 3- or 4-weights we are accustomed to using for brook trout these days.
The clothing worn by the Wylie brothers caught my attention. John is attired in a light-colored plaid wool shirt and a pair of khakis. I somehow have a recurring memory of him always wearing something similar, spring, summer, and fall.
I’m told my father was a bit of a dandy in his youth. He had movie-star good looks as a young man, and in the photo has on a plaid Pendleton shirt tucked into Marine Corps cargo pants. He is, if one can say this about one’s father, the drop-dead pinnacle of fly-fishing fashion. Just enough wear, not too much. Nothing pressed, but nothing too rumpled either; classic Maine fly fisherman’s gear of an ancient, established order.
Both men epitomize a bygone aristocracy of fly fishing. Both were nature’s aristocrats. They were each other’s best friend, a rare fraternity indeed.
Uncle John was always cheerful and companionable, seldom failing to find something odd or amusing in his surroundings. He would have been the ideal person to pair up with on a hard slog up a backwoods brook or through a sulfurous bog. Nary a word of complaint from John I heard—always game. One only imagines what sort of crewman he was, flying U-boat patrol off Newfoundland during the war.
My father’s nature was of a different sort, complex and changeable. He and I enjoyed a conflicted relationship that greatly troubled my mother, who in a moment of complete exasperation said we were too much alike to get along with each other. I politely disagree, and not because agreement would deal me a backhanded compliment either.
My father was a brooding man. Intellectual, well-read, often brilliant in conversation, witty, funny and wise, he could also be cruel, hurtful in his assessment of his children, disappointed with himself and me. I described him to a friend, noting the physical afflictions that kept him from military service during the war; blindness in one eye, hobbled by a childhood bout with polio, and chronic osteomyelitis. He walked with a cane. Some, in the unblinking cruelty of the day, called him a cripple.
“He sounds like Odin,” commented the friend. Being a fan of Wagner’s Ring, I suddenly saw my father transformed into a latter-day Wotan.
“That’s him,” I thought. “A god in his own way; kind, cruel, and unpredictable.”
From all my reading into Norse mythology and the sagas of Icelanders, the mercurial Odin stands out, worshiped out of caution. One was advised not to take to him as one does a house pet.
I paint my father in broad strokes that don’t fully describe the man. I will say that in spite of his infirmities, he never hesitated at an opportunity to go fishing, nor ever retreated from any obstacle, natural or man-made, that would hinder him from casting a fly. Ultimately, I believe it was his reason for living. The rest of life was a support system designed to make it happen.
That support system reluctantly included my mother. She tolerated being a fishing widow for part of her married life, eventually encouraging it simply because having him underfoot—bad-tempered and morose—was worse than his absence.
I think it came to her one Mother’s Day, when she’d finally had enough, “Austin, go away. You’re driving me crazy.”
It’s certain my father made a few obligatory protestations before calling up John or whoever was available, piling gear into the Rambler station wagon, and becoming so very definitely, irrevocably gone. That process became ritualized into a domestic form of kabuki focusing on holidays and certain other engagements. Eventually, my father wouldn’t even bother hanging around, and instead would meet his brother or other prospective fishing partners at Daigle’s Drugstore, the local coffee shop. From there, plots were hatched, locations verified, timetables established.
In no uncertain way, the process became something of a liberating experience for my mother. She became a teacher, owned and drove her own car, managed her own finances, and lived a completely separate life from her husband while maintaining what I considered a generally happy marriage—all of this occurring before the Women’s Liberation Movement. But that too, like gun etiquette, is a subject for another day.
This is a lot of information streaming from a single photograph. What the picture of the Wylie brothers circa 1957 conveys is a vast range of experiences, relationships, consequences going well beyond an image of two nattily attired brothers and four humongous brook trout. On the surface, the clothing caught my eye, and I’ve since started copying an updated version of my father’s style, finding it far more practical outdoors than the jeans and cotton shirts I wear working on a boat. Nor does the term “fishing shirt” indicate the final stages of a garment’s life.
The photo also captures something of the relationship between les frères Wylie, just as another photograph shows the essential relationship between my late brother and me. In that particular picture, we are seated on the hood of my old Land Cruiser, fly rods in hand, me mugging self-consciously while Glen stares deadpan into the camera lens. (True to today’s ethos, no trout were killed or harmed in the making of the photo.)
The image was captured for some trout-related contest Glen wanted us to enter. We weren’t selected. I think we lacked the polished veneer of fishing newbies or some other unknown quantum of fly-fishing aesthetics. At this point, I no longer care, simply because I’m grateful to have the photo. It reminds me of my late brother, also my best friend and arguably the finest fly fisher I ever knew. But this opinion, like gun etiquette and Women’s Liberation, is a subject for another day.
The two pictures hang on the wall of the boat shop, close enough to the other that they suggest a sequence, almost a changing of the guard, if you will. One might intimate that certain familial themes repeat themselves; that brotherhood and fly fishing and death and loss are part of my family’s saga, like a shared taste in clothing.
While communicating with another brother of mine, quite alive and kicking, I called to mind the photo of Dad and Uncle John, saying they possessed “the look.” The clothing plays its part and so do the expressions on their faces, the similarity in appearance, and so forth. It’s pretty evident they’re brothers and very close. I don’t envy them because I’ve experienced my own version of what’s in the photo.
Nice duds. Great look.
I wonder if Pendleton still makes that pattern . . .
Dave Wylie lives in St. David, Maine, where he fishes, and builds handcrafted wooden drift boats.