When I eventually write a book about my life as a fly fisher, I'll call it Greenleaf, after a small lake and stream in northeastern Oklahoma, 17 miles from my birthplace of Muskogee.
During the Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) constructed a 40-foot, earth-and-rock dam across Greenleaf Creek, and it quickly filled and formed a lovely 4-mile-long lake. According to my folks, who were often jobless during that era, it was one of the few good things that happened there.
My first fishing memory of Greenleaf is from not long after the lake was filled, when my dad, Joe, and granddad, Dee, caught a big stringer of largemouth bass and channel catfish while cane-pole minnow fishing. How exciting it was to have such great fishing so close to home. Often, over the next several years, dad and granddad took me to Greenleaf on weekends during school and several times a week during my summer vacations. We usually plug-fished for bass in the morning and evening, and through midday we'd tie up to some shady, bankside willows and fish for catfish with ripe chicken entrails and shrimp. I hated baiting my hook with that smelly stuff.
One year granddad built a 16-foot rowboat out of cypress and oak. It must have weighed 500 pounds when it was dry. Soon after that he bought a moody and smoky old Johnson 5-horsepower motor. It was wonderful because it allowed us to fish the entire lake, even into the remote upper end at the farthest point from the boat dock. But it was also terrible, because about half the time that old Johnson failed to start and we often had to row and paddle until after dark to return to the dock.
When we'd finally reach it, there was always the nightmarish task of lifting that water-laden wooden boat onto its homemade trailer. In those days boat trailers lacked tilts, winches, or rollers and getting the heavy wooden rowboat on the trailer was a four-man job. Granddad, a blacksmith and professional wrestler, had the strength of two normal men, and grandma and I made up for another. The final energy needed came from sheer determination.
When I was nine years old, I received my first fly rod, a 9-foot, three-piece warped and peeling bamboo. Almost from the start, I caught more fish with my fly rod than with my little 4-foot backlashing baitcaster. The fish I caught were smaller, but at that age size mattered little and fly fishing was immediately more fun than other methods. From what I had seen and read in granddad's L.L. Bean catalogs and Outdoor Life issues, fly fishing seemed a better alternative to backlashes and stink baits. I learned that in some ways my judgement was correct, but I also discovered that a fly rod has its share of physical and sociological disadvantages.
None of my family or friends fly fished, and after watching my spastic, line-tangling, rod-waving hookups on everything except fish, they decided that the fly rod was a lethal weapon: They banned me from fishing with it in granddad's boat. So, until I was 15, my fly fishing was confined to waters near home that I could reach by walking or riding my bike. On rare occasions I'd cajole my folks into taking me to the smallmouth bass creeks along Oklahoma's mountainous eastern border, and once we even went to the Roaring River Trout Park in Missouri.
Then, during the summer of my fifteenth year, something wonderful happened. I was fly fishing at Honor Heights Park Lake, near Muskogee, when a smiling, friendly boy, a little older than me, came up and asked me if I was catching anything. His name was Dick Storkes, a seventeen-year-old high school senior and lifeguard at the park pools.
Dick, much to my surprise and joy, was a fly fisher. In fact, he was the first real fly fisherman I had met. We became immediate friends, and that afternoon he asked me if I'd like to fly fish with him the next Saturday on Greenleaf Lake. Dick had a 1938 blue Chevy coupe, a driver's license, and a canoe. What more could anyone want?
I wanted to go to Greenleaf with Dick more than anything in the world, but my parents wouldn't give me permission until they met Dick and his parents. It didn't hurt when they heard that Dick was an honor student and an outstanding swimmer on the high school team.
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Of all my hundreds of trips to Greenleaf Lake, my first day with Dick was the most memorable, not only because of the great fishing, but also because it was also my first taste of adult freedom. Dick picked me up before dawn in his little blue Chevy with his beautiful, long, green canvas-and-wood Old Town canoe tied to the top. To my surprise, there was an attractive girl with him — his steady girlfriend Shirley, whom he promised could use his car after we'd launched the canoe at Greenleaf. I remember thinking, "How much more fortunate could a guy be than Dick? He's got everything: a car, a canoe, a fly rod, and a pretty girlfriend!"
The memory of that day with Dick is as vivid to me now as if it happened yesterday. I got to sit in the front seat of a car for the first time. Driving that familiar 17 miles with him was like going on an epic adventure.
Daylight approached as we pulled up to the lake's dock. After he untied the canoe, Dick asked me to "take hold of one end and help him lift it off the car's roof." The boat was as light as a feather compared to granddad's old boat. We packed our gear and lunch and said goodbye to Shirley. Dick had me get into the bow and gave me a few quick instructions about canoeing, and then we paddled out onto Greenleaf, as free as I'd ever been.
Few feelings I've ever had could match the ones I experienced that day. The sleek canoe moved across the water quietly, smoothly, and quickly on the lake's surface, beginning my 50-year love affair with canoes that has never dulled.
We covered nearly every inch of Greenleaf's shoreline that day with our bass bugs, bream flies, and lures. We caught largemouth and spotted bass, bluegill, green sunfish, warmouth bass, and crappie. I cannot recall a minute that one of us didn't have a fish on. It was paradise.
About two in the afternoon, we went for a swim to cool off, then sat in the water and ate our fill of the crispy, brown southern-fried chicken and fudge-chocolate cake that Dick's mother had prepared for our outing. Afterward, we took a nap in a nice grassy spot under the shade of a big oak tree, which turned out to be the only mistake we made that day-I'll tell you why in a moment.
We spent the late afternoon up in Greenleaf Creek, fishing the deep shady holes from the canoe and wading the cool, shallow riffles and runs. For me, fishing had never been better.
At sundown we started back across the lake to the dock to meet Shirley for the drive back to Muskogee. To my amazement, Dick swam the last three miles to the dock. We loaded up and headed home. That concluded my initiation into the free world of fly fishing, but the effect of our adventure was long-lasting for all three of us, because our midday nap had allowed dozens of chiggers to crawl up on us and then onto to Shirley on the ride home. The chiggers found their mark, and we all itched and scratched for a week.
My dad, granddad, and Dick are all gone now, but the lessons and experiences they and Greenleaf gave me about the value of friends and family, nature, good sportsmanship, and fly fishing remain fresh in my life. In appreciation for those gifts, I try to pass along the same excitement and enthusiasm to everyone I know.
Greenleaf still exists, not only in my mind, but because it was made a state park some years ago and it remains much the same as when I was fifteen. I try to visit there at least once a year with my own sleek, wooden, green Old Town canoe and someone I love. When I'm there, I can feel my dad's, granddad's, and Dick's presence, more than in any other place we shared.