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Lessons Learned Fishing with Mom

For those fortunate enough to have a “river rat” mother, time spent on the water means the world.

Lessons Learned Fishing with Mom

A fortunate son and his fishy mom. (John Fedorka photo)

The snow-hinting clouds hung low around the valley when mom’s plane landed near the end of February. She was in town to visit my homesick younger sister who followed me to Bozeman. I think everyone in the valley was missing their mother at this point. Weird and moody vibes among the populace were abundant. And the psyche-torturing yo-yo weather patterns made me wonder if a higher power had the mentality of a young boy with a magnifying glass hovering over an ant hill.

I’m lucky to see mom three or four times a year. Usually early or mid-June for salmon flies, mid-July for phenomenal all-around dry-fly fishing and again in early September for hoppers or streamer fishing. But since this time was an impromptu visit, I wasn’t expecting to spend much time with her. I explained I would be happy doing dinner but it would be an egregious sin if we didn’t get a few hours of fishing in. Mom agreed, and we settled on the following afternoon.

I’ve always cherished moments spent driving with mom, a favorite childhood pastime of mine. After church we’d explore our home area as she shared stories of her past. Occasionally, we took drives for other reasons, often along the river. Inevitably we’d find a secluded spot–sometimes we’d run and play, other times we’d have heartfelt discussions about life. But in the end and at our own pace, we were entranced by the river. Our minds and bodies completely absorbed in its beauty, as if our consciousnesses had transcended to another realm deep in the vastness of the universe.

Snapping back to the feeling of gravity and sound of laughter, oftentimes unsure of where we went but upon arriving back to Earth having some sort of deeper understanding of it all. There is so much to be gained and lost from a river if you embrace its nature.

Perhaps this is why I’ve always loved a leisurely drive in Montana. Regardless of the season, the landscape is consistently stunning and I often find solace in it. As a teenager, mom often let me listen to music in the house or car as loud as the speakers would blare so long as it was “good music.” Pink Floyd always fit that criteria and complimented the melancholic Montana weather as mom and I shared another one of these rides together. Roger Water’s high note in the car with mom makes all worries of the world melt away.

Mom was a “river rat” back home, a badge local kids wore proudly. She was born and raised in Port Jervis, New York. Her father was a dedicated carp fisherman who made his own bait out of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Kool-Aid, and a select few other ingredients. She often tagged along, flipping rocks, catching crayfish, tadpoles, and stonecats when she wasn’t busy reeling in the big one as she often still manages to do.

She was young when her dad passed away due to brain cancer complications. We wouldn’t learn about that or his tragic departure until later in life. Though, when my sisters and I were giving a hard time about kissing our parents good night she gently reminded us, “You never know, you might wake up and mommy or daddy might not be here.”

Her mother would remarry and relocate them on the Pennsylvania side of the river, along Rose Lane. My earliest memories are of this house, and the large powerful early-spring river moving indifferently and forever changing. It often swept what would have been obstacles downstream. Sometimes people–sometimes forever. I felt its power early on and haven’t been able to shake it since.

Mom must have sensed this power, too. Whenever my friends and I were on the river she would drop whatever she was doing at the sound of sirens. Even absent the sirens, she’d occasionally “have a feeling,” showing up unannounced. Her voice piercing across the broad river for me to get down from the tree some 70 feet above that I was daring to leap from at the famous Eddy Farm’s cliffs. I would comply with her request acknowledging her with a casual “Hey mom!” as I flew through the air.




A woman wearing a blue coat in a drift boat holding a rainbow trout for the camera.
Mom with a lovely Upper Delaware River rainbow. (John Fedorka photo)

On mom’s 60th birthday, I would learn a bit about life I thought I understood as her friends stood raising glasses and sharing stories. I learned that my competitive and adventurous nature did not come from my dad but from mom who despite driving to Eddy Farms to scold me, did the same thing as a bikini clad adolescent never to be outdone by her male counterparts.

Despite her concerns about the cliffs, she taught me to push boundaries and never back down. She believed in confronting obstacles head-on, even if it meant enduring painful setbacks. She emphasized the importance of resilience and the value of getting back up and moving forward, a lesson she continues to instill in me to this day.

A Day in Bear Trap

Pulling into one of the unofficial parking spots near the Bear Trap Canyon stretch of Montana’s Lower Madison River, we notice a nearby angler preparing for his day. Having fished with mom over the years I had encountered similar situations before, so I didn't pay much attention to the man who seemed too eager to approach the female angler. His curiosity and fascination were evident, as if he had never seen a woman let alone a female one.

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These encounters are starkly contrasting when women are not involved. Both anglers understand to stay out of each other’s way and let one another get their minds right on the river. Or if they’re feeling social, offering a mutual respect as savvy anglers off the beaten path as opposed to an eagerness to display a self-perceived authority.

She peels line off a beat up but well-loved Ross reel, folding it and then feeding it through the guides of my favorite Tom Morgan-era Winston 5-weight. Our fellow angler engages in the customary pleasantries before turning to my mom and remarking, "That's nice, so you're learning to fish today."

Mom is a humble person with a self-deprecating sense of humor. But she was never one to suffer ignorance. I could tell she did not appreciate his question, “No. I was raised on a river and have fished my entire life, thank you.”

But the man continued patronizing her, “Oh that’s nice, dear.”

As she ties the quickest double surgeons knot and nymph rig I’d ever seen, the man continues asking about hot flies. I try and give him a shot at redemption, “You should ask her. She’s been slaying them the past week.”

I humored him offering the typical standbys, but followed that up with, “You know how it is,” carefully annunciating, “as long as you get those flies down and that drag free drift.”

We wish each other luck and our fellow angler heads downstream.

I had seen this behavior before, while working for the iconic but now-shuttered Bozeman Angler. Co-owner Pam King was a serious angler who had been around the globe, and she knew the river systems in Southwest Montana and their trout. Men would walk in and ask about the fishing, while Pam and I stood near. Pam would begin offering golden nuggets of knowledge that they casually ignored directing their eye contact towards me.

I could relate to an extent as the youngster of the shop. When the sunbaked, unshaven guides, sporting sun-bleached hats pulled low to disguise moderate hangovers were around, the tourist had no interest in anything I had to offer. This type of thing can be taxing on your psyche especially if it happens with any regularity. And so, even if I was knowledgeable to whatever the inquiry was concerning, I’d make a point to consult Pam. Pam always took it in stride.

A woman in a drift boat holding a large brown trout for the camera.
Full hearts and big brown trout. (John Fedorka photo)

Walking down the river with mom that day, I’m chit-chatting when she barks out, “What a dick!”

I let out a hard laugh and ask, “What was that mom?”

She responds in a mocking tone, “Are you learning how to fish today? ... Who is he kidding? Just because I’m a woman I don’t know how to fish? Bastard!”

I cautioned her, “Mom, he can still hear us.”

“Good. Fuck that guy,” she declared.

She brushes it off though, just as she had countless times before.

Mom doesn’t fish much back East in the off season. The Upper Delaware is usually a late-March through October game. The fishing is still good but the anglers have an understanding and give the trout some reprieve from a busy season. I’m wondering how long it will take for her to knock the rust off of her casting stroke. And though she’s a serious angler, she is a notorious klutz who will find even the slightest variance on otherwise level ground and then trip over it. That day was different, though. She traversed the river with purpose. Kicking the heavy flows of the Lower Madison as if she were going to part it with each step, all while eyeing a fishy looking run on the other side.

She placed us within visual distance of the other fisherman; closer than I’d normally opt for, but I think mom wanted to be near enough for him to see her with a bent rod. I did too.

The canyon is a natural amphitheater for its rushing waters whose song carve through its rocky gullet. When you start, it’s almost all-consuming. But then and without realizing, the music fades into a low-level hum. There’s not much talk now. She rips line off the reel with vigor, shaking it from the rod tip as the current pulls everything downstream. She snaps a forward cast with a little extra something on it, takes one back cast and then shoots the line forward placing the flies perfectly. So much for rust.

After a few timely mends, the indicator shoots down and she quickly snaps the rod back into a deep bow. She’s smiling now, giggling between stripping and reeling line onto the reel. The music of the rushing river never seized, but a silence is broken when I holler. The trout plays along too, breaking water.

Coaxing the fish to net, mom marvels at the beautiful hen rainbow trout and its subtle differences from our home trout of the Upper Delaware River. Gently taking the Prince Nymph from her lip, we admire her metallic pink cheeks which extend to a broad and elegant flank. Perhaps the most exquisitely evolved camouflage in the natural world. When she’s ready, the trout gracefully slips back into the deep current, her sleek form blending seamlessly into the darker waters, leaving behind any expectations or pressures to make the day memorable with mom.

Standing alongside I gently squeeze her shoulder a few times, “Nicely done Mom!”

“Right? Not bad for an old lady,” she laughs.

A woman holding a plump rainbow trout in a rocky canyon and river.
"Not bad for an old lady." (John Fedorka photo)

I inconspicuously look upstream and our stranger friend has taken notice which he will do over and over through those next hours.

The mild weather the previous few days seemed to have the fish turned on. Each fishy looking lie seemed to produce. After the first few fish, I lay back on celebrations. Our fellow angler had seen mom doing her thing. He changes flies a half dozen times and beats the same water fruitlessly. An allegory for his life. His technique worked in the past, how come they didn’t work today? He pondered that thought never realizing the river was forever changing and he was not. I consider heading upstream to point out promising new water though resolve to let him pursue his own strategy.

We take pictures of the last trout simply to document the day. Shortly after resolving to head to Belgrade where we’ll meet my good friend Dudley, whom mom refers to as my Montana brother, and my younger sister Kelly at the Mint Bar.

Walking back to the vehicle, the canyon’s gentle breeze carries a faint aroma of sage hinting at warmer days to come and I’m feeling less skeptical. Stripping gear off and getting ready for the ride back our fellow angler arrives. I wonder if he’s had any revelations after bearing witness to mom’s banner day.

He politely mentions, “You had yourself quite a day. Every time I looked up you were hooked into another trout.”

Mom continues about her business not yet offering eye contact.

I laugh stoking the fire a little, “Yeah, she’s a quick learner.”

She shoots me a sharp look and half grin. A look I’ve seen a million times that translates to a number of things but usually something like, “John Michael, you smart ass! Knock it off!”

I thought I had given him an out but he continued, “What kind of flies were they keying in on?”

I think about how dad taught my mom and recall how it wasn’t just dad who taught me but mom’s words who made it click for my casting stroke. I remember her reading entomology books, cleaning fly line, and practicing knots at home. The countless hours she had spent in our yard or the local river perfecting her technique on eager smallmouth in preparation for her weekly Upper Delaware trips and annual western trips.

She once broke her wrist on a remote section of the lower Green River. Another time she calmly hooked and released a bat during a salmonfly hatch. She narrowly evaded hungry early spring grizzlies on Duck Creek and faced off against bull snakes on the Ruby River. She once stumbled upon an unsuspecting and irritated badger near $3 Bridge. Not to mention the many foul weather float trips we’d been on. All of these incredible experiences which this man casually dismissed with his earlier question.

Two anglers walking through tall willows in a mountainous landscape.
Evading grizzly bears on Yellowstone's Duck Creek. (John Fedorka photo)

I think about all of this and more in that fraction of time when mom looks him deadpan in the eyes and boldly states, “It’s not about the flies.”

“Ho ho hooookay,” he says in a mocking tone.

It was no use, he didn’t get it despite mom laying it out there perfectly. Like the wandering tourists at the Bozeman Angler he would rather continue blindly, holding onto his ideas. I wish him well and he walks away.

As we readied to leave the canyon with our hearts full after sharing another memorable day on the water, it nagged my mind and I wondered how he ended up the way he did. Stagnant, unlike the river. Stepping into the Jeep, I had exhausted a number of scenarios and possibilities but was left only to assume that the poor bastard never had a mother and that I was one fortunate son.


John Fedorka lived for nine years in Montana where he attended Montana State University and worked at the Bozeman Angler. He currently lives in Shohola, Pennsylvania, near the Upper Delaware River.

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