When it’s hot and humid I remember going fishing with Uncle Tip. I was a teenager living with my parents on a small, hilly farm in Tennessee about a mile from the Cumberland River. A number of my aunts and uncles lived up and down the road from us. Uncle Tip, whose real name was Clifford Settle, was married to Aunt Eunice, one of Daddy’s sisters. They had retired to the country, and their son and grandchildren lived hours away. So Uncle Tip decided to teach me to fly-fish in the river.
Fishing in the Cumberland was no fancy affair of expensive rods and reels, waders and L.L. Bean paraphernalia. Uncle Tip had a small bass boat, a jon-boat as they were called, green metal with aluminum seats which got hot in the sun, and a bass motor, too small to pull a water-skier but powerful enough to putter up and down the river. We would go out early in the morning or late afternoon. Invariably it was quite hot, so I wore cutoff jeans and a t-shirt, and Uncle Tip wore a cotton sport shirt with his work khakis and a Telephone Pioneers baseball cap to shelter his freckled face.He took the boat upriver to whatever looked like a good spot, usually where a tree had fallen off the bank into the water, and there were shady spots from the other trees leaning over. The fish liked to lurk in the shade once the day got warm, and our job was to tempt them to the surface with a carefully placed fly, letting it drift for a while as the boat drifted with the current.
Uncle Tip taught me to hold the fly-rod lightly and flick it with my wrist, not my shoulder, so as to place the fly more accurately—and so as not to snag his hat, his shirt, a tree branch, or other obstacles in the way, as I frequently did at first. He always put a neon-colored plastic popper on the line so you could see if the fish grabbed it before you felt it, since we were letting the line drag. I didn’t catch very many fish, but to me that was unimportant. There was something hypnotic about floating along, watching the line, then raising the rod to move the lure to a more promising place.
Eventually Uncle Tip said, “Connie, want to go for a ride?” I always said, “Yeah, sure, if you have time.” He always had time. We reeled in our lines, he put our catch in his creel, and we headed down the river. Uncle Tip went just fast enough for us to feel the breeze. I sat back and let it blow my hair away from my face. He pointed out whose farm or house we were passing. Parts of the river were more heavily wooded, oaks, elms, maples, cedar trees.
Once I saw a white and grey hawk perched on a branch of a log in the river. It looked like a ghost of a hawk, sharp-featured and keen but white with grey shadows. Uncle Tip called it a “fish hawk.” As we looked it dove off the branch and skimmed the river. It didn’t catch a fish, and returned patiently to its branch.
After a half hour at most, Uncle Tip would turn the boat around and we headed back to the boat slip. I waded up the ramp, pulling the boat, conscious of the river’s tug on my calves.