A long, long time ago, I was an avid skier. As a teenager living in the Black Hills, I spent my winters racing down Deer Mountain pretending to be Franz Klammer in the ‘76 Winter Olympics.
It was what I did and who I was.
At the time, I didn’t understand that life is a book comprised of many chapters. I thought I would always be a skier and that my obituary would include the words, “80 years old” and “tragic ski jumping accident.”
The “Ski Bum” chapter of my life lasted until I graduated from college, which eventually led to another chapter called, “Get a Job and Pay Off My Student Loans.”
It wasn’t until I was well into my twenties that I discovered fly fishing. From the moment I cast a Royal Wulff into Rapid Creek and coaxed a trout to take it, I was hooked. This turned out to be the beginning of a new and very lengthy chapter called, “All Things Trout.”
For several years, I tried to learn everything there was to know about fly fishing. My favorite subjects included the art of casting, the entomology of trout streams and obscure, but essential, knot tying. I taught myself how to tie flies and stockpiled an impressive collection of elk hair and rooster feathers. Living in the Black Hills meant fishing 12 months out of the year. (Yes, it is possible to fly fish in January if you are crazy enough.)
Then, I moved 350 miles across the state.
The next chapter of my life, better known as “The Pheasant Years,” was a lot like my skiing and fly fishing chapters in that I was very enthusiastic—almost to the point of being obsessed. If I was going to spend the rest of my adult life on the eastern side of the state, I had to adapt to my surroundings. So, every pheasant season—from the third weekend in October to the first weekend in January—I chased birds through cornfields, prairie grass and cattails.
Pheasant hunting allowed me to reconnect with my old college friends. It gave me a good excuse to buy an overpriced hunting dog…and then another. I met a farmer who was kind enough to let me hunt on his land, and saw firsthand how production agriculture and wildlife habitat can coexist.
This chapter has lasted twenty years and is still being written today.
Another chapter started long ago is called, “The Ways of the Whitetail.” It is a meandering story that takes place in several different counties across South Dakota as I try to bag the proverbial buck of a lifetime—the one worthy enough to embody all the frigid mornings and evenings I have spent waiting for “the one.”
There is also a very short chapter of my life called “Ice Fishing.” It is only three sentences long. It reads: “Too cold. Too slow. Too many other things I could be doing that don’t require a propane heater.” I may revisit this chapter some day in the future, but I doubt it.
Recently, I went back to the Black Hills for a quick fly fishing weekend with my son. I try to make at least one or two of these trips every year. I still consider myself to be a fly fisherman because I engage in the sport from time to time, but I am not actively living it. Not like I used to.
When I was writing the “All Things Trout” chapter in my life, the sentences seemed to have more meaning. I told my son I used to watch the daily flow rate out of Pactola Dam to see if Rapid Creek was too high or too low to fish. I knew when the mayflies would be hatching on my favorite stretch of water. I told him how I used to keep my waders hanging in the front hall, which were never there long enough to dry out before the next time I want fishing.
I spoke like it was a lifetime ago. And, in a way, it was.
These days, when I fish the Black Hills, it feels like I am reading an old chapter of a very familiar book. It is good, but not quite the same.
I don’t know what chapters lay ahead of me. I don’t foresee “The Pheasant Years” ending any time soon—at least not while I still own two high maintenance hunting dogs. Perhaps there will be a chapter entitled, “Archery at Any Age” or “Turkey Time.”
Like any good book, not knowing is what keeps me turning the pages.