Tight Lines, by Debbie Clarke Moderow. January 1, 2016.01 Jan 2016, by Dog Journeys in
There he was: standing alongside our wood-sided station wagon, dressed in his faded khakis and gabardine fishing shirt. Dad smiled and handed me my fly rod.
“See you two just after dark,” he said. “When you girls hear me honking the horn scramble up to the road. I’ll find you.” Then my father blew my mother a kiss, squeezed my arm, and said the words that the three of us would exchange for years to come: “Tight Lines.”
“To you too,” we replied. Then Dad grinned, got into the car, and sped away.
My father was heading off on his own angling adventure, leaving me and Mom on the bank of the Neversink River for an afternoon of mother-daughter fishing. I was six years old, maybe seven. That might have been the first time the three of us exchanged “Tight Lines,” but it wasn’t the last. We’d send each other off fishing with those words for decades to come. Like “Merry Christmas” or “Happy New Year,” the greeting delivered a multi-dimensional wish.
“May you wade deep against the current and cast the perfect Ratface McDougal over the still water beneath the cut bank,” Dad meant that day. “May a big brown trout slurp up your fly and may you hook it—connect with the mighty fish with a taught steady line. May you play that fish with skill—so your line doesn’t tangle in a messy web of knots. If you can get your fish into your net, tomorrow morning you can roll it in cornmeal and have trout fried in salt pork for breakfast.”
Dad loved everything about flyfishing, but when he said “Tight Lines” it wasn’t only about bringing home breakfast. He was delivering a spirited reminder, to watch for swallows skimming the water, feeding on mayflies hatching. To remember to see if the tiny tadpoles in the eddies along the bank had grown legs. To watch at sunset for long shadows finning against the cut bank—to be ready for the big one who might rise to my fly at dusk. In saying “Tight lines,” Dad reminded me to pay attention, to the river and the multitude of creatures that called her waters their home.
Twenty years later— and three thousand miles away from the Neversink—I walked away from a friend in his workshop. “Time to head out on ten mile training run with the dogs,” I told him, “I’d like to be home before dark.
“Tight Lines,” he replied.
The sound of his words stunned me. Surely he did not just utter the sacred family phrase that belonged to a different era. But he did—this time in the context of mushing.
“Go out there Debbie,” he meant, “onto the winter trail with Lucy and Lil Su, Cowboy, Modo, Sarabi, Creek, and Babylon. As you travel through the frozen swamps toward the creek, may your dogs all be pulling, their lines tight. Find your balance on the runners and remember the overflow near the railroad tracks. Watch for that cow moose who’s been hanging out in the spruce trees.” He was wishing me the best of runs—and we both knew that the waning December light on a wilderness trail was always full of surprises.
Today is January 1, 2016. During the past twenty four hours, as one year has turned to the next, I’ve thought much about my parents and their words, “Tight Lines.” The message is timeless, one that reaches beyond the trout stream, the dog trail, and the trail out my back yard. Whether you live in the city or the country, in the northern hemisphere or south, may the upcoming year’s escapades beyond your door be grand. The specifics don’t matter—whether watching a nuthatch alight in an urban park, or looking up to the night sky while walking your dog—every excursion is an opportunity to connect with wildness.
Here’s to going out there and paying attention—and in the waning light before dusk, don’t forget to watch for surprises.
Happy New Year. And Tight Lines.