Personal History

Personal History

True to Type

  • By: Seth Norman

True to Type

Should you judge a fly caster by his cover?

jWHITE, MID-20s, 6'2", 170 POUNDS: HE LOOKED “familiar by type” because I’d worked at a particular edge of the criminal justice system. I try not to credit that kind of sense (or to acknowledge it if I do), but this time I was prompted mainly by the slouch he affected as soon as he saw me walking toward where he stood on the housing association dock, well beyond a gate too often unlocked. It was pretty much a standard-issue “You looking at me?” pose that raised humps of muscle in his shoulders and stretched out his neck.

Not my problem, said the “sane” side of me my wife likes to encourage. Probably just looking around, and if it happened to be trespass, like I wasn’t invading golf course bass ponds at his age, right?

You bet. So, sane (and pious), I offered a “Live and let” abulation, and was halfway through “Let he without sin” when I saw the kid throw, of all things . . . a fly rod?

No way. But it was, and from its color and action it was old fiberglass, less parabolic than just limp from butt to tip.

Naturally I was embarrassed. First by my initial suspicion, then because a whiff of suspicion remained; and finally, because the fly rod made a difference to me and shouldn’t have.

My ennui ended a few seconds later when I recognized the caster, this time specifically: He was Roy, son of a friend of a friend of my mother’s. He’d once been pointed out to me from a distance, described as “a lost young man” who lived out of his mom’s garage while mooching off a union fund. Roy was then the primary suspect in a series of neighborhood car prowls . . . and now out on a dock where a half-dozen boats had recently been relieved of electronics and trolling motors, using a fly rod as a prop . . . .

Maybe, I repeated to myself, even as I ground enamel off my molars. Then Roy added insult to indignation. However awful the results of his efforts—and awful they were—Roy’s casting stroke was so clean and smooth I couldn’t help but think pure. All he was missing was a couple of basics . . . which also wasn’t my problem.

Roy stopped casting when I got close, staring away at the water—to present as little profile as possible, I thought—standing rigid as a plank. It took a moment to realize he was waiting for me to pass. I did, murmured “Thanks,” and walked on down to my boat at the end.

I cast for 20 minutes, testing two rods with new lines. I took no pains to observe Roy, but did, while tracing the loop of my backcasts, catching glimpses of him watching me. I’d like to have stayed until he left, but couldn’t, so started back down the dock.

This time Roy turned around. His expression was cool, his smile just shy of a smirk.

“Nothin’, huh?”

I shook my head. “Not today. Testing tackle.”

“Right,” he said, smirking harder.

Sometimes we surprise ourselves, sometimes other people. This time I did both. “Tell you what, I’ve been casting a long time, and I’ll never have a stroke as sweet as yours.”

Roy’s smirk remained, but his “cool” looked confused.


“Your basic stroke. Beautiful.”

He glanced out to where his line lay like a pile of crumpled kite string. “‘Beautiful.’ Right.”

And my job here is done, I thought happily, then shrugged. “For what it’s worth.”

I’d taken a step when he said, “Well if it’s so beautiful, what am I doing wrong.”

Eh. This wasn’t even posed as a question, but for some reason it mattered that he wanted to know. “That’s a soft rod. Wait a little longer to let the line load on your backcast. Pull forward smoothly when it does—you’re doing that now—and then speed up. Most important, stop the rod higher, let the line lay out, then drop the tip.”

He waited. “That’s it?”

“Pretty much.”

He repeated my instructions verbatim, then again, and a third time when, after flubbing a few pick-ups, he found control and cast.

“F --- ing . . . great,” he said softly. “F --- ing A.”

“Or something like that.”

“Oh. Yeah. Sorry.”

“Too late. I believe I will need to lie down.”

“What? Oh. Funny,” he said flatly, though I did think his smirk looked less unpleasant. “Hang on. I’ve been trying to get this down for a while, so you should watch a few more.”

Oh, should I? I wondered, but did—a dozen or two, more when he asked to learn the rollcast he’d seen me make.

Roy was a natural. A perfect mimic who, even better, could listen to an instruction and usually apply it first time through. He was also a journeyman carpenter who hated his work, his union and questions. My first take had been right: he shouted “F -- k!” every time he made a mistake and smoldered with a kind of anger I’d seen too often, too recently in a student on parole whose exit from class left blood on the wall.

This wasn’t a conversation. If judged only by his results, however, it certainly was a successful lesson.

Even Roy appreciated that. I can’t remember if he said anything like “Thank you,” but I promised myself not to forget his last boast: “I practice this a couple of hours, I bet I’ll be better than you are right now.” This was probably true, and such an apt way to summarize experience that this time it was my laugh that confused the cool of his smirk. The humor dissipated quickly enough that I drove away feeling detached and clinical, vaguely curious as to why I had a faint sense I’d fulfilled an unpleasant obligation. I’d have considered this more carefully had I thought it worth the effort.

True stories should end truly. Good ones with some kind of truth.

The truth: I didn’t hear about any more boats getting ripped off, though I may have missed reports. It’s true, too, that a few weeks later the mother-to-mother telegraph reported that Roy was proud of what he’d learned; and then, a month later, that he had “moved somewhere suddenly,” which prompted me to think jail.

Last week I walked the dock where I met Roy. I was thinking, Don’t think I’ll do that again, when I was surprised by Well I might, which left me wondering Why?

Detached again, and clinical, I wondered if, To show off what you know was a possibility, but the idea failed to resonate.

Another did. Maybe we do certain things, without expectation, because that’s who we are, or how we were raised, or because that’s who we want to be; because in time we embrace ethics and standards and codes of behavior we no longer think about much. That felt better, and right.

I’m as likely to see Roy again as a fish I’ve once caught and released. But I do see my face in the mirror, and occasionally it strikes me that I am “familiar by type,” which I hope is neither pose nor presumption, but true. w