The best fisherman you never knew left us early one morning, slipping out quietly like he did all of those times when a fiery slice of the sun hadn't yet broken the horizon but he already had his first cast in the water.
The best fisherman you never knew departed at that moment when night stubbornly bleeds into day, and when mist and fog and darkness blend into this magical soup and create a palette where we see more with our minds than with our eyes.
The best fisherman you never knew would not want anyone fussing over him or making something grandiose of his passing, so he probably chose the time when most everyone was asleep, and then left this world simply by closing his eyes for a final time.
It was around 4:30 when he died, but the exact time hardly matters because he knew that the fish in the creek, the deer in the hill country and the squirrels in the woods didn't wear watches. Over his life he had memorized the natural clock that controlled the seasons, the patterns and movements of wildlife, and the moods of the fish in his favorite stream.
The best fisherman you never knew could place a dry fly just under a tangle of willows using a textbook roll cast perfected in the unforgiving tight quarters of the West Virginia mountain creeks. He could look at a stretch of water and tell you where the depth changed, where the current got sneaky fast and where the biggest smallmouth bass would be waiting in ambush.
The best fisherman you never knew taught dozens of kids to revere the land, the woods and the water. He taught them to fish and relish the experience, not the weight of the stringer at day's end. He taught them to love the quiet of the forest, the chatter of water pounding over the rocks as it charged out of the mountains toward the Ohio River, and to always read what the sky was trying to tell them.
The best fisherman you never knew had no children of his own, but yet they were all his ? nieces, nephews, neighbors or just a trio of young fishermen along the side of the bridge who one day needed help retrieving a line stuck in a tree. He stopped, loosened the Windsor knot on his tie, rolled up the sleeves of that starched white shirt and never worried about the crease in his suit pants as he worked that line free.
He cared about them all, showed them all how to track a fox in the snow, where to pick wild berries and how to identify poison ivy from a safe distance. More importantly, he also taught them about true sacrifice, giving up his personal life to remain close to home and care for his aging and chronically ill parents and his mentally retarded younger sister, all while maintaining a lofty corporate post in the Fortune 500 world.
The best fisherman you never knew was also the best rifle marksman. He could shoot a skunk out of the garden from 30 yards away, in the dark, using only a peep sight and a flashlight he held between his neck and his shoulder. And the shot was perfect, allowing the skunk no time to leave its calling card.
The best fisherman you never knew was my uncle Jim World War II veteran, actuarial genius for Allied Chemical, handsome and witty, and one of the legitimate great guys.
By the time the kids he taught to fish became adults, arthritis had stolen his graceful casting skills and deteriorating eyesight made his rifle shots less true, but he maintained that sense of humor and the spark that made him a pied piper those now grown younger relatives still wanted to follow.
Once the confusion of dementia slipped its claws around him, we could feel the Jim we knew fading away. He would sit by the window, blanket across his lap, and just gaze out at the pond like he knew there were fish hiding near the cattails, but he just couldn't get to them.
The best fisherman you never knew spent his last days folded into a wheelchair, unable to exist without the help of others.
Age and disease had swiped his keen knowledge of the streams and his precise mental map of the woods we used to hunt. When Alzheimer's completed its sinister deed, it had drained his memory bank, silenced his speech, and erased his brilliance and his powder dry wit ? but it couldn't steal that twinkle in his eye.
You see the best fisherman you never knew taught a gaggle of kids just what to do ? in the water, in the woods, and in the world ? and they won't forget him, or that sparkle.
In the chill of one otherwise nondescript pre-dawn morning, Jim was gone, but he didn't leave us. He just went to a place where we hope they go fishing every day.
Matt Markey is the A-T outdoors columnist.
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