The Fishing Gene

As I write this, my grandson Henry is 21, my son Stephen is 55 and I am 81. Together we add up to more than 150 years of fly fishing. I am sure there are other three-generation families that gather together to swap stories of rivers waded, waters rowed, fish caught, fish released and too many big-time misses. I think what makes our experience unusual is that we are still doing it, and we are still doing it together.


Even though more than 60 years separate us, we are often in the same drift boat on various Wisconsin rivers. As a threesome we pose a formidable force to the smallmouth bass, northern pike and muskies that haunt our waters. Henry has the eye of an osprey, while I see dimly through bifocal Oakleys. Stephen hears the tiny variants trout make feeding on the surface on moving water, while my ears sport trumpets, courtesy of Miracle Ear. My donation to our fishing composition these days is best described in the words of Henry: “Grandpa, you can still row.” They never disparage my miles of river and hours spent on the sticks. For as long as I am on the oars, they can fish.


Walter Isaacson, author of the The Code Breaker, calls this period of history “the age of the gene.” I am convinced that somewhere in the twisted helical structure of our DNA there lies a transmitted piece of heredity my wife calls “the fishing gene.” This genetic material reveals itself by its inheritor’s passionate desire to be on moving water. Unlike more serious addictions that often skip a generation or two, Henry, Stephen and I appear to possess genetic material in unbroken lineage. The three of us seem helpless to resist this obsession for all things piscatorial.


Along with our genetic predisposition to chase finny creatures, we share a few other traits. Each of us is intensely curious about the world around us and what lies around the next bend. We seize any opportunity to be active, rather than passive, in our pursuits. I am certain that curiosity led Stephen to jump on his sport bike a few years ago and, 14,000 miles and four months later, arrive in Santiago, Chile. Curiosity leads Henry, while not chasing a UW-Eau Claire bachelor’s degree, to explore any local water where he can bike or bum a ride. I think it was the same curiosity that led me during my seminary teaching stint to head west to Idaho’s Henry’s Fork, rather than summer amidst the malls of St. Paul.


Along with curiosity, each of us appreciate the web of skills that fly fishing requires. To do it well, or at least on the level to which we aspire, one must integrate a physics professor’s grasp of the elements of a graceful cast, the entomologist’s understanding of the life cycles of bugs and a limnologist’s mastery of moving water. When these things are mastered and woven together, they create a beautiful tapestry.


While the fishing gene has gifted us with more than a few common traits, our experiences together are flavored by some mutations. I am fairly certain that when I introduced Stephen, and Stephen introduced Henry, to cast with a fly, neither of them grasped any sense of the art or beauty of this new activity. I think it was all about the fun of doing something new. In hindsight, by learning to fish with something other than a worm and a cane pole, each might have sensed the great delight it brought to his parent when a Wilson Creek brook trout dangled from the fly.


Over the years Stephen, Henry and I have found ourselves in the company of folks that have owned these skills and were generous enough to share them. On the banks of some of America’s great rivers we learned from these giants. Mel Kreiger, fishing coach to world champions, refined our ability to double haul and roll cast. Mike Lawson, owner of Henry’s Fork Angler, Stephen and my boss, mentored us as guides and sharing his knowledge of reading water. Tom Helgeson, publisher of “Midwest Fly Fishing,” brought the package together and modeled the gestalt of it all. And on many occasions we read out loud from the books of Robert Traver, the Michigan judge, reprobate fly fisher and recognized curmudgeon, who surrounded us with stories of trout magic and madness.


What prompts this writing is not simply my musing on the fishing gene, but my need to express the delight I experience in moments spent with my son and grandson. It is rare when three generations get to cast a fly, set a hook, play and land a fish, and then release it to be caught another day. It is more than our floating and rowing. It is more than words shared and scenery passed. It is more than the Slim Jim’s and stale Wheat Thins we pass off for shore lunches. It is more than stream flows and cubic feet per seconds of water. It is more than rafts, jon boats and drifters.


In my old age, I know what it is. It is a blessing.


The concept of blessing has fallen on hard times these days. It has become the equivalent of good luck like a pat on the head, a payoff for a benevolent deed or an additional reward for a life of privilege. Yet blessing in its proper, Hebrew, biblical sense refers to being inseparably connected to what God is doing creatively in the world. Blessing involves God’s desire to bring us together into one. Not the same, but one.


When I get off the water with Henry, Stephen or both, I often pause before putting the car into gear and offer a brief prayer of gratitude for another day of grace. I have been doubly blessed. Indeed, we are not the same.


After time shared on the water, we are one.


- Don Wisner


Wisner, longtime campus pastor and liturgical scholar, is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and now resides in Eau Claire. He served Dr. Martin Luther Church in Oconomowoc for two years, Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Wisconsin-Stout for eight years and Lutheran Campus Ministry and University Lutheran Church, Ecumenical Religious Center in Eau Claire for 22 years. He taught worship and liturgical studies at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn., for 11 years.


During this time, he was the summer pastor at Chapel in the Pines and guided fly fishers for Henry’s Fork Anglers in Idaho.


Stephen teaches in the Chippewa School district and is owner of Eau Claire Anglers


Henry is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.