Fucking. Hate. Holidays.
Sorry, there’s no better way to say it. I know a lot of words and I’ve tried every conceivable arrangement of nouns and verbs to properly express my sentiments toward this time of year; this is the only one that works. Hate ‘em.
It’s not the financial strain, because we do ok and the kids don’t want every toy in the world. It’s not the onslaught of family, because my people are spread so thin around the states that we never get to see each other. And it’s not the commercialization; lord knows this economy needs a swift kick in the ass.
It’s the people who aren’t there, the empty seats at the table. For me it’s their absence that defines the season.
My grandfather died when I was young. He was young, too. Kind of a tough shake. But while he was here we had some good times. He was the kind of person that made you feel that you were the most important thing on the planet.
We had our own little world, which is possibly the most important thing you can share with a kid.
Our existence was simple:
In our world we were notorious pranksters, caretakers of jokes that only we thought were hilarious. We held a strong belief that the best time to eat cookies was whenever you could eat cookies, and we tried to get as much Road Runner in as humanly possible. We adored each other’s company.
But above all else, we were fisherman. Anywhere, anytime, and as often as possible.
I don’t consider myself sentimental. I don’t have a lot of the trappings you’d normally find from a person who has enjoyed such a memorable and defining experience with someone. I have a couple of photos, a pocketknife, a picture of his horse, that type of thing. I don’t have a shrine in my house or anything like that.
What I do have is a box of poppers.Years ago my grandmother said I could look through his tackle box and take anything I wanted. I put it off for a few years. Not that it would be painful or bring back too many memories; I just don’t think I’m a good steward of stuff. Stuff is stuff, you know? If you run out, you go get more, and when there’s too much, you throw some out. It’s all part of the swag bag we get on the way to our graves. I just didn’t want my granddaddy’s stuff to be something I’d look at one day and say, “well, this is just crap taking up space…”
But I gave in and went through the tackle box anyway.
Inside was a good collection of spin gear, a nice knife and a smell that would overpower a dead maggot. I figured the kids would throw the spin gear sometime. I closed it up and took it home to go through later. When I got back around to looking through it, I found an old Martin automatic reel box at the bottom. I’d already found the reel, loaded with some old 6wt line and in desperate need of some attention, so I figured it was empty. As I picked it up to throw in the bin, I heard it rattle. Underneath the top I found a treasure trove of poppers. None of them were in great shape, which is what I’d expect to see in a tackle box that belonged to my granddad. These soldiers had been to the front. Some were chipped from back casts into rocks, feathers were gnarled and missing from toothy strikes from the deep, and many of the rubber legs had long since been stripped from their posts.So I set this box aside. I left it on my desk for months. It wasn’t trash, but it didn’t belong on a shelf. I didn’t put it in the boat, and I couldn’t just leave it in storage. I didn’t know what to do with it. I just left it right where it landed after I’d discovered it. It was in limbo.It’s kind of ironic that it was a box of poppers I found in my granddad’s box. I love throwing poppers. It’s by far my favorite fishing.There’s a calm that comes with popper fishing, a sort of trance you put yourself in when the only noise in the universe is that subtle splash as you work the fly across the face of the water, muddling the mirrored surface into a frenzy of ripples.
You pour all your focus into the slow, methodical strips that draw the fly toward your feet, alternating and undulating the pattern until some scaly beast blasts out of the water like a torpedo and ignites your reel in to a blaze of furious activity.
I don’t think you’re triggering a feeding response when you get a strike on a popper; it’s something more violent, something primal. It’s the chemical that makes creatures bare their teeth, dig in their claws, and shift their weight to their haunches. Popper fishing is a window into the soul. Not yours; theirs. It’s a vantage point from which the angler gets a brief glimpse of exactly what separates fish from accountants and dentists. It’s tapping onto the things we’ve forgotten on our journey to pay off our student loans and getting extended warrantees on our TVs. It’s simple and perfect.
Scurrying the wood methodically across the surface, I am the beautiful machine. I am the monkey with thumbs. I’m two-fisted gravity making those birds work for their trip. I am plugged the fuck in.
I don’t think my granddad planned for me to have his box of poppers; in fact I know he didn’t. At least not this way. We had a lot more fishing planned.
But I think it’s important that I did. It’s a reminder from my fishing buddy to see things for what they are, not what they aren’t.
Silence is the absence of sound. Drought is the absence of rain. Darkness is the absence of light. These words depress me. They’re weak, they’re spineless. They’re defined only by their lack of something. Is that how I want to define my holidays? With the all-encompassing beehive of activities that pummels the senses from November to January, is that how I really want to define two whole months of my life every year? By the absence of something?
My granddad knew better, and so should I. I’d like to think he planned for me to have this box of poppers sitting on my desk as a way of saying,
“Hey, stop. This is important. One day you’ll have a beautiful family, a faith, a mortgage, a political party, a check engine light and dreams that you can’t even imagine now. And all that shit’s important, that’s not my point. Just don’t forget this. Don’t forget popper fishing. Don’t forget being in that moment when you lose yourself in the process of working top water. Don’t forget that narrow funnel of focus as you strip the fly, no expectations of a strike, no preconceived notions of what monster will be stirred to the surface by your enchantments, just being a man living in a moment with his feet in the river. Don’t forget that.”
I can’t ignore that. And I won’t.
So this holiday season I’m going to try a reset. I’m going to be in the moment. Control. Alt. Delete.
The empty chairs won’t define the season for me this year; instead they’ll serve as a reminder to look my blessings in the eye and cherish them for every moment we have together.
I don’t have any great plans yet, but I’m just going to play it by ear. You want to get a wreath, honey? Sure, get two. I don’t plan on going all out but I’m just going to make my approach with an open mind.
First and foremost, though, I’m going to take out this box of poppers and get ‘em all good and wet.