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Bonded By Wild Land And Water: A Son Remembers His Dad

Flyfishing Columnist Liam Diekmann Imparts Wisdom Beyond His Years

O'Dell Creek in the Madison Valley of Montana

In June 2004, I went fly fishing for the first time on Mill Creek in Montana with my Dad and brother.  By the end of the day, I was pissed because Logan, who is older than me, had invaded my fishing hole and stolen fish I thought were mine.

I had been working an eddy behind a big boulder without success. The fish were there.  I could see them. And then Logan moved up behind me. He made one cast into the hole and immediately hooked a monster brown trout.  When I told the story to Dad, he became angry and responded with one of his classic reactions: “WTF?”

My Father respected etiquette and promoted good manners. When you find a fishing hole and get there first, he told us, it temporarily belongs to you—you don't invade a hole where someone else is fishing, even if you are a big brother. What my Dad said is it provides a reason to get up earlier, get to the river, and learn how to read good water. 

I’m thinking of my Dad now and the lessons he taught me as I write this first column. This is the time of the year when the three of us would be together on rivers or mountain lakes somewhere in the West. 

I’m entering my last year of school but fishing has been my life, more important to me than other things I do outside.  It was the thing I did with my Father, Alex Diekmann. The last time we waded into a stream together was on September 5, 2015 at O’Dell Creek in the Madison Valley of Montana. 

It is the place where we spread his ashes in June 2016.

On that day, I realized fly fishing is more than just my “hobby”; it’s a lifestyle and part of my identity when I think about my relationship with Dad. Seeing him out on the river for the last time a few months before he passed brought tears to my eyes—the thought of it still does—because he carved time out just to be there with us, at a time when he was fighting for his life.  It wasn’t the fishing that gave him relief.  What we shared I can’t easily put into words.

Fly fishing, thanks to him, brings peace to me, joy, and a feeling of being home, knowing that my Father is always by my side for every cast of the line. I can hear him. Still.  From the first to the last cast with my Dad, my eyes were opened to a new beginning.

Our first big fishing trip was up north to Alaska.  Mom and Dad drove us up the coast of British Columbia in a camper, stopping at nearly every river to fly fish, catching salmon here and there. The most memorable place was the Kenai River.  

During spawning season for salmon, you can see fishermen for miles, all casting in sync on the Kenai.  It was amazing.

At some points in those fishing days, people would ask me how the swarms of bugs seemed to not be biting me. The truth is I was so focused on fishing that I didn’t notice them.  Once  I got home I would complain that my body itched and Dad, with dismay and pride, would point out I was covered in welts from mosquitoes and horseflies.

He had that look in his eyes—of approval that I focused on the important things and that I didn't complain about the little stuff.

People have told me my Father was one of the greatest conservationists in Montana. I’m learning what they mean by that. To me, he was just Dad. Never taking no for an answer, he often brought my brother and me fly fishing to properties he helped protect.  I guess for that reason you can consider me a spoiled fly fisherman, if there is such a thing. 

But if I was spoiled with anything, it was having a Dad who had a good eye for trying to save places where trout populations are healthy and for recognizing rivers that contained great fishing holes.

From that first day on the water in 2004, as I progressed in perfecting my casting technique, I struggled along the way, especially with getting my line tangled and becoming frustrated trying to get it undone. Most of the time I would just get my Dad to drop his rod and do it for me.

At some points the tangles were so bad I would have to cut the leader. Dad taught me that too, when it's wisest to tie on a new one and just start over. 

Tying the complicated knots took me the longest to learn and was the main reason why I would lose a fish. The little things, Dad told me, can make the biggest difference. Sometimes the secret is knowing how to tie a simple knot well and just keep your cool.

Out on the big rivers and also smaller streams our go-to fly, and mine today, has always been the Royal Wulff.  When we weren’t catching anything, Dad would focus on capturing some of the living flies to match the hatch. Nature tells us what we should do, he would say.

Growing up with an older brother who is good at doing lots of things made me strive to catch more and be the better, smarter fisherman.  But I was really hoping to impress Dad.

"He just liked to watch us fish and have fun. Occasionally, he might go wander off to cast alone, but he was always there by my side and I still do a double-take sometimes believing I've caught sight of his silhouette in the evening light."

My Father tried to defy his age as a cross-country skier, mountain biker, and trail runner but was never the competitive type when he had a rod in his hands. Maybe his calm as a fisherman came with “old age.”  But I will never think of him as old. He just liked to watch us fish and have fun. Occasionally, he might go wander off to cast alone, but he was always there by my side and I still do a double-take sometimes believing I've caught sight of his silhouette in the evening light.

Through the years, he taught me to be nice to others, be honest, strive to be a good person—and, most of all, to enjoy life.  "Most people on earth", he would say, "don’t have the fortune of knowing a trout stream like you do. Be grateful every day."

From him, I learned to approach fishing as an opportunity, to interact with nature, respect fish and approach the pursuit of them with grace and beauty.  Hopefully with my column, I can pass his knowledge and teachings on to fly fishermen and fisherwomen to come. Whenever I see a good stretch of water, I think of my Dad.  I miss him.

Liam Diekmann
About Liam Diekmann

Liam Diekmann is Mountain Journal's flyfishing columnist who explores the connection between Millennials and nature—and how they can make a difference in conservation.
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