Sacred Days

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Photos by Louis Cahill

Photos by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

Days, like men, are all created equal. It’s the paths they take which separate them.

It’s eighteen degrees as we get the skiff ready to launch. The first snow flakes are floating about. Delicate little flakes for now but the Weather Channel tells us they won’t stay small. It actually feels nice. We floated the South Holston River the day before when the temperature never made it to double digits. Today we’re kind of optimistic about fishing without full gloves.

The So Ho is known for its prolific summer sulfur hatches. That’s got nothing to do with this trip. There won’t be a bug on the water for about two months yet and then it’ll be black caddis. Myself, Justin Pickett and Chase Pritchett have not driven from Georgia to Tennessee, in the face of what’s promised to be the storm of the decade to fish dry flies, or even nymphs. We’re here to throw hairy-ass American streamers. The stuff the Brits call lures. There are big brown trout in this river and they have bad attitudes.

DSCF2927I’m working on breaking the frozen anchor rope off the floor of the skiff, Justin is changing reels and Chase is hefting some beer into the boat when his cell phone rings. He answers, listens for a moment, then walks a ways off and lights up a cigarette as he talks. Chase is a talented fly tyer, the owner of American Made Flies. He ties everything in the book beautifully, but he has a special love for streamers. He’s a big dude with a face full of beard. A coarse, almost biker-ish, exterior and quiet demeanor hide a big heart and a childlike fascination with Star Wars. Presently, his body language is showing his stress. I know this phone call. It always comes first thing in the morning because that’s when they find them, our loved ones who have passed.

Chase’s Uncle Vic was obviously a big influence in his life. He speaks of him as if he were his father. He’d been a Montana trout guide back in the day. After he came home from the war. Chase isn’t specific but I’m guessing Vietnam. His death was not a complete surprise. He suffered with dementia, along with a bad case of PTSD. Not a combination I’d wish on anyone, or their family. Chase is putting up a good front but he’s obviously shaken up.

“I’m sorry, so sorry,” I tell him, “Do you need to go? It’s not a problem, we can go right now.”

“No, no there’s nothing I can do,” he answers, “The weather is turning to shit. The roads are going to be bad. Let’s fish. That’s what Uncle Vic would want.”

The snow is coming hard by the time we get the boat wet. Trees become charcoal sketches as the world fades to white. Our steaming white breath seems to linger and fill the sky. The water turns to swirling steel. Idle rods and fly boxes disappear under thick quilts of white. Huge flakes of snow swirl around our heads like angels. Snow in the south is such a rare thing it feels like it comes from heaven, or beyond.

DSCF2809There will be plenty of oar time for me today and that’s just how I’d have it. We’re not playing a numbers game. You might get a fish or two, and you might get none. I desperately want Chase to get a fish today. He needs a fish today. He’s not touching the oars. He’s quiet for a while. He fishes hard, changes flies and eventually tells us a couple of stories about Uncle Vic. We pass a bottle of whisky in his name and I think how I’d have liked to have known the man.

Death has been my fishing partner this year. He’s been there on the oars, standing waist deep next to me in the river, on the bow of the flats boat for every cast. He’s been with me at the vise, with me as I pack my gear, next to me as I drive to the river. He has laid next to me in my sleepless bed. Since I lost my son this summer he has been with me every minute of every day and night. Especially the nights.

In the old days, people in grief wore black. It seems like a morbid idea these days and I never understood it until now. As the days wear on you have no choice but to move along with them. People are much like boats. We are cast upon a river and it moves us regardless. Sometimes you row and sometimes you drift. As the grieving takes up the oars and begin to row, those around us go about their business. They don’t see Mr. Death there on the bow. They forget.

Grief is a strange traveler. He takes many forms. They tell you about the stages of grief, the denial, the bargaining, it’s all horse shit. Grief is a master of disguise. He plays by his own rules. He smacks you in the back of the head when you’re not looking. My grief made me an asshole. It made me distant. It made me impatient. It made me withdraw from my friends. It made me hate myself. It took my self. I should have worn black. Or bright orange, or a big sign that said DANGER. Today there are four of us in the boat and we all see death.

DSCF2677It sounds dark but it isn’t. It’s actually a relief. There is such uncertainty that comes with loss. No one knows what to do or what to say, how to be there for someone at that moment. It’s like trying to speak without a common language. This time it’s a language I understand. I had a couple of great examples to learn by. Friends who were there for me in ways that I’d have never imagined but helped so much. Today is a celebration and the world is dressing in white to honor Uncle Vic.

Everything in the boat is lost to the snow. Fly boxes must be searched for like lost artifacts. Drifts build up on our hat brims and shoulders. There is an unearthly beauty in everything on the river. The fishing has been slow but the spirits high. We all feel honored to be here. We all know that something special is happening, even if we don’t understand it. We are coming together as men, in a time of change, in the way that men have done since they first learned to stand erect. There is nothing to do now but hunt.

Near the end of our float there’s a spot where the river bends hard against a wall of rock. It’s a spot you need to be hot on your oars or the river, as rivers will do, will take you hard against the wall in deep water. I drop the little skiff down the shoot and turn her hard, bow towards the rock and pull strong. I’m plenty warm now, pulling those oars. She tracks sweet along the seam. Chase, in the bow, has a perfect line. He drops his fly in an eddy formed by a cleft in the rock and before he can strip there’s a flash and the line is tight.

I pull the boat into the soft inside of the bend and Chase lands a beautiful brown with vivid blue halos around his gills. He cradles it in the water and is quiet for a minute.

“This one’s for Uncle Vic,” he says softly.

DSCF2732We take a quick photo and release the fish to find his lie again. We pass the bottle and each in turn we say, “Uncle Vic.” We sit for a minute and breathe the cold white air. Angels fall to earth as one rises.

No man knows the day or the hour of his death. When it’s my time there may be friends weeping or there may not be a soul who gives a damn, I haven’t a guess. It pleases me though, to think that when that time comes there might be three men on a boat somewhere saying my name and passing a bottle. I can’t think of anything I’d like more. I’ve seen some very good days, and very damned bad ones. I’d like to think that there’s one sacred day out there for me, even if death makes me miss it. Men, like days, are all created equal. It’s the paths they take which separate them.

Tight lines Uncle Vic.


Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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42 thoughts on “Sacred Days

  1. First time commenter, long time reader…and that was the most beautiful and powerful thing I’ve ever read on here. Cheers to all the Uncle Vic’s out there.

  2. Perfect in so many ways. As you age, Death becomes a fact of life. It’s the ones you don’t expect, that aren’t fair, that shake you to your bones. But as you so eloquently say, the river “moves us regardless,” dispassionately and democratically. The flow, inevitably, to our own end.

    Thanks for a touching view into your grief, and Chase’s, and for insight into something we all must learn to deal with.

    Godspeed, Uncle Vic.

  3. Thank you, Louis. This excellent piece shows how the power of unlimited love of fly fishing bridges all human emotions. Being on the water brings us together or lets us grieve alone as our needs may dictate. Your insights are appreciated and allow us to join you and Chase as brothers on this difficult journey, as visceral and in the whole how reluctantly life-affirming it is for those of us left behind. I know both of you and feel for your losses and see once again the depth of your love of fishing and for humanity at the same time.

  4. My middle brother passed this past Sept 2015. I have never in my life experienced such deep seeded pain and feeling of loss. All I could keep thinking was how am I going to feel five, ten years from now when I look down the river and he isn’t there. All I could think about was later and could not deal with the present. My brother and I tied flies and fished like maniacs for the time he was here on this earth. Then a few days after he passed I had a notion, a feeling. The feeling became a need, it became a way to gain some closure. I had to take his rod and reel and flies and go catch him some fish! So I did, and after that session, alone in the woods I cried like I never have before and spread his ashes in his favorite honey hole on our favorite river. God damn do I miss him every day. Now when the feelings of loss and despair creep up and I need to feel him that’s what I do. I take his fly rod and flies and go to Matt’s Honey hole. He always has a fish waiting for me, I have never been skunked in that special place. I go there and know he’s around, especially when I need him the most. I feel for your friend and I totally feel for you and your family with loss of your son. They are angels watching over us brother. God bless ya.

  5. Wow, Louis. That was incredibly well written. I recently lost my mother very unexpectedly, and can completely relate to how you described the grieving process. Especially the part about trying to speak without a common language. True grief is life shattering and your perspective of the world will always be shaken. Your life before the loss can seem drastically different from the life you find yourself in after. As a fellow griever, I can only offer my condolences in the loss of your son and of your friend’s uncle. Best of luck to you in your journey through this.

  6. This one really got to me man. My aunt passed away last spring, but she bought me my first vise shortly before she passed. There’s not a second that goes by when I sit down to tie, or am fishing the flies born of that vise, that I’m not constantly thinking about her. Cheers Louis.

  7. While working as an EMT, I saw death in many ways. Changed my outlook on it. Got cold to it….but, when it cuts deep, cuts’s hard to move forward. It’s hard to stand still. Time doesn’t help the healing. Love, life and people close to you will help when you are ready.

  8. Thanks Louis, for expressing what many of us cannot. I deeply appreciate your willingness to share your life with us and know that better days will be here.

  9. This article brings our mortality into perspective and that when we pass this mortal coil hopefully we will be remembered for our love and passion of our sport and that we helped others to learn and participate in this noble art along the way.

    In the meantime let me grow old gracefully and please God let me flyfish until my dying day!

  10. Thank you all for the support for Chase and his uncle, Vic. Louis did a great job with his words, capturing what truly was an awesome day on the water. I didn’t know Uncle Vic, but from hearing Chase talk about him I don’t think there could’ve been a better salute to a man as devoted to fishing as he was. Cheers.

  11. thank you. This blog entry is one of the most profound pieces of philosophy and writing that I have read in quite some time. Any other compliment that i could pay would seem cliche.

    I hope you find a little bit of peace, Louis.

  12. Very eloquently put. Few things can’t be solved by a contemplative, peaceful day on the river and the snow can bring out the best of that. Tight lines and condolences to everyone facing death. Exceptional writing.


  13. I lost my grandfather over 13 years ago, nothing tragic or unexpected, he live a long and full life, and went quietly in his sleep.

    He tought me a lot, how to love natural places, how to read wood and make it into things other than trees, he took me on my first deer and pheasant hunt, and most importantly gave me my introduction and base for fly fishing.

    I don’t believe in the “stages of grief”. It hurts a little every time I strip of line, all these years later, but I find that I kind of look forward to it. That little bit of pain makes everything real, it makes me know that all the memories really happened, and that always makes the time on the water special.

    I continue to pray for your lose, and that of Uncle Vic. I hope to be remembered with a fly rod and a bottle of whisky.

  14. Louis, Long time reader and after your story above, I truly understand why. I will row my boat for you any day if your up this way. Well done brother!!!


  15. Words fail me; thank God they didn’t fail you. Outstanding post.

    Prayers to Chase and Uncle Vic. And from one Viet Nam vet to another, “Welcome Home, Brother! Thank you for your service.”

  16. Absolutely exquisite. I’m waiting at the airport about to go through whats most likely going to be a messy divorce and this article literally brought me to tears. I can only pray that someone passes a bottle around the boat for me one day…

  17. That was a beautiful piece. Thanks for taking the time to write about your friends and your day. Sometimes it’s not about the fish.

    “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
    Ash Wednesday, Book of Common Prayer

  18. My best travel partner lost his wife this year. I have lost several long time client from the field and river. Thank you for expressing the way you feel. I have not known how to deal with others when this happens. This has helped me understand the power of just being there.

  19. Wow! The words hit home on so many levels.

    Thank you for sharing such a touching piece.

    For those who don’t understand this or get it, I feel sorry for them. But then they are probably to focused on their smart phone to realize this.

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