MY FISHING FRIEND and I are an unlikely couple. At 82, he is an old man; at 42, i feel like one. He was born and raised in Nazi Germany, while I am Jewish. These differences hardly matter when Volker Oakley and I get together.
We started fishing with each other about 10 years ago after I married his niece. Our first trip, as I recall, was to a crystal, alpine lake surrounded by the Cascades in central Oregon. That summer afternoon, we arrived at Lake Hosmer just in time for sunset. We tied on our fly rods and launched Volker’s canoe, paddling out to where the lake’s Atlantic salmon (unfortunately no longer stocked there) devoured fat flies off the transparent surface. I tied it on a big, bushy fly and cast it on one of those risers. Then I waited.
Volker owns a home nearby, on the edge of National Forest land. From his back porch, the Cascade Mountains dominate the skyline. My wife, a beautiful Catholic who went to high school with me, stayed home with Volker’s wife. They are connected. The fishermen – Volker and I – simply married into the family.
In Hosmer, my vigil was wiped out by a hungry salmon. I set the hook and the fish jumped, jumping a few times before Volker put the net in for me. The salmon was beautiful, as were the mountains and the water itself. With the stunning scenery and growing fish, it was a perfect walk.
I caught one more fish that evening, but Volker was wrecked. That said, I was more upset than he was. Not only is Volker one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, he’s also one of the most resilient; he deserved the fish.
Volker and I mostly fish in Oregon, where I live and where he used to live. He now resides in an old farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania, having retired from a career in business. But he visits Oregon several times a year. This is when we fish together.
Besides being fishermen, Volker and I are readers. He read my writing about fishing long before we fished together and understood my passion for the subject. Volker (pronounced as if written Folkery) has two grown sons, but they do not share his love for the outdoors; nor his wife. My parents don’t fish or hunt, and neither does my wife. So, in a way, Volker and I are stuck with each other.
Last November, he and his wife spent Thanksgiving with us here in Oregon, and on Saturday—after we finally digested enough of our big meal—he and I got a chance to go fishing.
In central Oregon, there are many trout streams, but choosing the Metolius River was an easy choice. No other river is so beautiful.
Metolius is born in a spring in the middle of a pine forest, where cold, clear water eternally bubbles up from the Earth. This spring water is always cold, even in the middle of summer. Near its headwaters, the Metolius is shallow and easy to cast a fly to. But then he gathers branches, growing larger and larger until—about 10 miles from his birthplace in that indescribable forest—there are cave pools and dangerous rapids and dangerous rapids and big trout.
I can’t think of a healthier river, but it’s also one of the hardest to fish anywhere.
From the war zone to the mountains
Volker was born in 1940 in Berlin and lived with his teenage mother and grandmother in an apartment in the city. His father, a German soldier, was fighting in France. During the war, he recalls rushing to hide in nearby bomb shelters as Allied planes surrounded Berlin. For fuel, local Berliners went to the nearest forest to cut firewood for heating and cooking. Allied planes made regular, choreographed runs to drop food, supporting civilians still in the city.
At the beginning of the war, when the Germans occupied France, Volker’s biological father found himself in occupied Paris. There, this young German soldier was caught cheating on his new wife, Volker’s mother. Word somehow got to her, and her response still seems incredibly bold to me: she divorced him.
After Germany lost the war, Volker’s mother took a job at a local hospital where soldiers, including Americans, were expected to recover. One of the wounded was an infantryman from Chicago who had been left for dead in the Battle of the Bulge. The wounded war hero soon fell in love with and married Volker’s mother. Just as important, he embraced Volker as a son. Volker’s young father also had a hobby: he liked to fish and hunt.
In 1950, the family moved from Germany to Fort Riley, Kansas. “Dad,” as Volker called him, took him fishing one day at a lake on base, and Volker had all the luck. Suddenly, a chattering pheasant and ex-GI sent his son to get him with the rifle he had in the truck. Volker says the goal was really to get him out of the way so his dad could catch some fish. But when Volker returned with the bird in hand, his father was stunned. This was Volker’s first pheasant. Almost 70 years later, he still loves to hunt birds. And he’s still a crack shot.
I never met my grandfather – but if it hadn’t been for him, I probably would never have become a fisherman or a hunter.
My grandfather Myron was born in 1897, in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. The son of a Russian immigrant, Myron served in World War I, but then returned to the Manitowoc area, a rural town about 80 miles north of Milwaukee, where he worked in the family business, manufacturing milk filters for dairy farmers. nearby.
In the 1930s, a middle-aged Myron, by then a successful businessman himself, bought some land on a lake in northern Wisconsin and built a cabin. There, he hunted whitetails, played cards and fished with his friends.
That cabin has remained in my family ever since. I learned to fish there.
My favorite childhood walk was to Catfish Lake where my father would stand in the shallows, holding our boat, while I caught fish after fish from under the lily pads. Almost 40 years later, I still love to fish – these days on the fly.
Idiot proof? TOUGH
In Metolius, things started slowly for Volker and me. The first hole we fished was about three miles downstream of the water source. There we clearly saw rainbows. They were submerged in water, but they flew, as if water were just an idea. I saw those trout swerving to eat insects moving in the current. I could see the glow from their skin – but seeing a fish doesn’t mean catching it, especially on Metolius.
I tried a lot, drifting with different flies, but nothing worked. It was a known result. To be honest, I didn’t catch anything for the first five years I fished the Metolius. Trout can be really addictive.
Volker also tried a variety of nymphs but came up empty-handed and, as always, he didn’t seem concerned. Again, I wanted him to catch a fish more, it seemed, than he did. So, I needed an even more reliable place: The Idiot’s Hole. It’s where I go to catch wily Metolius trout on dry flies. It’s so named because the joke was that, at one point, any idiot could catch a fish there.
The Idiot’s Hole is about 100 meters upstream of a hatchery, but none of those spawning fish ever enter the river. They are booked elsewhere. Nowadays, all trout in Metolius are born wild.
When the Idiot Hole was filled with glitter fish, not only could any idiot catch one, said idiot could bring it home for dinner. But that’s illegal now in Metolius. It’s all catch-and-release. Because of these strict regulations, the river is stocked with trout and the banks are free of the kind of trash found in other waters: Styrofoam worm containers, fish guts, beer cans.
Volker and I walked upstream from the nursery, through the forest. In the Hole of Idiots, the water was shallow, but, about halfway down, an underwater canyon opened up, as if the bottom somehow disappeared. I stood on her edge. Looking down, I could see the trout hovering in the water like air. Beneath those trout was only my imagination.
But my focus was on the surface, where the current eased. Insects normally land on it and are consumed, sometimes wildly, like a great white shark attacking a seal, and sometimes carefully, like a grandmother drinking her tea. However, there were no insects in the air or water that day. I cast my dry fly anyway, which is usually not a good approach for the Idiot Hole. It is better to wait for a rise and throw to him.
Searching like that, I got nothing. Sharing the hole with me, Volker was also destroyed, although he shrugged it off.
We were just two happy idiots.
Getting past it
When he visits, Volker gives my dogs commands in German. “Plotz,” says my big chocolate Lab. Stop. My kids say it to the dog too. full.
Micah, my son, is six years old and already an avid fisherman. In fact, he has started fishing with Volker and me. I want my son to learn much more than a few German words, however, from Volker.
He can learn how to handle a canoe and how to shoot well. He can also learn to appreciate fishing for what it is. Most importantly, Micah can learn what it means to be a good friend.
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