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Video: 'The Fonz' gets hooked on fly-fishing

TODAY books
updated 6/26/2011 1:13:50 PM ET 2011-06-26T17:13:50

Like fishing, raising children is about patience. So what better way to test one's composure than to teach your kids fly-fishing on the Madison River in Montana? In this chapter from “I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River,” Henry Winkler writes about learning to let go and to accept the choices others make for themselves. Here's an excerpt:

Chapter 5 - Going with the Flow
My son Max was about nine years old when we took him on his first fishing trip on the Madison River in Montana. I’d hoped that Max would share my enthusiasm for fly-fishing, but as soon as he took a seat in the front of the boat, he pulled out his Walkman, plugged into it, and put his feet up on the bow.

I didn’t say anything to Max, and I tried not to be disappointed that he wasn’t interested in fishing. It’s always been important to me to be more understanding of my children than my parents were of me. So I told myself to be patient and to let my son enjoy the trip his way. Perhaps he will want to fish later. Maybe he will actually pick up a rod and, by some miracle, cast a line.

As we floated down the river, I was glad to see Max take out his earplugs and turn to our guide, Jim, a very helpful and professional fellow, who always has the right tool or piece of gear when you need it. I was hoping Max would ask Jim for a fishing tip, a lesson on how to use the rod and reel.

Instead he said, “I’m hungry.”

Jim, being Jim, quickly produced a bite-sized Milky Way bar and handed it to Max. I had neglected to warn our guide that my son was hypersensitive to sugar. Giving Max even a tiny candy bar was like putting high-octane racing fuel in a go-kart.

Eight minutes later, my son was standing up in the front of our fishing boat, belting out the entire score of Les Miserables, his favorite musical.

Submitted by Charles Gerli  /  UGC
Cover@Photo by Henry Winkler

I’m fairly certain Jim had never seen or heard anything quite like this, nor had the cows and moose along the river. All creatures big and small were quite stunned. I swear I saw a bear’s jaw drop in shock and a fish fall out! Jim was so unnerved, his eyes resembled those gag glasses with the eyeballs dangling on Slinkys — they were practically shooting in and out of his head. He could not believe what Max was doing to the serenity of his river valley.

Jim gave me a pleading look, hoping I might pull the curtain down on Max’s riverboat show.

All I could do was shrug, as if to say, “Sorry, nothing we can do until Max burns through the Milky Way galaxy.”

Resignation passed over our guide’s face. He stopped rowing, turned to me, and said, “At least he has a good voice, doesn’t he?”

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By then the boy, fueled by bits of gooey caramel, chocolate, and nougats, had moved on to selections from Phantom of the Opera.

A wave of crankiness rose up in me, but I chose to let it wash away. Jim would have a funny story to tell at the next river guide convention, I told myself. And Max was enjoying himself immensely. Besides, the trout did not seem to mind.

At least Max came along for the ride, I thought as I returned to blithely fishing in the back of the boat.

There were few others on the river, but the lack of an audience didn’t bother Max. My son the Phantom crooned away in the bow of our boat. Whenever someone did paddle past, I wished them “tight lines” and assured them that Max was available for hire if they wanted a singing gondolier in their boats, too.

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Accepting Max’s deviation from my script for the day was a big step for me. But I had learned my lesson on a prior trip to the river with my daughter, Zoe. His performance of Les Mis on the Madison occurred after the wader-throwing incident Stacey mentioned in her Introduction.

I am a patient person about 93 percent of the time, but that was one of those times when I was overwhelmed with impatience. And to tell you the truth, I’m not sure why. I’d given up my morning fishing to ride horses with Stacey, Zoe, and Max. In return, our daughter had agreed to fish with me during the afternoon, but only as long as we kept it to half a day.

Now I have to tell you something about Zoe. You see, she dawdles. She is the best — a great dawdler at the highest level, an achievement that is attainable only by fifteen-year-old girls.

“C’mon, Zoe, we need to get on the boat,” I said when we were done horseback riding. “We have only limited daylight to work with.” Already she was dawdling, and while I was impressed by her dawdling prowess, I wanted to make it to the river. The fish were feeding!

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More dawdling ensued. And then, to my shock, and the shock of my entire family (and most of our ancestors), the wader boot in my hand went flying across the room — not at Zoe (I had the presence of mind not to be THAT big a jerk), but still, across the room, landing against the wall, just under the window.

Zoe was horrified, then hurt, and finally, defiant. As the final phase set in, her body language gave the perfect interpretation of what is meant by the phrase “digging in your heels,” defining it for all time.

“I’m not going fishing with you — EVER!” she shouted.

I panicked. Oh, oh, now what? Do I wait for her? Do I leave her? I wanted to go fishing in the worst way and the best way, too. But I was stuck. All year I wait for those seven days on the river! And I was so close ... except something had happened. I still wasn’t sure what, or what I needed to do to make it better. (Insert heavy paternal sigh here.)

My impatience and anger quickly peaked and then gave way to remorse and guilt. An intense father-daughter discussion ensued. I won’t go into the embarrassing details, but suffice it to say, the father lost ground and then found himself deep in a hole.

Meanwhile, the river was flowing, the trout were feeding, and the sun was moving rapidly across the afternoon sky.

I begged Zoe for forgiveness. I pleaded temporary insanity. But I’d cooked my own goose with one toss of the boot. After a final sweeping apology, I turned and headed for the river.

My daughter’s parting words were “You’re leaving me here alone. Everyone else has plans and I have NOTHING to do!”

As I write this in the fall of 2010, I want you to know that every once in a while I still, out of the blue, apologize to my beloved schoolteacher daughter for being such a curmudgeon on that day in Montana fourteen years ago.

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I was being completely impatient in a place that demands patience, with a person whom I love very much. Worse yet, I’d grown up with parents who were perpetually impatient with me, and I’d vowed to be a different kind of parent, one who would always be patient with my own children. I thought I’d broken the pattern, but in fact I’d managed to come full circle.

I’d let my emotions dictate my actions, and the result wasn’t pretty. I’d become frustrated because I was trying to control my daughter, and she was resisting my efforts. The lesson I drew from that meltdown was to control those things that I can control and to let go of whatever is beyond my influence.

The ironic thing is, this little lesson improved not just my relationships but my fishing, too. The value of patience has been brought home to me many times while on the river, where bad weather, tangled lines, or trout that refuse to come out and play can easily lead to frustration. It’s the same patience you need as an actor on the set waiting for things to get going. You’re in the zone and a light blows, or you are waiting for another actor who hasn’t come out of the trailer yet. It doesn’t matter where you are; patience is required in life.

I have to remind myself of this constantly, even when I get to the river. I take so much pleasure in my time there, I’ve found myself resenting the fact that I have to put together my seven-piece rod, piece by piece by piece, before I can fly-fish. I resent the time lost assembling the rod, then putting my line through the eyeholes, loading the boat, mounting the oars, and parking the truck. There are so many time-consuming little details that must be tended to that it seems to take hours and hours before I can actually do what I came to do: relax on the river. In my early days of fly-fishing, I’d have to talk myself down from all the anxiety that would build up while I was preparing to cast a fly into the water.

The Das Boot incident with Zoe opened my eyes to all of this, and to my impatience in general. Up until then, I’d thought of myself as a very patient man. I’d clearly thought wrong. I had to reprogram myself by practicing the Zen of going through each detail, getting it done in its own time. I had to remind myself of my priorities. Zoe Time was more important than trout time.

The neat thing I discovered is that we have a choice. We can choose to be cranky. Or we can choose to let go of our right to be frustrated and ticked off. We can focus on the good instead. What I learned with Zoe, I practiced later with Max.

Initially I was frustrated because my son showed little interest in fishing, and I was embarrassed by his behavior in front of our guide. But then I checked myself. Why be ticked off? I thought. Max is just responding to the sugar rush. Jim will get over it. The fish are not frightened and, lo and behold, the Earth is still revolving around the sun, and Jupiter is aligned with Mars.

All was right with the world and the karma of the water, so I was able to move past and give up my frustration and embarrassment and my need to control the situation. What I realized was the Zen concept that submission is power. If you don’t blow into the boat of frustration’s sail, the boat can’t move anywhere. My wacky son was enjoying himself, so why not let him?

There is power in letting go like that, and often there are unexpected rewards. Today Max is a USC film school graduate, a director, and a screenwriter with great promise. He has written and made a couple of films and sold one to a distributor. Still, we’ve discussed the possibility that if the Hollywood thing doesn’t work out for him, he can always find work as a singing fishing guide in Montana.

Better yet, my children have a father who has learned to love them and accept them for who they are. They still surprise me from time to time, and I like that. As a matter of fact I look forward to those moments. Years ago I’d also tried to get Max interested in horseback riding on our Montana trips. Initially he informed me that he did not like riding atop horses and added, “I don’t like the sport and I don’t really like the animal, either.”

I didn’t try to force horses or trail riding on him, and in a very short while he decided on his own to join us on our Montana trail rides. He even wears cowboy chaps he bought at the ranch, and he has learned to like “the animal” so much that trail riding has became one of his favorite Montana activities. And that makes me an unbelievably gratified, happy dad.

I even encourage Max to sing on the trail, but I make him stick to cowboy songs.

From "I've Never Met an Idiot on the River" by Henry Winkler. Copyright © 2011
Reprinted by permission of Insight Editions.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive


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