Dave Vedder hooked up with a coho on the Situk River in Yakutat, Alaska.
Author Patrick McManus wrote a short story titled, “The Theory and Application of Old Men.” He explains that every kid should have an old man. Not just a father, but someone who is willing to take you out into the woods or on the water when you have the urge to experience the outdoors. McManus continues the story by explaining how to acquire, care for and operate an old man of your very own. His qualifications are quite comical and simple: “An old man is a male person with white hair, a stubbly beard, wrinkled hide, bifocals, long underwear, chewing tobacco, and the disposition of a bull walrus with a bad case of the shingles. If you find a female person with these basic characteristics, she would prob-ably work just as well.
“Old men come in various vintages. The sixties are good. The seventies are excellent. The eighties are prime. Nineties are fine too, but there is always the risk they won’t make it to the punchline on a good story.”
Having just turned 40 this year, reading McManus’s short story on old men got me thinking about the wise men (and women) who have influenced my own life, and the possibility that I might be an old man in training with the potential to someday be a mentor to others. In terms of the qualifications that McManus outlines in his short story, I’ve already been serving some of my first terms as an old man by working with youth teaching wilderness skills, survival, and fishing camps. Those youngsters are at an age where their imaginations have yet to be consumed by jobs, bills, romance and responsibility. They’re empty vessels with nothing but time on their hands to learn from making mistakes. They have minimal investment in how other people view them, and live from moment to moment. Watching young people operate in groups is like a mental time machine that reminds me of my own good old days and simpler times. I would imagine with the difference in age and experience, it would be similar for an older mentor witnessing me live my life at the age I am now. There’s comfort in hearing phrases from an older mentor like, “You’re just a lad” or “You’re just entering your prime.” It’s made me feel like being 40 is more like being on top of the mountain rather than being over the hill.
Being middle aged also feels like an awkward position of serving as a mentor while also needing a fair share of my own mentors as I stumble through life continu-ing to learn from my own mistakes like any other human being. Knowing when to give advice and when to ask for it, as well as who’s ready to receive it or dole it out is a challenge. The vintages that McManus explains are relevant to the physical capa-bilities of mentors, meaning someone in their sixties is still capable of a short day of exerting themselves stomping the banks in less than ideal weather conditions. Once you enter the range of seventies and eight-ies, much of the knowledge they hold the potential to pass on eventually reaches a barrier that prevents them from being able to share their experience out in the field. Only recently, have I given more thought to those teachers who can no longer make it their “classroom.” At what point do the experiences we are enjoying right now become only stories we’re able to reminisce about later, and the backroads we travel down become memory lane? More impor-tantly, what happens to the history our mentors possess once they’re gone? Those questions have given me a sense of urgency on receiving advice from my elders and become a better listener.
It’s common in fishing circles to share our experiences on how to target a certain piece of water or how to modify a lure or rigging to fish more effectively. Seminars at Sportsman’s shows are a great place to collect this kind of information, although these interactions a little less personal. Books and magazines like the one you’re reading are of course a great written record of technical information. They’re also a representation of what technology and innovations were prevalent at the moment, and are published in a time capsule between two covers that is recorded for future reference. The technical aspects of fishing are easy to explain. Outdoor ethics, the development of interpersonal relationships between fishing buddies, handling conflicts on the water in real time, maintaining our frustrations, and enjoying our shared pas-sions as anglers is another story that you’ll rarely see in a seminar, book, or magazine. These lessons are a little more personal and come from stories that are often only shared in privacy.
All things considered, bad advice also exists. Perhaps the old man that McManus describes might know how to tune a Kwikfish or rig an Okie drifter, but his gristly example of a bearded walrus chewing tobacco might seem like the wrong kind of person to learn some of those more personal lessons. At the same time, their experience gained by learning from their mistakes may serve to help us prevent repeating them. Choosing a highly successful person as a mentor seems like an obviously wise decision, but may also include a negative reinforcement of ego. I can only speak from my own experiences (just like everyone else), but there is value to inviting different perspectives into your life and keeping an open mind. That means not just applying mentors that reflect your ways of thinking, but attempting to under-stand opposing views. This concept seems to have been lost among political division and the “us vs. them” mindset that exists as the dominant paradigm.
Randall Bonner with a coho caught by Dave Vedder on one of Randall’s home made twitching jigs.
Mentorship is a practice of humility by both parties and a mutual exchange. As mentors share their experience, we have to acknowledge our own ignorance and humble ourselves by being open to learn-ing from them. At the same time, being a mentor means acknowledging that we’re passing on our experience to someone else because our opportunities to put that knowledge into practice is limited. In a sense, mentorship is a duty to pay forward the obligations of our own experiences as students, and become the teacher.