I received a wrenching, punch to the gut message not long ago. An old fishing friend passed away. It’s been difficult over the last few weeks to shake off the loss of my childhood pal . . . a bigger than life character who touched the lives of many people.
Better than most, anglers know the importance of friendship. The act of fishing, great as it is, pales in comparison to the amity we develop with loyal partners. Fishing friendships last for life. Such the case with my friend David Auger.
“Did you hear about Dave,” a mutual friend wrote to me a year ago? “He has cancer.”
Immediately I reached out. Dave and I had been inseparable chums from our pre-teen years into early adulthood. We met at school, birds of a feather with shared interests in hunting, fishing, literature, poetry and mischievous behaviour. A knack for trouble and boorish misadventure defined our alliance.
Sadly, Dave and I had not spoken in quite some time but picked up where we left off many years ago. He talked briefly about his diagnosis, remained upbeat about the future and sought comfort from the past.
“Do you remember Old Man Haegley’s Pond,” he asked?
“How could I forget,” my whimsical reply.
Haegley was a big-time farmer with a legendary mean streak who owned hundreds of acres. The lake at the back of his property was said to be stuffed with giant bass. The old man allowed no visitors and would shoot trespassers on sight . . . or so the story went.
No matter, Dave and I wanted a piece of the action and contrived a plan to sneak onto his land. Our youthful peers had no taste for the undertaking. We would go it alone.
Dave and I enjoyed a Huck Finn country lifestyle with trusting, supportive parents. We wandered freely on the farms and backroads of our youth with few limits and would, upon occasion, fudge the truth to muster a risky adventure. The scheme to fish Haegley’s Pond was more about factual omission than utter dishonesty . . .
So…we arrange a camping trip to a large section of timbered forest abutting the Haegley farm and receive a simple, one-line parental mandate not to cross the fence. We nod with affirmative innocence. A few days later, Dave’s mother drops us along an old dirt road. We shoulder packs of camping gear, food and fishing rods and begin a long hike through the woodlot.
We break trail under a towering beech forest, through swarms of mosquitoes and into sprawling fields of stinging nettle until we reach the far edge of canopied timber, a short hike from the forbidden pond. We pitch a tent, start a fire, cook some bacon and await nightfall.
Of course, every adventure we share includes a dare. Dave suggests the big fish loser run naked through nettles and mosquito swarms the following day. We huddle in campfire smoke to shed hordes of biting insects and accept the challenge. A couple hours later, we creep furtively onto Haegley’s land, under the cloak of darkness.
The pond is exactly where we were told, bigger than expected and surrounded by lush vegetation. There is no footpath and impossible to fish from shore. I wade into a patch of reeds, taller than me, make a few casts between the stalks and catch small bass. Dave does the same.
Eventually, I rocket my fishing lure skyward to clear the cattails and catch myself in the back of the head. Two of the treble hooks burrow past the barbs at the base of my scalp. Dave uses his flashlight to suss the situation and decides to play medic.
He rolls his hanky into a tight cord, loops it over the exposed hook and pulls vigorously to dislodge the interred barbs. Never, before or after, have I experienced such pain and only for the resiliency of youth do I continue fishing.
It’s a struggle to access the main lake so we decide to swim and fish. No easy task to tread water, hold a flashlight, cast and retrieve but we catch some whoppers. Our night of fishing comes to a halt when a big bass, attracted to a bug in the beam of Dave’s flashlight jumps out of the water and smacks him on the nose.
David thinks it’s a snake and dashes for land, but I see the whole thing and know better. Still, we crawl out of the water and lay exhausted on our backs in the nearby farm field. We stare at the stars and argue about who won the contest. We both know who caught the biggest bass but it’s worth a short-lived flurry of dissent.
The next morning, David sheds his clothes and gallops through the forest. When we reach the pickup point, his bare skin is a roadmap of red welts and bites. The back of my head is tender and the source of an intolerable headache. We are wounded, sleepless and exhausted but incredibly happy and still, years later joyously relive the experience.
It’s a shame we lose touch in adulthood. Dave and I both attend university but follow different paths. My friend excels in business, becomes a VP at Time-Warner, Publisher of The Los Daily News and eventually CEO of a large media company while I work as an hourly or salaried employee who peddles prose upon occasion. We cling to the outdoor lifestyle but in different orbits.
A few weeks after our first catch-up, David sends a letter to say he always looked up to me. It takes me by surprise. A man of great achievement in a fight for life who takes time to share a meaningful, heartfelt thought. It’s the David I have always known. I tell David in truthful response that I always admired his fearlessness and it will carry him through the difficult days ahead.
Weeks later, my friend sends a final, enthusiastic message. He wants to visit Africa, catch up on the last 40 years and collaborate with me on a book, but first he must complete treatment. It is the last time we communicate. I never said good-bye.
The death of a friend demands quiet reflection and the last few weeks have been filled with it. In remembrance of David, one shared journey stands tall above all others. It was an adolescent camping trip with his parents in their camper, The Augers Bit.
Dave and I fished throughout the day in a nearby lake and when darkness blanketed the surrounding forest, took an exploratory hike. We came to a covered bridge that spanned a small stream and it began to rain. We ducked inside to wait out the passing storm and David pulled a harmonica from his pocket.
We sat in the dirt, our backs against ancient hand-hewn oak bracing and sang for hours the Neil Young song, Heart of Gold.
We were youngsters then.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Years later I met ‘Old Man Haegely.’ He turned out to be a kind, welcoming, salt of the earth farmer who more than likely would have invited us to fish his rural farm pond. Still, the rumours and embellishments from youthful peers made our ancient adventure a daunting lifetime memory.