Stolen Memories: Remembering the Dad Who Taught Me to Fish
As the ravages of time and disease begin to steal his dad's memory away forever, outdoor writer Lynn Burkhead recalls a lifetime full of cherished moments with the man that helped spawn his love for bass fishing many years ago
As a man who makes his living writing about the outdoors, it's a story I've told many times before.
The tale of an early summer day spent fishing on False River, a moderate-size lake not far from Baton Rouge, La., one of my boyhood homes.
On a warm, windy morning that proved to be unforgettable, a time spent bass fishing with my father, Bill Burkhead.
My dad had fallen in love with bass fishing in the early 1970s as Ray Scott helped to bring to life the tournament fishing game and a nationwide love of bass fishing that still thrives to this day.
As a new-found bass nut born into that bucketmouth revolution, dad would routinely read the wit and wisdom found in stories in angling magazines of the day, articles penned by writers such as Buck Perry, Homer Circle and others.
After reading those stories and underlining key passages, my dad couldn't wait to get out on the water and try out the various bits of angling advice he had just read.
But as much as he loved bass fishing, my dad loved me and my sister, Amy, and my mom, Phyllis, even more, often taking us along on evening fishing trips so he could fish and spend time together with all of us.
Eventually, my mom and my sister grew tired of spending time on the water chasing bass, but I never did.
Leading to many times on the water like the summer day referenced above, a day when the angling action was a bit on the slow side thanks to the uncooperative nature of the largemouth bass that filled the Louisiana oxbow lying in the shadow of the Mississippi River.
It was a slow day that caused the mop-haired kiddo in this tale – it was the 1970s, after all – to grow a slight bit restless in the back of the aluminum Jon boat we were occupying, a rig that was a far cry from the bass boats that race across the water these days.
As was usually the case on our father/son fishing trips back then, my dad patiently endured my short attention span as I grew bored and opined out loud that I was never going to catch a bass.
Which is an entirely understandable statement from a fidgety 8-year-old boy who was still looking for his first-ever largemouth catch.
If my memory serves correct, my 30-something-year-old father – now 77 at the time of this writing – told me something to the effect of keep on casting and don't ever give up.
Words that seemed to be etched in a stone tablet mere moments later as I felt a jolt of electricity at the end of my line, voltage that came from a bass who apparently thought my jointed gray-and-blue Mirrolure minnow plug was in fact the real thing.
In what seemed like an eternity later, and after some enthusiastic coaching from my dad, the 2-pound largemouth was successfully landed, fulfilling a previously unattainable goal.
In many ways, the Kodak moment, captured with a picture I cherish to this day, changed my life.
It helped to birth a lifelong love affair with fishing, a passionate pastime turned career that continues to this day as a writer for Major League Fishing, Outdoor Channel and World Fishing Network among others.
Today, more often than not, I find myself on the water or somewhere near it writing about the nation's most popular game fish and about those who play the tournament angling game.
Along the way, I've been privileged to ask questions of such bass angling legends as Bill Dance, Jimmy Houston, Roland Martin and Rick Clunn to name a few.
These days, covering MLF from its beginnings on Lake Amistad in 2011, I get to regularly listen to the angling wisdom of top pros like Gary Klein, Boyd Duckett, Kevin VanDam, Brent Ehrler, Kelly Jordon, Denny Brauer, Mike McClelland, Randy Howell, Aaron Martens, Brent Chapman and Edwin Evers among others.
But despite getting to hang around with such top-notch bass fishing pros who have a lot of skins hanging on their walls, what I remember most in the quiet time of late night hours are more personal times gone by.
Times I spent fishing with my dad over the shadow of these many lengthening years.
Times spent throwing a Mepp's spinner for Smoky Mountain trout. Early Saturday morning trips for bluegill and bass near my boyhood homes in Baton Rouge and Memphis, Tenn., And even a few evening trips – after my hard-working father ended a lengthy day on the job – to chase a largemouth or two that just couldn't resist a last-light topwater offering.
After moving to North Texas in 1979 – literally days before Hank Parker would hold off Gary Klein en route to winning the Bassmaster Classic on nearby Lake Texoma – those fishing trips became a bit more sparse as I grew older and my dad's responsibilities increased at home, at work and at church.
Around this same time, I also discovered hunting, especially for deer and ducks. In regards to the latter, my mom (who celebrated wedding anniversary number 51 with my dad in 2015) actually fueled my passion for the duck blind, driving me at times to a small lake to hunt before the state of Texas deemed me old enough for a driver's license.
At o'dark-thirty in the morning during the middle of duck season, that's an act of maternal love I've never forgotten.
This patch from August 1995 commemorates the biggest bass catch of Bill Burkhead's life, an 8-pound fish caught and released to fight another day. It's also one of his son's favorite memories. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Burkhead)
Meanwhile, my dad wasn't much of a hunter by this stage of his life, but we still fished together on a number of occasions as evidenced by another cherished photo.
This one comes from Lake Fork a few years ago as my dad held up not one, but two of the biggest bass he had ever caught in his life, a 6-pounder and an 8-pounder taken on a lipless crankbait rolled over the top of a submerged hydrilla bed.
Despite a wall full of photos, mementos and unforgettable fishing trip memories in my office, that evening together at Lake Fork with my dad remains the most memorable time I've ever spent on the water anywhere in the world.
In more recent years, my fishing time has been taken up by trips for work, trips with serious angling friends, outings with my own children and unwinding after a day behind a computer keyboard.
But I think often of my time on the water over the years, time that I got to spend fishing with the best man that I've ever known.
For many years, such memories were dominated by the fish that we caught together, including a memorable catch or two that live on to this day.
But recently, as my dad has gotten older and my own children begin to prepare to leave the nest, it's not the fish that I remember and cherish the most.
It's the time I've been privileged to spend with William David Burkhead, the man I find myself resembling more and more as my 40s turn into my 50s.
I can only hope in the years to come I will find myself acting and living more like my father has, a man of deep Christian faith, an unending supply of love for his family, a heart full of gratitude for life's blessings, a kind servant's heart displayed towards others and a tremendous work ethic that always finds a way to get the job done.
And a strong love of fishing too, even if it falls into place after a line of greater priorities in life.
As the ravages of time and disease steal away memories of a lifetime spent together fishing, outdoor writer Lynn Burkhead (right) is cherishing every single one as they are stolen from his father's mind. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Burkhead)
Nowadays, as a dreadful disease known as vascular dementia begins to ravage my dad's mind and body, I find myself thinking about all of these things more and more.
And remembering those fishing trips with my dad, something I pray he can do again before the passage of time forever shuts the curtain on his memory in regards to those special days on the water.
Recently, I relived one such trip with my dad, asking him if he remembered.
He smiled and nodded his head, yes, nearly bringing tears to my eyes as this son looked heavenward and thanked God for one more special moment with this man.
It's another unforgettable memory with my dad, a good man who was a great father and somehow, always managed to find the time to take yours truly fishing.
Thanks for the memories, dad, on and off the water. And thanks for all of those fishing trips we have shared together through these many years.
I'll never forget them.
Even if very regrettably you do.