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Father, son cast a relationship while fishing

By Scott Fowler
sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

They fish together for sunfish in the shadow of Charlotte’s uptown skyscrapers, trucks rumbling over their heads. They fish together for trout in gurgling North Carolina mountain streams, wading in the cold water.

Joe and Jackson Fernandez aren’t particular. The father and his 13-year-old son will fish just about anywhere, from farm ponds to massive lakes to a little creek behind Park Road Shopping Center.

It’s not about what they haul in, because they release everything they catch anyway. It’s the act of fishing itself – and what it represents – that is important to them on Father’s Day and all other days.

Fishing – particularly fly fishing – is the bond that cements the man who almost died in an ATV accident four years ago and the son who needed his father back and ultimately got him.

“When we’re fishing, it just feels like we’re together,” said Jackson Fernandez, a rising eighth-grader. “We both like it. It’s just a fun experience. There’s usually no noise, except for the water and the birds and the wind.”

“Sometimes I’ll stop and just watch him,” said Joe Fernandez, Jackson’s father. “That’s fun for me, just to watch what he’s doing. And then there are some great conversations, too, mostly on the way home from fishing.”

Every Father’s Day, Elizabeth Fernandez gives her husband and their oldest son a present. Since 2010, that gift has been a variation on the same theme – a fishing trip somewhere within driving distance. The family’s youngest son, Walker, is 6, and before too many more years go by he will join in on more of those expeditions.

For now, though, the fishing revolves mostly around Jackson and Joe.

“It’s sort of their thing,” Elizabeth said. “I don’t get in the middle of it.”

“We’re not expert fishermen,” Joe said. “Not even close. We just like it.”

Accident in Colorado

When you ask Joe how tall he is, he has a ready quip. “Depending on which leg you’re measuring from,” he said, “I’m either 5'10" and 5'11".”

One of Joe’s legs is an inch shorter than the other because it never quite healed right after he shattered his hip. This “leg length discrepancy,” as his physical therapists called it, causes him to walk with a permanent limp. It is about the only obvious sign of the accident that rocked the family in 2009.

Back then, life was relatively uncomplicated for the Fernandez family. The family had moved to Charlotte in 1999 to follow a job offer for Joe. He had grown up mostly in Fayetteville, Elizabeth in Sanford. For a decade, they had thrived in Charlotte. Joe was an attorney in a prestigious uptown law firm. Their two sons were born. They moved into a nice house in the Eastover neighborhood.

Joe prided himself on being an involved father, just like his own father had been before he had died far too young. Joe was Jackson’s Cub Scout den leader. He and Jackson made stuff together. They were building a homemade costume to wear for Halloween 2009. They were going to go as an Xbox. “And it was going to be awesome,” Joe said.

In mid-October 2009, Joe and Elizabeth Fernandez left their kids with the grandparents and flew to a Colorado ranch for a long weekend with several other couples. Part of the entertainment was exploring the ranch’s vast boundaries on four-wheelers.

Joe had driven all-terrain vehicles many times previously, including a number of times on the trip.

“I was out by myself in the middle of nowhere,” Joe said. “I had missed a turnoff and was cutting through a horse pasture. It was wide open as far as you could see. But there was some snow on the ground. And then there was a drainage ditch, which I didn’t see until I was right on top of it. I hit it squarely perpendicular and went straight over the handlebars.”

The four-wheeler crumpled. Joe, who believes he was going about 30 mph and who was not wearing a helmet, was thrown about 50 feet through the air. His right arm and left hip both broke in numerous places. He started losing blood.

Ten minutes later, a friend found him. That began a medical odyssey that involved several hospitals, a lot of pain, an extended surgery and, finally, a ride home from Colorado to Charlotte flat on his back on a specially-equipped plane.

The surgery, performed in Colorado, was the trickiest part. It didn’t go well initially. It was supposed to last three hours and ended up lasting 10. At some point, there was real concern Joe might die.

If he had, the tragic irony of his death would have haunted the family.

Joe’s own father, Fred, had died at almost the exact same point in his own life.

A combat engineer in the U.S. Army who was stationed at Fort Bragg, Fred Fernandez had been killed in a paratrooper training exercise gone wrong in 1982 in the California desert along with several other soldiers. The tragedy made national news. High winds were the primary culprit.

Fred Fernandez was 37 when he died, leaving his wife Gayle and four sons behind. The oldest two boys were Joe, who was 9, and his twin brother.

When Joe Fernandez was badly injured himself in Colorado, he was 36. His oldest son, Jackson, was 9.

“It was way too eerily similar,” Elizabeth Fernandez said.

‘I was a terrible golfer’

When Joe Fernandez got home in 2009, it was Halloween night. The Xbox costume idea had long since been abandoned.

Joe had grown a beard while in the hospital. That seemed almost weirder to Jackson than the fact his father had to stay in the playroom and couldn’t get up on his own for weeks. He had been so used to seeing his father clean-shaven.

Slowly, Joe progressed through the various stages of rehabilitation. He had a wheelchair for awhile. He gradually moved to a walker and then to a cane. He was able to go back to work after a couple of months.

What he needed, though, was a way to reconnect with Jackson and, eventually, Walker. He had once thought the sport he could always share with his sons would be golf.

“But I was a terrible golfer before,” Joe said. “And the accident actually made it worse – talk about exacerbating my slice. I couldn’t figure out how to adjust.”

Plus, golf hurt his hip, which was healing much more slowly than his arm. He couldn’t ride bikes very well, because his injured leg had healed crookedly and his heel kept hitting the chain. It wasn’t going to be soccer. Jackson was good at it, but the “leg length discrepancy” made it difficult for Joe to kick the ball around.

What about fishing, though? Jackson had always enjoyed it but hadn’t done it much, mostly just fooling around on beach trips with a cast net.

“I’m not really patient at other things,” Jackson said. “But I would do that for hours. It’s just the feeling that something might be out there if you just try one more time. That’s what I like about fishing. I can get shut out for six hours and one fish at the end will still make it all worth it.”

Elizabeth gave the two of them a fly fishing trip to the North Carolina mountains for Father’s Day in 2010. When they waded into the mountain streams, the cold water felt good to Joe’s hip. The trip was a rousing success.

“It was great because you could take it slow and it was something we could do together,” Joe said. “We could be outside. It wasn’t hard on my hip. And it turned out there are plenty of awesome places in N.C. to do it that are within driving distance.”

One last cast

Joe and Jackson like different parts of fly fishing. They both like the gear. Joe doesn’t care a bit about tying his own flies. Jackson does. Joe turned out to be the one who could cast the best, more closely mimicking the style seen in the movie “A River Runs Through It.” Jackson, however, usually catches the most fish.

“That’s because I give him all the best spots,” Joe kidded.

There have been close to 100 father-son fishing trips now – most of them just a 5-10 minute drive to cast for sunfish and bass on the Little Sugar Creek Greenway that threads its way around uptown Charlotte. They get strange looks from the cyclists and joggers who share the greenway, but that doesn’t faze them.

To make their fishing trips more interesting, Joe and Jackson usually make a series of three bets. Who will catch the first fish? Who will catch the most fish? Who will catch the biggest fish? There is no actual money attached to the bets, just bragging rights.

Walker comes along sometimes, on the shorter trips to the greenway. Joe keeps multiple pictures on his smartphone of both boys holding up their prize catches.

And so the father keeps taking his sons fishing, as often as he can.

Every cast holds the potential for another catch. Another photo. Another release. Another story. Another triumph.

But who is he kidding?

Joe Fernandez knows that no matter how the next cast turns out, he has already won.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler
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