Wednesday, October 20, 2010

DEEP CONVERSATIONS – The Wonders of Fishing

I’ll never forget the first time I went fishing. It was at Peter Pan, a little summer camp my parents sent me to when I was about seven or eight. I caught a sunfish from the dock. Its bright, exotic colors and patterns captivated me. It was cool and slimy. It smelled funny but good—sort of earthy and spicy. It wanted very much to get away and used its spiky dorsal fin to make its point. I got it, and it hurt. There was a little drop of blood.

For the impression it made on me, that little bluegill might as well have been a space alien. Ever since that day, I’ve found fishing to be about the most fascinating, beautiful, peaceful thing I do. If ever there were an activity that’s all about discovery, patience and appreciating details, this is it. But perhaps more than any of these qualities, I think it's the mystical dimensions of fishing that hooked me.

If there’s something down there in that cold, dark, liquid place, it eventually sends you a message through the line. 

You throw a morsel of food deep into a hidden, alien world, connected by a thin filament held between your fingers. Then you wait. If there’s something down there in that cold, dark, liquid place, it eventually sends you a message through the line. Is it a kind of fish you’ve caught a hundred times before or one you’ve never seen? Is it big or small? Is it even a fish at all, or maybe an eel or turtle?

The clues might come in the form of cautious nibblings or a reckless attack. The creature might pull on the line or it might carry the bait toward you, slacking the line. Some fish gingerly gum the bait to see if there’s anything that doesn’t taste or feel right. Some grasp the bait between their lips, run a few feet and drop it—I guess just to see what happens. Others greedily gobble up the bait and run as fast as they can with it, perhaps chased by rivals.


Besides the cryptic quality of that connection to another world, fishing is full of opportunities to observe and explore. One of the first rules of the sport, for example, is that, if you want to catch fish, you have to think like a fish.

Look at the water. At first, maybe it just looks like water. But, on closer inspection, you’ll notice the way a current eddies after it flows past a point, or wells up over a submerged log. You can check out a lake map or just use your anchor to find out where there’s underwater structure—drop-offs, rock piles, sand bars, etc.—where fish like to rest or lie in wait for prey.

Sometimes you’ll see minnows jumping, scattering frantically as they flee a hunting game fish. If you wonder what bait to use, look for what’s already there. (Fly-fishermen are the masters of this art, tying their artificial flies to replicate the insects they’ve seen the fish eating.) For fish that don’t feed so visibly, some fishermen will dissect one they’ve landed to see what’s in its stomach.

More rabid fisherman than I invest in all sorts of high-tech gear to help them find the fish: global positioning systems, sonar, even underwater cameras. (Now there’s a trick that takes the last shred of guesswork out of the sport!) Call me a purist, but I still love the mystery of not knowing exactly where the fish are.


Chas said...

I have two memorable fish memories, one with you and one with Rick and our kids. The one with you was an amazing hot day at Franconia when I caught two big large mouth bass. But we were dying of thirst, and you had a big thermos with ice and a warm 32 oz bottle of Pepsi. We had no cups. Warm Pepsi was not too appealing. The ice had not melted. You know what to do. But you held out long enough to make me think you didn't know what to do, and that, in that moment, you a genius level insight. Of course you just poured the Pepsi into the thermos. That was the coldest and best Pepsi I have ever had.

The other time was when Rick and I and our four boys went to Quetico and on the fourth day found fish heaven. Big rock overhangs. We call caught 3-4 fish, large mouth, small mouth, walleye. The first big one we gave to Rick, who said he knew how to clean it and cook it. But he put is on a slippery rock to gut it, and the fish slipped away. That was not quite as dramatic and when I spilled all the maltomeal when we were all starving after a night in the soaking rain. But it had that same anticlimactic feel.

Good thoughts.

Jeffrey Willius said...

You're a good friend, Chas. Thanks for your support and for recalling some great memories! Believe me, you'll never live down the spilled MaltoMeal!

Andrea said...

There is something magical about fishing! I feel bad for the kid who grows up without fishing memories. Here's my first fish story: My brother caught a perch in Lake Superior- I was three, he was 12. Dad cleaned it and cooked it in a skillet over the camp fire. My brother and I split the tiny fish and cherished every morsel. I'll never forget how amazed I was that food could come out of the lake.
I now do a lot of freediving and spear fishing in Hawaii- a very different experience. It is more like hunting than fishing. In this sport, you really do have to learn to think like a fish. Understanding their behavior is the only way you can hunt them effectively.

Here's an unusual thought I like to ponder...what if the fish knew the great lengths people take to catch them? Ailes of lures, high-tech boats, $400 spear guns. It's a mass consipracy these people have created just to catch fish. I don't know what I think that's funny. What would a fish think about fishing?

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey Andrea -- Interesting to look at it from the fish's point of view. I doubt they're able to reason, but then again, they sure seem able to learn!
I like your blog! Looks like you've been at it for a long time -- good for you!

Anonymous said...

Growing up in Minnesota,, my fondest memories come from the multitude of summers spent up at Whitefish Lake, not far from Pine River. My Uncle Bill, whom I adored, was an avid hunter and fisherman; a fishing trip out on the lake with him was always a real adventure! Then, after a decent 'catch', and an ode/song to Kikapoo (who apparently had something to do with our success), we had to return to the 'cabin' to 'clean' our catch on a very old wooden table In the woods near the cabin. As he flung the 'fish guts' into the woods, he'd explain to me that the dwellers of the forest, thrived on these delicacies! We'd find arrowheads, on the shores Arrowhead Lake (ironically enough!)vestiges of the original inhabitants of this area. Turtles would busily dig the holes on shore in which they would bury there precious cargo hoping, usually unrealistically, that these eggs would hatch before the skunks (which were plentiful) could dig them up and eat them. Leopard frogs hid beneath the dock to evade the sun; they fascinated me and started, at least in part, my love of frogs.

At night, as I lay in bed with all the windows open to the sounds of the night, listened for the sought-after paontive cry of the state bird; the loon! To this day, that unique sound takes me back decades - to a time of innocence and wonder. And to a time in my memories that I wouldn't trade for anything.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Dear Anonymous -- Your "voice" sounds familiar! Thanks for the reflections -- these are the kinds of memories that, like a layer of soft fleece, line the scratchy wool garment of life.

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