I feel my sinker bouncing along the rocky bottom ten feet below my canoe. I visualize the glob of squirmy night crawler trailing a foot or so behind.
The St. Croix River is a fisherman’s dream. With over 20 species of fish, you
never know what you’ll reel in. Here, at this particular narrowing of a meandering slough, I expect to find sheepshead—or freshwater drum—and maybe the occasional channel catfish or smallmouth black bass.
My line starts moving. I open my bale and let a few coils of line spill off. Closing the bale, I draw up the slack and, feeling some solid resistance, start reeling. This
is no sheepshead. You can tell, by both the sheer resistance and the rhythm of its movements, roughly how big a fish is. And this one is big.
My quarry’s runs are not the anxious dashes
of a bass or a small pike…or a sheepshead;
they’re more resolute than panicked.
The clarity of the St. Croix’s water varies, from its normal Lipton-tea brown—it is, indeed, a brew of tannins steeped from plant material in wetlands near the river’s source—to a high- or stagnant-water soup of roiled mud, leaves and algae. Today, I’m having the tea.
I’m fishing with eight-pound-test monofilament, so I have to be careful; this guy feels like he could challenge that. Check my drag—loose enough to let him run; tight enough to tire him out. Oh, no…I forgot about the anchor rope! Keep him away!
My quarry’s runs are not the anxious dashes of a bass or a small pike…or a sheepshead; they’re more resolute than panicked. But in the next few minutes I gradually gain line. I should be seeing something of my mystery catch by now; he’s got to be only a few feet away. Remember, if he’s a smart old pike, he’ll lull you into complacence and then, just when you think you can finally grab him, he’ll use the side of the canoe for leverage and bolt.
As I strain my eyes to make out a form in the dark water, the fish makes one last powerful run…right for that anchor rope. It takes all of two seconds. One loop around the raspy nylon cord, and he’s gone. I’m left numb, my river monster’s species and size left to my imagination.
THE WHOLE ENCHILADA
It doesn’t take the expectation of catching a huge fish to get me out there in that slough. But I’ll tell you, losing one sure is a powerful incentive for going back. Now I know it’s there, that now-legendary-in-my-own-mind leviathan, and after the adrenaline dissipates I’m left not with anger or regret, just gratitude for the experience…and dreams of another chance.
Why doesn’t it work like this for other disappointments in our lives? Why, when our expectations are not met, do we so often experience such loss? And why do we feel such ownership in those perfect outcomes in the first place?
I’ve had my share of these figurative ones that got away. Sports aspirations; an invention; a book; marriages. I don’t know about you, but when something I really, really want doesn’t end up going my way, I often experience it as a defeat, as reason to doubt myself. Rather than celebrate the significant degree of success I was able to achieve, I feel like a failure for there being no more.
We spend our whole lives learning that it’s
not the fishing but the catching that matters.
So why can’t I just look at those disappointments as I did losing that big fish? Not as proofs of the impossible, but suggestions of the possible. As endeavors entirely valid and rewarding simply for the challenge and beauty of the effort.
In western culture, it seems we spend our whole lives learning that it’s not the fishing but the catching that matters. Immersed as we are in opportunity, competition and relative wealth, we’re taught to dream big and settle for nothing less than the whole enchilada.
But such expectation is not good for us. For one thing, it’s the kiss of death for wonder. You set out to catch the big one and eight of ten times you’ll be utterly skunked; the other one-point-nine-nine times, only seriously disappointed. And disappointment and wonder do not play nicely together.
But if you paddle out there simply for the joy of propelling yourself across still waters, for the closeness to wild, yet kindred, creatures, for the mystical process of communicating with mysterious beings in a dark, cold, liquid world through a nearly invisible filament—then nothing can disappoint you. Since you’re expecting nothing but the journey, everything that happens—or doesn’t—ends up a delight.
Whatever twists and turns fate may hand us, life’s simply too short to jump from one expectation-to-disappointment nosedive to the next. So my reflection, my self-examination, continues. If, every day, I can replace just one “If only…” with
a “Wasn’t that amazing?” I am on my way.
For it is, indeed, not the catching, but the fishing that keeps me coming back.
“Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that
it is not the fish they are after.” ~ HENRY DAVID THOREAU