Once upon a time I didn’t need a reason to go fishing. It was compelling, exciting, mysterious and what I’d learned from my dad to do with free time. I just wanted to see the bobber dive and feel a heavy pulse on the line. There was joy in catching bluegills and trout and minnows and whatever else and putting them all in my aquarium.
But I changed and became more aware of the world around me and began to wonder about my place in it, about ambitions and personal development and the mysteries of the world in the elementary way that all young teens do, I guess. And I guess, for some, this is when fishing falls by the wayside. For me, this is when fishing became study. I just wanted to know everything about fish there was to know. Some of this knowledge I’d glean from books and some I’d acquire on the stream. I’d do this by catching fish and finding where they lived, what they ate and everything else about their watery habitat I could observe. I was a junior fish scientist by the time I was 14 and moved from Maine to New York State.
About this time it dawned on me that there was another good reason to fish: I was never bored. During the teen years I’d often hear classmates complain of this adolescent affliction. I couldn’t really understand it though. I hadn’t caught all of the fish there were to catch yet. I hadn’t dropped a line in all of the water and I didn’t know everything about the science of fish either. I hadn’t perfected my home-made lures yet either, for that matter. Until I did, there was no excuse for boredom. You might say fishing kept me out of trouble.
I’ve been caught up in method fishing at different times, perhaps beginning with a canepole and poppers in Tennessee, looking for bluegills with dad. Fly fishing caught my attention for many years. Seasonally, ice-fishing remains the very best, as far as I’m concerned. Night fishing with baits offers its own spooky joys. I was hooked on ultrslight tackle for a time, until I spent a year in Florida trying to take 3-pound-plus largemouths on two pound test. Those were exceptionally brief bass encounters. Having watched the evolving landscape of fishing technology (bassboats, fish finders, fluorocarbon lines), I’m now back to a line tied to the end of a pole and maybe a bobber to compliment my hook. You can’t beat simplicity.
It’s a very commonplace thing to say but fishing can simply act as an excuse to be outdoors, to be immersed in nature. Sometimes I’ve looked at my own years on the water and wondered how much of it was really all about catching more or bigger fish (or about their biology) and how much was really just a pretext to be where I wanted to be, doing what I’ve most loved to do since I was a curious 5-year old with a cane pole.
I’d touched on this a bit in my book as I made my way through the Appalachians and probably the best summation of all my thoughts on it came in New York’s Adirondacks:
A thin green line passed between my fingers and weightless feathers whisked between encroaching firs and alders. I was only a more dexterous otter, loon or fisher. That perfect fly-propelling motion was performed mindlessly now, the six and a half foot graphite tube just the longest of my fingers, pointing toward deep dark crevices between the rocks, ordering my obedient lure to interdict the escaping currents.
The stream initially impressed me as maybe too small but then a trout seized a number eighteen gnat and I was holding a first specimen – brookie of course. The stream was thick with them. The whole watercourse was neatly segregated into distinct pools broken by short waterfalls or chutes and the brookies here were willing participants in my ongoing survey of the eastern streams. And momentarily, again, the broader scientific goals of the long-term study were forgotten, replaced by the sheer joy of wild speckled trout in an untamed place, tugging on the end of my line. And this, I think, may be the essence of the joy of angling. This is our chance, in an ever more tame, repressed world, to connect physically to something wild, to feel it pulse and struggle as though its life depended on it, to sway for a moment, as it were, in the primal dance of predator and prey, the ageless contest of life itself.