By 2005 or so, I was all a well-rounded angler should be and had all the contraptions an angler should have: I owned a fish-finder, I had two kayaks set up for trolling, I owned 25 or so fishing rods, a plethora of lures and a bunch of great reels. I was geared for ice fishing and fly fishing and kayak fishing. I caught loads of fish and it usually wasn’t difficult in the fish-rich waters of western Pennsylvania.
I think my reservations began with the fish finder out on the ice though. I was in a pristine place, surrounded by silence; alone with the foreboding cold of a winter lake. And I was staring at a screen which would tell me how deep to drop my lure to put it right in the fish’s face where he couldn’t resist a nibble. Wasn’t I spending enough of my life staring at screens? Why bring it here? And if I hooked one, my Spider Wire and state-of-the art ice reel almost guaranteed a landed fish. The same applied to open water: I could reach any fish I wanted and escape was very difficult for my quarry so long as I remembered to set the drag correctly. Modern reels make it easy.
I remembered a simpler time when I’d wade along the shore of Percy Priest Lake in Tennessee next to Dad and flip popper bugs with 6 feet of line and a cane pole for pumpkinseed and little bass and I remembered being anywhere from happy to ecstatic with every catch.
Maybe many of us started this way before the lure of technology pulled us in the direction of Zebco spincasts or the smooth but cheap Mitchell spinning reels. Maybe there’s a certain peer pressure that forces us toward luxury products that will impress those sharing the water with us. But at some point, the reel came to seem essential. Maybe it’s a conspiracy of Big Reel to, well, to crank us all in. And we’ve all been hooked.
I stowed the winter fish finder and I started to make my break with reels one late summer day around 2013. I’d grabbed an 8 dollar telescoping crappie pole out of the Walmart discount bin and tied 9 feet of line to it. There was a hook too and a split-shot sinker. A worm was impaled and I took a seat on a small gravel bar at the mouth of one of the dozens of really tiny brooks that spill into the lower Allegheny River.
I could reach far enough to allow the bait to wash into a bit of a depression I could see in the gravel, the bottom indistinct in the cloudy water. Normally, I might have cast 30 yards beyond this, never noticing the slight feature if I’d had the capacity to. But the new rigging immediately forced me to think carefully about what I could reach, and not worry about what I could not. Bites came quickly and 5 different species splashed up onto the gravel over the next couple of hours, including a 16 inch catfish and a nice redhorse. And each one did thrill me as though I’d never seen one of these before. My fishing had experienced a reset and I was enthralled with the joy of fishing simply once again, toes swishing in the water.
In recent years I’ve waded little local creeks probing for native minnows with my pole. I’ve chased stocked trout which aren’t exactly an angler’s delight on rod and reel but the pole gave me a way to make stockies great again (in a sense). I’ve taken various fishes from the kayak on my pole, some amazingly large for the reel-free method. I “trolled” last year, walking along the Erie Canal with a 20 foot pole and nailed my fair share of bass with this innovation – the most thrilling day of fishing in the last few years.
But there was one day a few weeks ago at which I reached the pinnacle – a moment that would be hard to top. I’d jokingly told a friend last year that I would go to the Lake Erie tributaries he fished and I’d take a steelhead with no reel. This was just for laughs; no-one in their right mind would actually try it.
I arrived at the lake with both the fly rod and my battle-worn 10 foot telescoping pole. I wasn’t sure about this and still wanted backup if it just weren’t possible. I was on a smaller-than-average stream but still one that I knew drew steelies of up to at least 7 pounds or so. I chose a 25 cent float, a similarly priced egg hook, a tiny split shot and carried an array of artificial eggs and some real ones I’d tied up in sacs the night before. I felt wonderful as I approached the first pool. Something great was about to happen. Sheer simplicity was the order of the day. I was in the verdant floodplain of a meandering watercourse, overhung by great old elms and sycamores. The hook and bobber splashed in along the nearest current seam and we got underway.
The first pool gave up nothing. Same with the next and next and next. The water was dingy – not opaque but far from clear and the depths of the pools were mysterious. I drifted an especially large pool several times with no indication of anything salmonine but as my attention lapsed and I pulled to bring it in and change baits, I felt two rapid pecks.
This focused the attention, prepared me to fight and made me think about where I would land twenty plus inches of writhing trout if I could subdue one. A fresh Berkley marshmallow sank out of sight and the game was afoot. The bobber plunged and I missed; but on the next pulse, I set the hook into something solid and very much alive. I danced a very erratic, splashy dance around the clay-bottomed pool over the next five minutes and then I did it again and again.
In less than half an hour, I landed 3: twenty inches, 23 inches and a vigorous 24 inch “buck”. I laughed out loud. This was the pinnacle – mastery of a rare aquatic martial art. I imagined Bruce Lee smiling down and encouraging me to “Be the reel!” and Chuck Norris offering an approving nod and a wink, even though he catches them regularly without using a hook.
If we like to say that fishing isn’t really all about catching the most or biggest fish, maybe we should believe ourselves and reach for antiquated simplicity, at least now and then. And the worst we could do would be to thwart the world-dominating ambitions of Big Reel.
Between 2007 and 2011, I walked from Georgia to New Brunswick in 5 long hikes, looking at brook trout streams all along the way. On the fourth of these hikes, I carried a rugged video camera that I used to capture day -to-day life on the trail between Cortland County, New York and Moosehead Lake, Maine. Long ago, I produced 9 videos from this footage and uploaded it to YouTube where these videos sit, seldom seen. Along with my next 9 blog posts, I’m going to share links to each of these videos. This is low-quality footage, especially by today’s standards but gives a real-life glimpse of the trail chronicled in my book, The Dying Fish.
The Fifth video of the fourth hike of the Eastern Brook Trout Solo Adventure: