Returning to Fishing
I became a neophyte angler a little more than ten years ago. Although some of my earliest recollections are memories of fishing with my father, I had given up the activity when I was sixteen. As a teenager, I began to chart a life through channels that reflected my values and priorities, but in my mid-thirties, it became evident that another look at the map was necessary. Certain values that had guided me were not well marked for my three sons’ passages through life.
My world was satisfying in many ways. The lines between work and play often blurred because my career was rooted in activities I enjoyed. My love of history, of poetry, and of my country had spawned a career in higher education teaching Native American studies. I had found a way to make a living reading, writing, and interacting with people. Recreation, on the other hand, seemed like the diversion other people needed because their career choices were unhappy. Work was my pleasure.
However, this comfortable existence was threatened when my wife was diagnosed with cancer. I started examining my priorities and my relationships with my children in new ways. My work had a strong center of ethics in my service to others, and in my commitment to teaching the next generation how American ideals of justice might be strengthened. But I started wondering what messages my children were receiving from me. Facing the prospect of losing my life-partner, I reconsidered my priorities.
At first, I couldn’t define exactly what values I felt my children were missing. I had only the vague sense that it was rooted in a respect for the interrelationships of all life that I had come to call Nature. I spent many mornings sitting on my son’s skateboard on our porch watching the sunrise. I reflected on all my primary relationships—my childhood with my parents and siblings, my failed first marriage and the precious time I spent with my two oldest boys, my courtship of and marriage to my second wife, and the past few years after the birth of my third son. While meditating I sought the emotional strength to support my spouse in her battle with cancer, and began preparation for the unthinkable possibility of losing her. I gradually realized that I needed an activity that would nourish my heart, provide a stronger bond of fellowship with my children, and offer a mechanism for clarifying and transmitting my values. Then I thought of fishing.
I bought some inexpensive gear and a state fishing permit at a sporting goods store. Painfully self-conscious about my lack of experience, I bought an old tackle box full of rusty lures and smelly grubs in a pawnshop. I wanted to appear as if I had never abandoned fishing. Then, all the right equipment in hand, my three-year old son and I headed for the nearest waters with visions of rainbow trout for dinner. (I later learned that bass were a more likely catch in that part of the Snake River.) When we arrived at the river, I sat down with a pamphlet on fishing knots and got us rigged up. About a half-hour later, when we’d been fishing for five minutes, I set my pole down to remove the hook my son had embedded in the leg of my jeans. Our fishing adventure had become a comedy of errors, so we decided to pick up some fast food on the way home. Two days later, I heard my son telling his mother he couldn’t wait until the next time his Daddy took him fishing. Hearing his enthusiasm confirmed that I’d made a good decision.
It took a couple trips to the river before I finally hooked a nine-inch smallmouth one morning. What a rush! I’m certain my screams of joy sent the other fish swimming toward the fish ladder at the dam for the safety of the reservoir on the other side. But I didn’t spend much more time angling for number two. I went home, trophy in hand, arriving in time to prepare the tastiest breakfast I’d had in years: clear evidence that I was the man, the one who provides.
I’ve learned a lot since that spring. I’ve learned the knots, some techniques for casting, a bit about baits and lures, and how to identify my catch. I’ve helped my youngest son land a carp that was longer than his Mickey Mouse pole. I’ve stood waist deep in a river playing a rainbow that took a fly at the end of a hand-knotted leader that I pieced together. I’ve spent countless hours on the shore, in boats, and waist deep in rivers and lakes. This time has been productive for teaching my children a love of the outdoors, as well as some rudimentary ecology, entomology, and ichthyology. This time has become a comfortable way to cultivate new friendships. Time on the water also provided the solitude I required to grieve the loss of my beloved partner and to begin life anew. After a few seasons, fishing became an activity for courting the next woman I will marry. Although I’ve learned in this relationship that being “the man” means some long summer nights filleting hundreds of perch. She knows how to catch fish.
One evening last summer I lured my youngest son and my future stepson off to the lake with the promise of catching bullhead. Once I had them belted in the car and we were on the way, I admitted that fishing offered no guarantees. Perhaps we would catch some fish, but we could just as well get skunked. Nevertheless, I was up late that night learning how to skin my catch without getting stabbed by its spines. Another time my second son declared that the bass he’d just caught was his second fish ever. I replied that he needed to lose count because knowing the exact number was a bad sign; he didn’t count the haul after we found a school of redear sunfish and bluegill. Now my oldest son practices his negotiation skills trying to provoke me into purchasing a new float tube so he can use the one I have now.
My fishing success has reached the point that I’m no longer embarrassed to show up at the lake with a new tackle box or an expensive pole. I trust my stories. Even my floppy fishing hat, which displays only the flies that have landed fish, testifies to my growing experience. In the lake nearest my home, I’ve caught no less than eight species of fish, including a one and one-half pound crappie (larger than most of us in Northeast Washington are accustomed to seeing). I can count nearly two dozen waters in three states where I caught fish from March through September last year, and had a run for nearly three months in which I caught something every weekend (if a three-inch bigmouth counts). Still, every time I hook a fish my heart starts thumping, my sweat glands moisten, and I feel a surge of energy that reminds me of that first smallmouth five years ago. Even more important, when I tell my children that they must learn to work for their food, the lesson provokes memories of plates of fresh fillets that never saw the inside of a grocery store. When I teach them to honor the Creator by respecting the waters and lands around them, they remember the satisfaction of carefully releasing a tender young trout back into the river.