There have been times in my life when I wished to be a fisher. That may seem to be an unambitious goal, a goal that would be fully and easily realizable. But that wasn’t the case for me, for it was never the pride of capture, nor the thrill of the strike that most interested me. Rather, it was the process – the quiet, patient wait and the appreciation of that quiet wait that captured my interest and imagination.
Fishing can be either a solitary or a shared experience, but even when it is shared, most fishers observe and respect the need to be quietly aware of all that is going on above the water and to try to sense what is happening below the water. This awareness can only be generated by entering into an almost mesmerized, meditative state of watching, listening, sensing. It was this that attracted me to fishing, the unique, “sense of fishing” that fascinated me.
My experiences with fishing in life have been varied. I remember that my maternal grandmother owned property along the shore in Mystic, Connecticut. There, our family made a stab at earning a few extra dollars by renting row boats to day fishers. We sold soft drinks, snacks, cigarettes and bait, mostly to crab fishers, from a modest, shoreline shack, which was, later, inconveniently removed from existence by a tidal storm surge during Hurricane Carol in 1954. Upon that property, I learned much about allowing time to pass peacefully, without any entertainment beyond a simple swing set that stood baking in the blistering sun. My most memorable experience of the Mystic shack (beside my last experience, which was to see it as a storm-cleared, barren property) was the day that two horseshoe crabs were caught in our tiny wading area. The things looked innocent enough at first. They were two, brown, hard-shelled hemispheres. They reminded me of my dad’s World War II army helmet. While the crabs were still, they looked like innocent, inert humps. But then, an older boy lifted one crab by the edges of its outer shell to reveal the horrifying, complex, other-worldly, exoskeletal articulations of its writhing underside. When the boy saw the abject terror on my face, he charged at me with the exposed crab. I ran, screaming in paroxysms of fear, convinced that I should never again enter the alien waters of the wading area.
My father was not a fisher in any meaningful sense of the term. He wasn’t dedicated to the sport. He didn’t “live” for it. He fished with friends on an occasional basis and he enjoyed it. Once, he took the whole family on a “deep sea” fishing trip for a day, out into the Gulf of Mexico, when our Connecticut family was visiting an uncle in Florida.
That trip, I remember as the antithesis of quiet waiting. It was instead, a crowded tour boat filled with eager fishers, casting lines and greedily hauling in fish with almost every cast. My experience aboard the tour boat was made all the more surreal by the necessity of doping my young body with substantial doses of motion sickness drugs, which caused me to spend most of my time sprawled and drooling upon the vinyl-covered bench in an inner cabin, reeling in and out of consciousness, as the day passed and the excited tourists revelled noisily in their own fishing delirium. The tour we were on was even lucky enough to spot a sea turtle lumbering along slowly, peacefully through the warm gulf waters. Several men, who seemed to know just what to do, shouted and went forward on the deck with long handled gaffs to hook and haul aboard the bewildered creature, whereupon, the turtle was rendered helpless by flipping it onto its back, a metal pail was put over its head and tied in place, using the turtle’s own flippers to secure the lines. My childish concerns about the turtle’s suffering were allayed by reassurances from adults who seemed to know so much more than I did.
My dad sometimes fished from a small rowboat he kept at a backwater campsite along the Pachaug River in Connecticut and he fished on occasional family trips with friends at various locations in Maine. He also fished a few times at a large, shallow pond in our hometown appropriately named, Bog Meadow.
Occasionally, my dad would reluctantly allow me to accompany him fishing at Bog Meadow for an outing of a few hours duration. Even as a child, I could sense his reluctance to let me go with him. Now that I am older, I know why. I remember him telling me that he would be out for a long time and that he wouldn’t want to hear any whining, or pleas to return home. There would be nothing for a young child to do while he fished and that talking was forbidden, as it would “scare away the fish.” I know that I tried, but undoubtedly failed to meet his standard of expected fishing behaviour. Still, he was generous to allow me to accompany him even so.
I don’t recall any early sense of feeling sad for the fish that were caught. My dad had a habit of dispatching his catch with a deft blow to the head that certainly seemed to leave them senseless, if not dead. And even though worms writhed and squirmed as they were carefully threaded and impaled upon hooks, they too, were sufficiently “other” to allow me to overlook their agonies.
Then there were a few times when I was older when I went out in a boat to cast for fish with friends. During every such outing, there was a certain, unspoken bond that developed between all the people in the boat. It was understood that conversation was to be kept to a minimum. Whatever conversation that did occur was spoken quietly, in tones of calmly measured rhythm, with long gaps of silence between words spoken and words returned. Fishing seemed to be a time when time did not exist. There was no tomorrow, no yesterday, there was only now. At that point, doing anything other than fishing would have hindered the fishing process, yet the fishing process involved a large measure of exercising quiet awareness which has a very strong resemblance to doing nothing. People who don’t understand the appeal of ice fishing often fail to grasp the essential difference between exercising fishing awareness and doing nothing.
Later in life, my wife and I rented a tiny, unfinished cottage from a friend at Sharbot Lake, Ontario. The shoreline was rocky and weedy. Though we did frequently dip into the water for swims, it was not really the kind of experience one engaged in without caution. One fall on the slippery rocks and injury, in this remote location, might have been serious and difficult. So, to better experience what the lake had to offer, I bought a small, used rowboat, a pair of oars and some fishing gear.
I was then at the curious mental point where I was willing to fish, but unwilling to bait my hook with a living creature. I can’t really explain the dichotomy of reasoning. So, I bought the least expensive, most gaudy, cheapest, spoon lure available from a Canadian Tire store, handled it freely, making sure that human scent was all over the lure and cast it time after time out into the water. I rationalized this odd approach to fishing by haughtily announcing that any fish dumb enough to bite that cheap, tainted lure was a detriment to the fish gene pool and deserved to be caught as the dumbest of a dumb lot. I proclaimed that I was doing the general fish population a favour by culling the idiot fish.
I caught quite a few fish that summer. Cleaned and ate a few. Released most of them back into the water, before acknowledging that I really didn’t care for the full fishing experience at all. I sold my rod, reel (and lure) in a yard sale a few years later.
But now, more than thirty years later, sitting on my condominium patio, I can almost duplicate that sense of fishing, that sense of timeless time. The feeling that now is the only time there is, and it is the only time that ever was, and it is the only time that ever will be. These days, I do not need the act of casting a lure, nor the persistent lapping of finger waves upon the side of a boat, nor the gentle rocking in response to the wakes of passing motor boats to lull me into the profound appreciation of quiet, timeless time or peaceful space. Indeed, I often hear children screaming in delight on a nearby playground, dogs barking their canine warnings at pedestrian passers-by, traffic flowing its incessant river of steel along a not-so-distant roadway. But it is all just so much sound. I hear it, but I try not to judge it. The shouts and barks and hissing traffic are but small, almost insignificant notes upon the ever larger background of quiet and space and stillness. Thus, on my garden patio, even in the absence of rod and reel, I am able to generate an experience which has very comforting similarities to a sense of fishing.