Fishing ain’t fishing
When I was a boy, my father would occasionally take me fishing. He was not prone to company at most times, preferring the solitude of self-reflection and the comfort of his own agreeable opinions. To be included in his plans at any time was a celebrated event, but fishing had its own mystique about it. Fishing assured more personal time with him than I might otherwise receive in an entire month. A taciturn man was my father, having no patience for extended conversation—or additional acquaintances. I believe it was his considered opinion that he already had too many as it was.
My father was an incredibly patient man; when it came to his own activities. Often spending more time reflecting on a chore than on the industry required to accomplish it. Not indolent, rather stubbornly committed to not hurrying himself into poor performance. For a fishing trip, he would lay out his fishing gear, painstakingly examining even the smallest piece, respooling his reels, organizing and reorganizing his lures, and sharpening his hooks. Often taking a week in preparation for a day-and-a-half of weekend fishing. Working in silence, but in plain view, building in me an excitement close to that of the week before Christmas.
Only after his gear had been stowed in the car, and his thermos of coffee had been filled did he request accompaniment. Only then seemingly recalling that other people also existed in his world. He would then to wait impatiently with the engine running for one of us to quickly pack and be ready to go with him. These trips usually began on a Friday night after a long work week, and we would drive into the oncoming darkness and disappear into the mystery of what lay ahead for a young boy.
Fishing for my father, and his father before him was a spiritual experience. Not in a religious sense of the word, but because it offered them escape from the restrictive structure of being a responsible adult. For them it was not just about baiting hooks, or cleaning fish. For them it was something else entirely. It was the state of mind and body that they maintained within while they performed these mundane tasks and it was a rare occurrence that the two of them did not experience it together. It was a lesson that I was slow to learn, taking years and mountains of living experience before I understood the depth of lesson.
My grandfather, tall and razor thin, with hands as large as shovels had labored in the lumber camps of the Northwoods, cutting timber and gandy dancing the logs down the river in the spring. My father, raised in the lumber camps, also razor thin, but smaller in stature with delicate clever hands like his mothers, was the more introspective of the two. They would often spend an entire weekend together without having spoken more than a paragraph of sentences between them. Their understanding of each other and the world around them observed and appreciated in the silence of togetherness.
On the road, driving through the night while I slept in the back seat, I would often awaken chilled and alone. The car parked in front of a wayside tavern or road house; the two men, inside, anxious to start their weekend. Eventually continuing on while I road in dreamy half-sleep.
In the early morning light, with the sun was clearing the horizon and the mist thick on the surface of the water, we would emerge and stretch into a world of pine scented forest, and a racket of bird calls. A world ruled by nature and where men were scarce. While the men carried their small rowboat to the water, I would unload the car stacking it at the water’s edge. Once the little boat had been floated and the oars were in their oarlocks, they would pack the gear carefully. There was fishing tackle, bait buckets, and stringers for the fish that might be caught. The bulk of the space in the boat however was taken up by a case of beer, a cooler for whiskey and ice. In the event that a large musky or pike was caught, or a large snapping turtle sighted, there was also a .22 caliber rifle and my father’s WWII service automatic. There was no need to pack ammunition, the guns were never unloaded. Although it is never possible to ‘hurry up and relax’. My father and grandfather knew a few shortcuts.
What little space that was left in the boat was for me. I would take my place, jammed between the beer case, cooler and spare tackle and the curved bow of the boat. An experience that while satisfactory at that time of the morning, lost its appeal as soon as the heat of the midday sun made its effects more noticeable.
Grandfather’s great shoulders and hands took the oars and with strong strokes would propel us rapidly away from the shoreline, rowing until we reached a seemingly arbitrary location on the river or lake. Once there the two men would drop anchor and begin readying their baited hooks. You could not ask the fish to hurry to the bait, wanting them to destroyed the point of fishing in the first place. Both knew it took a long time to fish for five minutes, and knew how to wait.
Instead, they set their baited hooks, and let the bait do their work for them. As soon as this was accomplished, they would toast each other with a swallow of whiskey and open the first beer of the morning. For them, sitting in the boat a beer in their hand, watching an osprey search the water below for its breakfast was the existential point of the trip. My job, crammed in the bow, was to watch the bobbers as they slowly drifted away from the boat, alerting the two men of a possible bite.
After the day had warmed, and a few more shots of whiskey had taken their effect, the two would attempt to educate me as to the point of the lesson. My father would speak of the boundary that existed between the two worlds, that of the rarified atmosphere above the water’s surface and the dense alien world that existed below. He would speak of the wonder of living things that could no more survive in our world than we could in theirs. He would tell of the multitude of variety that went about their lives unknown by us, existing only a few meters away from us but separated by millions of years in evolution. My Grandfather, would speak of the alien world above us. The birds and insects that inhabited it, and we, grounded in our earthly forms could not.
They would point out the trees that lined the shore, alive and ever patient, uniformly bent by years of enduring the steady north winds. They would point out the shifting sandbars, changing shape and location in the river, almost alive in their own way and constantly in motion. Through it all they drank and pointed, nodding to each other, sharing their silent speech and understanding.
Although I appreciated the sights and sounds around me, and listened intently to them I watched the bobbers more intently. The anticipation of catching a fish kept me alert and anxious, looking from one to another, imagining the slightest motion as an impending strike. The day would pass, and the beer cases would slowly empty and the cold sandwiches would be pulled from the cooler and eaten. The two men, tired by the all night drive, and an early start of their day, would then pull their hat brims down and doze in their seated positions, which I was unable and unwilling to do should I miss a fish. I fantasized the feel of a living thing at the other end of the thin line, the tug and the struggle, and the eventual victory and heroic return home. The need for patience difficult to muster, and hard to maintain.
On one occasion the sunlight dappled the water into millions of brilliant diamonds and I lost sight of the bobbers in the brilliance. Rising onto my knees I peered into the brightness fearful that I would miss the most important event of the day. My father, roused by my sudden activity, looked up and smiled.
“Son,” he said, “if you are fishing, and you’re doing it right, catching fish should be an interruption.”
And so it was.