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Author: Thomas McIntyre
"Whenever...it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off-then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can." --Herman Melville, Moby Dick.
Like much in postmodern life, fishing is now therapy for entirely too many. It's all Izaak Walton "cowslip-banks" and God not making "a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation." Nobody goes fishing for fish anymore; they are Fly-Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis. Enlightenment is the quarry, and it's only a matter of time before the host of a "very special" Oprah will be waist deep in the Henry's Fork, wearing designer waders and casting about for her inner child with a 0-weight rod. Dr. Phil will probably net her catch for her.
Enough already! Seeking samyak-samadhi, "perfect contemplation," on fishing waters is like hoping to meditate in the grandstand at a stockcar race. Beneath the tranquil surface of a lake, not to mention a tossing ocean, is not Nirvana but nothing less than the most violent realm the natural world has to offer.
Above water most animals are placid, cud-chewing herbivores. Underwater, the predators whirl and slash and battle constantly for every scrap of flesh; and everything underwater is a predator. Big fish are forever eating little fish, as can be seen when you pull up a lake trout, spitting out a silver-scaled cisco he just swallowed, and find he is missing parts of fins and has white sickles of scars on his flanks where something once tried to swallow him.
In the aquatic jungle of fishing waters, there is always something bigger that can handily eat the biggest thing we have ever managed to bring to the surface: That's why we keep coming back to the waters, to see what amazing thing is in them. As Hemingway wrote, "who can say what you will hook." The certainty of tranquility is not what fishermen are after, but the uncertainty of struggle.
We hear about the "music of angling," its "ballet," when it is nothing but brutal contest. The real wonder of fishing is that the contest remains proportional: A three-pound trout on a two-pound tippet makes for a fight equal to a 200-pound marlin on 130-pound test. The lessons of fishing are not about delicacy and beauty, but about survival and courage.
The late actor Lee Marvin apparently used to tell a fishing story (he told a pig-hunting story, too, but that one ended with him tumbling off a stool in a Kona bar in Hawaii and knocking out his front teeth) about hooking "something" off the Great Barrier Reef. What he had never ran and never shook, never sounded and never rose, acted, in short, like none of the hundreds of marlin he had caught before. It just held, Marvin unable to move it. You don't have to anthropomorphize to imagine a billfish hanging there in the deep, thinking.
For four hours it held, and Marvin held it, his arms burning like briquettes in the barbie. Then it made up its mind and moved, pulling loose. Marvin, too tired to lift his arms, handed the rod to the mate and went up to the bridge to open a beer, letting the mate wind in the fathoms of line. When the hook appeared, a huge marlin eye dangled from it, Marvin having foul-hooked the fish.
What that marlin had been thinking for all those hours was, My eye, or my life? A question like that is as close as fishing should get to meditation. Is that a reason for hating fishing, as Lord Byron did, as "the cruelest, the coldest, the stupidest of pretended sports," or is it an even greater reason for admiring the savage valor of fish--not even mammals, as an exasperated and awestruck angler once put it--a valor we could never know without angling for them?
A brook trout buck in full spawning colors is not magnificent because he's pretty but because he fights like hell. He will fight not because he is afraid, either. He will fight because he'll be damned if he's going to let himself be hooked and pulled out of the water. If a fish didn't fight, he wouldn't be any more beautiful than a bowl of dust-covered glass fruit on a coffee table.
Herman Melville knew a little something about fishing, at least for whales, and it wasn't coffee-table beauty he was looking for on a Nantucket whaler. For him it was his "substitute for pistol and ball." Fishing as therapy? At its best, it's pure pathology. We'd be crazy to want it any other way.
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