I have laid aside business, and gone a-fishing.– Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler(1653)
From the boat I fish for bullheads, I catch a lot, sometimes too many.– Bob Dylan, "Floater" (2001)
Some things you start so young you can’t remember or imagine not doing them. For me, these are breathing, eating, speaking, and fishing.
It’s often fathers who get their kids into fishing. But my dad was not outdoorsy. He was the least sportive person I know. We never played catch or went to a ballgame (but ask me sometime about air shows). He wouldn’t eat fish.
I don’t blame my dad – through him, a newspaperman, I was steeped in language. Hell, I drowned in it. But it was my older brother who got me into fishing. He was my gateway, my pusher man.
Our dad drove us to lakes before we could drive. We’d row out in a rented aluminium boat and send our lines down among the weeds. We’d watch our bobbers for the twitch of life. We’d set the hook and reel in a panfish. Dad told me to keep the line taut, and I wondered what I was supposed to teach it.
The lore of the lure. We’d pore over newsprint catalogues from Cabela’s, now a big chain of outdoor superstores, but back in the ‘60s they shipped mail orders from a basement in Nebraska. We’d marvel at lure designs, and even more at lure names. Flatfish, Hula Popper, Jitterbug, Creek Chub Pikie Minnow, Rapala plugs, Daredevle spoons, Mepps spinners. These are still my ur-words, part of my wiring, sacred on my tongue. The lure of the lore.
But I’ve never been a gearhead. The lures and rods and reels and lines and leaders and bobbers and sinkers and hooks were a means to an end, the way mandolins, ukuleles, strings, picks, and tuners – music tackle – are a means to an end for me now.
The ends that justified the gear were, of course, the fish: their sleekness, their vibrant scales, their fearful symmetry, their mute eyes, defiant but resigned. The aim was to see, feel, and hold these wonders of evolutionary design, to conjure their crystalline shapes from amorphous waters.
We learned the terms of piscine anatomy: dorsal fin, pectoral fins, pelvic fins (where’s a fish’s pelvis?), anal fin (before I understood “anal”), and the crowning word of fish nerddom: the caudal fin, known to the uninitiated merely as a “tail.” The shibboleth of fish folk is “caudal peduncle,” a piece of poetry that also happens to mean the fleshy base of the tailfin.
Then there are the fish names themselves, those ancient monosyllables: trout, perch, bass, pike, gar, drum, carp, bream, chub, char, cod, shark, eel, dab, dace, ray, fluke, grunt, hake, jack, ling, loach, tench, scup, shad, snook, sole, sprat. These are linguistic atoms, a periodic table of morphemes, coined in primordial encounters, seaside, riverside, lakeside.
Richer still are the compounds, molecules catalysed by variety and locality: bluegill, pumpkinseed, rock bass, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, northern pike, walleyed pike, channel catfish, sheephead, white sucker, quillfish, golden shiner, creek chub, green sunfish, white crappie, white bass, yellow bass, yellow perch, white perch, bullhead, rainbow trout, longnose gar, red-ear sunfish.
Incidentally, that was a list of the freshwater species I’ve caught. I’m a freshwater boy. I grew up in Michigan, where Ice Age glaciers left not only the Great Lakes that surround the state, but hundreds of lesser lakes too. Pontiac Lake, Kent Lake, Orchard Lake, Pine Lake, Lake Orion, Cass Lake, Lakeville Lake, Long Lake, Square Lake, Lake Mitchell, Lake Cadillac. During two halcyon summers in the 1960s, we went to Blackstone Lake, across Lake Huron in Ontario, Canada, where we stalked smallmouths and rock bass from granite shores and northerns in weedy backwaters.
We were freshwater boys, but Aunt Betty lived in Connecticut, right on Long Island Sound, our own arm of the Atlantic Ocean. From her back yard, we’d fish sandworms for burgal, flounder, and porgy, or cast artificials for striped bass and bluefish (vulgo stripers and blues). We spent summer weeks whiffing salt air, eyeing tides, staying out on the rocks till we had to wade back. We were mindful and mindless, waiting rapt, with peripheral visions of water, boats, birds, clouds.
I’ve never fished in Europe. With no European species in my hard wiring, I still work to identify tench and bream and what German calls Nase and Schleie and Barbe. Of course, a few fishes are nearly alike in Europe and North America: pike (Hecht), walleye (Zander), carp (Karpfen), yellow perch (Flussbarsch), salmon (Lachs), sturgeon (Stör).
The sunfish family, which includes the large- and smallmouth basses, is not native to Europe, so I was amazed when I peered into the Lend Canal in Klagenfurt, Austria, and saw a largemouth bass. A largemouth – a Forellenbarsch– displayed at the local museum solved the puzzle: transplanted in the 20thcentury, they took root mainly in that area. Forellenbarsch means “trout perch.” Trout + perch ÷ 2 = bass. A linguistic family reunion too: Barschand bassare cognates.
The largemouth is the prime freshwater sport fish in the USA. It’s big enough, it’s plentiful, and it puts up a fight. Its flavour doesn’t match perch or walleye, but most middle-class anglers fish for fun, not food. There are even big bass tournaments, sponsored by tackle and boat manufacturers. Whoever catches the most bass by weight wins big bucks.
This American need to make things competitive and countable has little to do with why I fish. I fish quietly, meditatively, and I can have a good day fishing even if I don’t catch a thing. In my part of Ohio, the “Walleye Capital of the World,” they turn out in droves for the spawning run up the Maumee River from Lake Erie. Standing elbow to elbow with scores of other anglers is not my idea of fishing, no matter how big and tasty the prey.
So, why have I hardly gone fishing in the past few years? My son and erstwhile fishing partner moved away, I’ve been busy, etc. ... but mostly I feel more and more how brutal it is. I rarely ate the fish. I let them go. I joked that it’s not “catch and release,” but “maim and release.” You never know how much you’ll damage your victim for your moments of useless thrill. Humans love to commune with nature, but they can’t seem to do so without colonizing it.
My brother has stopped fishing, even though he fished even more than I did. His reasons are similar. And he’s a painter pushing 70 who needs time to paint. I can empathize. Now, even when I get the primal urge to get out by the water, I picture tearing a hook from a jaw, and decide not to go.
Still, I watch fishing videos, and read things like John McPhee’s great shad book The Founding Fish, or Blues, John Hersey’s paean to the bluefish. It’s like an old man reading about young love – the impulse might still be there, but it’s best left to the imagination.
Maybe one way humans grow up is by realizing that even if something is part of your identity and you can’t imagine life without it, that alone is not a good enough reason to keep doing it.