Monday, June 30, 2014

A Fish Story

I finished a hot and strenuous garden project for my wife today, so I decided to reward myself by taking a late afternoon fishing trip.

I've recently noticed a pond on the map a few miles from my house. It's not well known because it is almost completely surrounded by private property; but there is small bit of water frontage on a busy road with a few parking spots. So I put the canoe on the cartop and when I arrive I'm in luck; it's a sunny Sunday afternoon, but there's only one other car there. I launch the canoe.

Since this is a just a few miles outside of Boston, I've brought my "urban fishing" tackle box, which is stocked with small "panfish" lures. City fishing isn't about catching trophy fish, it's about catching anything at all. So I tie on a tiny 1/16 oz "rooster tail" -- it basically looks like an allergy pill with a hula skirt. It also features an oval brass tag that spins around as you retrieve it. In my experience this is practically the only thing besides earthworms that catches anything in urban ponds.

I make my first cast about twenty-five feet downwind and along the shoreline, retrieving past the edge of a bank of weeds visible from the surface. I immediately get a strike. At first I don't believe it; having a fish strike on your very first cast of the day is  a once-in-a-blue moon event. But sure enough I reel in a pumpkinseed -- a kind of sunfish. That's no surprise; practically the only thing you get in these urban ponds is sunfish (bluegills and pumpkinseeds), yellow perch, and very rarely a smallmouth bass. The surprise is this is the biggest pumpkinseed I've ever caught. It's longer than my hand (why would I bring a tape measure here?), so it's over eight inches long. That makes it close to trophy weight. but it's late Sunday and I'd have to find an official weigh station that was open. Anyway I'm doing catch and release so I throw him back.

By the time I finish dealing with the pumpkinseed the wind has blown me to the north shore of the lake. I make my second cast and immediately get another strike, and this guy puts up one heck of a fight. I'm fishing with 4 lb test monofilament, so I have to set the reel's drag very, very low. It takes me a long time to land him. He's a juvenile largemouth, only eight or nine inches long, but spunky. Now I'm starting to think I should have brought the big lures -- this little guy is exactly the size the tiny rooster tail lure is meant to attract.

Now obviously I don't continue to get a strike on every cast, but every place I go in the 100 acre lake I catch fish. Mostly tons of black crappie. Some of them are quite big for crappies; a pound to a pound and a quarter I'd say. And all over the place I'm pulling one yellow perch out of the water after another. They're all on the small side, about 4-5", I think because they all get eaten while they're still minnows.

Before coming here I'd picked out a very fishy looking spot on the map. It was a place where a brook emptied into a bay which in turn opened by a narrow neck onto the main body of the pond. A spot like that is perfect for a predator to hang out and wait for dinner to pass by. But I don't even bother going there, and when I tell you why you'll think I'm crazy.

You see I love fishing, but I hate catching fish.

I like the setting -- out on the water where it's quiet. I like the time, usually in the early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is low, the sky bright and the breeze light. But most of all I like the process. I rig up my line, study the terrain, decide on a spot where I imagine a hungry fish may be lurking. Then I pick a target beyond that. I become the target. Plop! The satisfaction of a perfect cast.

Now I am the lure pretending to be something else. Help! I am a wounded minnow. Please don't dart out of the weeds and swallow me. Help! I'm a cicada who has dropped out of the tree onto the water. Please don't come to the surface and gobble me up.

And it's not that a perfect day fishing doesn't at some point involve catching something. Ideally I catch just enough to maintain the pretense that I'm not out here wasting my time. One fish is a good day. Two fish is a great day. But three fish is just another good day. Four fish and it's time to go home and cut my losses.

I just don't like the killing part. So I catch and release, killing only the fish I can't unhook cleanly. When I catch a fish that won't survive I immediately kill it and bleed it. But that's my least favorite part of fishing. Even catch and release can get fiddly when it doesn't go well. None of this catching business is as simple and satisfying as the fishing is.

So I find myself in the canoe becoming increasingly apathetic. Oh, something's nibbling on the lure. I'll just keep reeling in. If it wants the bloody thing let it do the work. Then I find myself casting and thinking, "God I hope nothing strikes." When I hear myself thinking that, I decide it's time to head home. I won't say this was a bad day; like they say a bad day fishing beats a good day working. But there was too much catching for my taste.

And now this pond has now ruined all the other ones around my house. Next time I spend a day not catching anything, it won't be because catching fish is hard, it'll be because I deliberately went somewhere I wouldn't catch anything. The pretense of purpose will be gone.

So I'll come back to this pond, but rigged for big fish. Very big fish. That will be perfect. I'll know the fish are there, but I'm just not catching them today. But someday I might.  In fact I think I'll go to the bait and tackle store tomorrow and see if they have a lure that looks like a puppy who's fallen into the water. I imagine working the lure: Help! I am a golden retriever pup who has fallen out of the boat.


Anonymous said...

A lovely and well-written story to find having (I think) clicked through your Homepage link on Slashdot in the midst of some C++ rant :)

Matt Leo said...

Thank you.