My dad bought me out on a fishing boat when I was barely big enough to hold on to my little fishing pole, watching with loving patience to make sure I didn't fall in. Finding my old Cherry rod as I cleaned up the garage, brought back a lot of memory of sitting in that boat, facing each other as of waiting for a bugle to call charge. Holding that dusty rod in my hand I can still picture my red haired Dad sitting across from me, head turned just so, as if his mind had gone someplace quiet, yet with every muscle poised and at ready, in case the bobber called with a twitch.
I think of the last time I fished, simply throwing a rod out into the big pond back behind the house. The sun was setting, leaving wisps of lavender ribbons across the sky; clouds moving up from the Plains, wispy strands through which I could see that which was the last phase of a full moon. There it was, the call, the bobber moved slightly, a fish, or the wind? Earlier there had been a huge fin slicing the water; a giant carp or Nessie, but there were a lot of other, smaller fish in there. I was tempted to jerk the line, to see what I had, but I waited. This is what patience is all about, being wholeheartedly engaged in the process that's unfolding, rather than yank up the line to see what's at the other end. It's about choosing your battle and sticking with it, for one of those things that Dad passed on in that little boat was that it was the side of the war you were on that made you the person you were.
Not everyone gets that. I've met women, who have never held a fishing pole ask me, "don't you just get, well, BORED?"
I've fished both saltwater and freshwater salmon, the freshwater moving in from the oceans of their lifetime into the rivers to spawn. There's nothing like it, that fixed spot in space when you think maybe you've snagged a rock on the bottom and suddenly the whole bottom begins to move and shake and you've got a freight train on your line. While your vision is clouded with bacon wrapped salmon and the hickory smell of the smoker firing up, your muscle memory is having a boxing tournament with a fish as big as a 3 year old, jumping out of the water, dancing on his tail like a washed out celebrity, then diving back into the water. The male salmon is, as they say, all show and no roe, cocky and overambitious, The female, though, not inclined to bite, when she does will lay in with a heavy and placid stubbornness that begs you to start something. Like arguing with any female of strength and persuasion you had either be prepared for a long drawn out test of will, or simply get out the scissors, cut the line and admit THAT was a mistake
But that last fishing time I was simply out back of my own property, enjoying some quiet time after a hectic week. There is something about fish, and the men and women that seek them, despite variances in gender, age or upbringing. We are people who just cannot thrive between clustered walls, walking asphalted trails to small offices, breathing in the fumes of yearning, working and dying earthbound, with nary a thought of the sky or the clouds or the sea. To stake us to a plot of earth, however shaded, safe and watered, is to watch us wither and die. So we go out to the woods, to the water.
You see us in our trucks, pulling a boat, or sitting in a WalMart lawn chair on the side of a lake. There's bass stickers on our trucks, tackle boxes with more shiny stuff than a Hollywood starlet's jewelry case, and maybe even a custom license plate. I remember one truck, with a little Bass Pro sticker in the window and the plate, "BIG ROD". My Mom looked up, shyly giggled and said "well, I hope he's a fisherman".
So that last time that I fished, the call of a loon brought me back into the moment and I thought about all the things I needed to do at home. Iron clothes in prep for what can always be a week or two on the road, bills to pay, a yard to mow. And I stopped. "Can you hear that?" I whispered to Barkley, sitting by my side, tail wagging, poised to strike in case I reeled in a side of bacon. "That" being the sound of a small bass jumping on a small span of water on a planet spinning through space.
This is what fishing is all about, not catching anything, not putting a meal on the table, simply a time with nature to be savored when the whole body is one sense with the water and delight imbibes through every pore with the transparent cast of a line. I really don't care if I catch anything, frankly, I just enjoyed the communion of elemental waters.
The crickets began their chorus to usher in the night, and the note of the sparrow is borne on the wind from over the water. And from the waters edge, a salamander crawled out, that traveler of both the water and the land, equally at home in both. We're all born of water, as we emerge from the watery landscape of the womb, we discover we can breathe, and we leave behind the fluid comfort of our mother's form, to become searchers of the land.
What caused that first being to emerge from the womb, from the water? The call of nature, or something primordial? There was a Disney movie of a redheaded mermaid, half human, half fish, who gave up the freedom of her watery home for the love of a man. What is that primal urge that drives us out and up, away from our comfortable origins to a land , dry and stark and often barren. Perhaps we just left the water on a quest for love.
As the last of the daylight seeped back into the sky, I thought back to what has been troubling me, but only briefly, for my mind now, like the lake, is rippled but not ruffled. These small ripples of water raised by the evening's wind are only a hint of turmoil in a slowly calming stream. As the day pulled out of the sky taking the wind with it, I cast back out into the now still center of the pond, the moment causing me to hold in my breath.. There it was. Utter and complete stillness, when even inhaling and exhaling was like a cacophony. The trees were quiet, the animals of day hunkering down for rest, and the night creatures not yet stirring. There was no breeze, no recognition of air even; it was the sound of nothing and everything, as if present, future and beyond were contained in one space, and I was not just casting into it, I was part of it. A heavenly spot of time.
Poets talk about such places, but its only been outdoors where I've experienced eternity compressed into a moment. A moment where in an instant you can see your whole life and a choice is made. No one can even explain to you what this "spot of time" is until your whole horizon is a fish and then the fish has vanished like a puff of silver smoke.
I thought of one fish off the coast of Oregon. A salmon that will still bring a smile to my face when I'm an old lady. When I brought him up, the sun flashed off the platinum scales of his 30 pound back, blinding with the diamond brilliance of light on form. I was so enamored of him that my breath stopped in ragged gasp and my hands loosened their grip. In that instant before he was gone, breaking the line with his power, time stopped. In that moment I sensed why it was that man's life was so long compared to the fish. I had a sunlit glimpse of why we seek in water and in the Book, those reasons for which man, above all, was chosen amongst His belabored and sometimes blind offspring, to be guardians of the land and the waters.
I thought back to fly fishing in Gunnison, visiting family, watching the fly fisherman standing, rod in hand, in the rushing water making the most beautiful movements, a ballet of line and wind and hook. A ritual of the chase, the cast like a tease to the unsuspecting trout, placid in their world, until he pulled them into his. As the trout took the bait, the man would smile, that quick knowing smile, and pull. A flicker of fingers, a light stroke of hand, fingers on a keyboard, a caress that's hello and goodbye. Then, when his goal was within his hands, he gently pulled the hook from the mouth, gently cradling the fish in his hand as a way of saying goodbye for good. Without a sound he released her back downstream.
Catch and Release. Sometimes you have to.
With my house fading into shadow, darkness falling, I decided to head back. I didn't catch anything, my true catch was as intangible and indescribable as the twilight playing on the water. I think of what Thoreau said "many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after". When we fish, we linger, we wait for something that lies deep within. Wait at quiet pools, warm lips, cool water, as we reach for that gossamer kiss. We willingly bite the secret barb, as we're pulled in, breathless, gasping up into somewhere unknown, searching upward to catch a glimpse of who it was that wanted us.
Tonight I need to pull the hook of that fly out of my lips and swim away into a quiet pool, contemplating some things best let go.