Summer 2012 on one of the many nearby lakes
I can’t explain it, but I just know I am going to catch a fish today. The lake is big but something draws me to a particular spot. It’s as though a bas kol (heavenly voice) is calling down to me: “Here, right here! This is the spot!”
Fishing is a mixed blessing, a combination of patience and anticipation; horror and joy; morbidity and sustenance.
I still don’t enjoy picking up a squirming worm. And despite those who say worms don’t have feelings, I know that cannot be so because I have felt its initial flinch and stab of pain with the first prick and then impalement onto the fishing hook. And then I must continue threading it on the hook, jabbing the poor worm again and again. Meanwhile as I’m perpetuating this cruelty, I am surrounded by clear blue waters – – so clear I can see 15′ – 20′ beneath my boat – – a deep blue sky with the puffiest, cotton-white clouds, and verdant mountains ringing a lake so private that I’m its only human visitor on this day. Disgust mixed with profound beauty.
And then, while paddling silently, gliding along the glassy water with only the slightest breeze, my fishing rod stuck in its holder just behind the kayak seat, the line let out several tens of feet – – there is a small nearly imperceptible shudder and the rod begins to arc. I know it’s not because I’ve picked up some lake weeds or am stuck on a buried rock outcropping, because the line grows taut and then slack and then taut again with a staccato-like rhythm, and as I lift the rod and grab the reel and begin to wind, I feel the give-and-take, give-and-take, subtle at first, of the fish’s nibble. If I reel it in too quickly or too slowly, the fish will not catch properly on the hook, and he’ll swim away (and sometimes sneakily grab a few bites of the worm in the process). No, we have to do this dance of life and death, struggle and exhaustion, triumph and defeat.
When I catch the fish and pull him out of the water, I see he is tired – he has fought hard both for the worm and from the hook and death. His gills flex in and out, as though he is panting, struggling to breathe. He lays very still in my net, but no, he has a second, and then a third wind, and fights the net, my hands, and evades my grasp as I try to remove the hook. Some of his fins prove to be painfully sharp – his only body armor of defense.
He seems robust in girth but not in length. Alas, he measures approximately 12″ – not bad, but according to fishing regulations he must be at least 14″ if I want to enjoy him for dinner. Removing the hook, I let him float in the net that I’ve placed back in the water, allowing him to slowly recover from the stress of imminent death. I open the net and at first I wonder if I’ve waited too long – he seems too still. But no: he is suddenly re-energized and dashes back into the lake’s depths and freedom.
“I will come back for you next year,” I tell him, “when you are yet bigger. And then we’ll see.” I feel sorry that I couldn’t eat him, because I don’t like the concept of “catch and release” for the sake of “sport” – it stresses and plays with an animal for “fun.” I want to experience the entire process of catching, killing, cleaning and eating the fish, because I want to appreciate life, death, and sacrifice. I want to know if I have it in me to kill. I am not sure that I do. I know I feel conflicted with regret and relief as he is released. Do we really appreciate the profundity of a fish’s sacrifice (“so that we may live”) and, for that matter, God’s gift of sustenance, if we buy a plastic-wrapped fish in the market, so far removed from its source?
I continue paddling, and once again feel a nibble. Not as strong – I figure it’s the same dumb fish but he’s simply more tired – – but when I reel it in I see it’s an even smaller fish, only 9″ long, and I throw him back immediately. Fishing is kind of like gambling, I decide. It’s somewhat distasteful yet exciting. The odds are against you. But when you win . . .
There’s always the anticipation of a win, no matter how unrealistic. Nature, in this case, is the House, and as we all know, the House always (well mostly always) wins. But not enough to stop me from trying to beat the odds.
I set out again. And again. Only the coming dark has the power to make me call it a day.
I’ve since caught land-locked salmon, perch, brown trout and bass. None were “keepers” – legally large enough to become dinner. It appears the only fish I will be eating anytime soon will be coming from a can.
It’s funny, this late in my life, to see how fishing has suddenly cast its spell upon me. When a brown trout succeeds in sneakily nibbling the worm off my hook without getting caught, I see there are two ways of looking at it: I’m not going to let some stupid fish outsmart me! Or, maybe I don’t know everything and I have a lot more to learn . . . even from a small fish. It’s humbling. Thank you, G-d.