“That’s Fishing!”

Every fisherman has his “the one that got away” story and now I have mine.

My husband and I took our daughter and her children to Virginia Lake for a day of swimming and kayaking.  It’s only a few miles from our house, yet the great thing about it is that it’s in a remote, not-so-easy-to-get-to location.  Few people besides locals even know of its existence, despite its presence on any map of Maine.  Much of the land around the lake was owned by the Diamond Match Company, but they relinquished their hold to the Forest Service and it was designated as conservation land.  The few cabins around the lake were similarly sold to the US Forest Service and the cabins were either physically removed from the land or allowed to decay to the point of no return.  There is one “holdout” – a wealthy family from Maryland who owns a sprawling, rustic yet luxurious lodge/family compound there — but they are the only residents amidst hundreds of acres of timber and mountains along Virginia Lake, and they are there only during the summer.  Whenever I kayak there, I  almost always have the entire lake to myself, with the exception of Common Loons.  Their haunting cry is both ethereal and mystical; there is nothing quite like the magic and privilege of hearing and experiencing their amazing sound.

That said, getting to Virginia Lake with an entire family in tow is a rather complicated affair.  There is a fairly decent dirt road to the primitive boat launch which is surrounded by brush and scrub and woods; but to get to the side of the lake where there is a small cove and sandy beach is something else altogether.  The dirt road leading there is completely washed out, and only with great difficulty can even a 4×4 manage the axle-smashing, suspension-ruining flooded, rocky ruts along the way.  Usually it’s much easier to park in the brush and walk the remaining .3 mile to the beach, but besides the mosquitoes and blackflies along the so-called path, there are towels, snacks, drinks, sunscreen, and all the required paraphernalia associated with a family gathering that must also be carried in.  There are no bathrooms and no trash cans, so any trash one generates must be carried back out to the car at the end of the day, to be disposed of at a later date.   Picture, if you will, the vast quantity of stuff required when you realize that my daughter has seven children, ages 15 months to 12 years old!

So why bother?  Well, due to laws of modesty, Orthodox Jews do not participate in sunbathing or swimming in a mixed-gender situation unless it is with their own family, and opportunities within this scenario are rare.  Virginia Lake, due to its isolation and inconvenience, provides plenty of privacy.  But even more than that, it is exceptionally pristine and beautiful and a true wilderness experience.  Also, because it is rarely visited, the fishing is terrific.

By the time we got everyone piled into two cars filled to the brim with everything we’d need, I’d lost count of all the items on my checklist and only hoped we hadn’t forgotten anything too important.  After several exhausting trips shlepping stuff from the car, I realized I had forgotten my fishing net at home.  That didn’t stop me from fishing, however!

The kids loved kayaking and even the three-year-old enjoyed paddling in the shallow waters by the shore (we stood in the water next to the kayak to ensure he wouldn’t capsize or be in danger, and of course they wore life jackets).

Two of the grandkids kayaking on Virginia Lake

Two of the grandkids kayaking on Virginia Lake

Fooling around and having fun on Virginia Lake

Fooling around and having fun on Virginia Lake.  Even the little 3-year-old blondie (3rd from the right, crouching down in the boat) got to have “solo” time paddling the kayak. (click to enlarge)

I love this picture because it so well captures the pure joy and fun of the day.

I love this picture because it so well captures the pure joy and fun of the day.

Eventually they all had enough and now it was my turn!  I paddled out to my favorite area on the lake where the fish always seem to bite.  I wasn’t sure my fishing rod would even work, since the day before I had propped it up along the wall next to the window, and someone had absent-mindedly slammed the window shut – – right on the rod, snapping off the end.  So here I was, with this crazy, shortened rod, with a sharp rough piece sticking out at the end, attempting to catch something.

Within 30 seconds of putting the worm on the hook and casting the line, I didn’t feel a nibble — I felt a CHOMP.  I had never felt anything quite like it before.  Usually the fish just nibble at the worm gently, until their noshing gets the best of them and they take a fatal bite and become hooked.  Sometimes they are crafty – they nibble carefully enough to release the worm from the hook without their getting caught and then I’m minus both worm and fish.  But immediately I knew that whatever had taken that CHOMP, it was BIG, and it wasn’t fooling around – all it took was one bite and that worm was history.

Encouraged, I put another worm on the hook and waited.  Within a minute, I hooked a fish and began to reel it in.  It was pretty powerful, and my already-broken rod was nearly doubled in half as I struggled to pull it in.  Suddenly, there it was:  the largest trout I had ever seen!  Twenty-one inches and enough to feed five people.  (I knew its length because I have a tape measure glued on to the side of the kayak, to ensure I don’t take a fish too small for the legal minimum.)  Despite my attempts to grab it, I was unsuccessful, and that’s when I realized that without the forgotten net, I was helpless.

“Help me!” I shouted to my husband on the distant shore.  “Please!  Paddle out and help me nab this fish!”  Alas, amidst the gleeful sounds of the children playing in the sand and the water,  they couldn’t hear my cries.  I was afraid the squirming trout, fighting for its life, would unhook itself, but it did something even more surprising:  it snapped the ten-pound line, and with the hook still in its mouth, it plopped back into Virginia Lake and swam far, far away.

How I mourned!  I felt terrible:  not only did I lose what will probably be a once-in-a-lifetime catch, I was now guilty of a terrible cruelty:  a fish was destined to live – – and probably soon die – – with a hook imbedded in its mouth.

One of my children once asked me, “Doesn’t it gross you out to eat something you have had to kill?  Wouldn’t you just rather buy a fish in the market?”

It’s a surprisingly deep question.  Most people I’ve spoken with love fishing for the sake of fishing.  Most of the time, they don’t even keep what they catch – – they throw it back into the water. 

But the only fish I throw back into the water are those that are too small to eat.  I regard the entire fishing process as somewhat cruel, from the worm’s impalement and subsequent squirms on the hook; to the fish being caught by its mouth by a hook, struggling to free itself and then to breathe its last breaths out of water – – no, I don’t really see this as “fun” or as “sport.”  The only justification I can find in it is if it serves a purpose:  food to nourish me.  It is a profound and grave experience to truly realize first hand the process of where your food comes from.  I think if most people had to kill their own chickens or cows rather than buy a piece of meat wrapped unrecognizably in plastic packaging at the supermarket, that most would become vegetarians.  In order to live, one has to destroy.  It’s important, I think, to experience that (unpleasant!) connection, to not take it for granted or become desensitized:  ulitmately, to make it holy.  (That’s another reason Orthodox Jews make blessings over every item of food we eat.  We are not only thanking G-d for providing us sustenance, we are attempting a paradigm shift:  eating to live instead of living to eat.)

Disheartened, I could not stop thinking about that fish.

The next day I went to the town dump to dispose of our trash.  The fellow who runs the dump is a typical rural “Mainuh:”  very taciturn; a man of few words; wary of people who are “from away.”  In the four years I’ve lived here, he has only grunted in acknowledgement of my hellos.  Even when I bake him cookies every year during holiday season, he purses his lips and only nods his head once in appreciation.  But in my experience, Mainers love to give advice if asked.  And so I gathered my courage and said,

“Excuse me . . . can I ask you a question?”

He grunted.

” . . . About fishing?” I continued.

He stopped.

“You see, I’m new to fishing.  I don’t really know what I’m doing.  But I  want to learn more.  I was wondering if you could tell me what I did wrong.”

I proceeded to tell him my story of the one that got away.  He was all ears, and his eyes lit up as my story unfolded.  He seemed a bit impressed that the trout had snapped a ten-pound line.  When I got to the end he said two words:

“That’s fishing!”

At first I didn’t get it.  So he proceeded to tell me his own “the one that got away” story, and it was rather embarrassing:

He was out fishing on a local lake with his buddy, the owner of a nearby convenience store.  They were trolling for fish (gliding slowly in the boat) with four rods dangling from the boat.  The boat had three rod-holders; the fourth rod was simply propped up against the side of the boat.

“. . . And wouldn’t you know it!  The one worm the fish goes for is attached to the rod that’s not in the rod-holder!  It took us by complete surprise!  And suddenly, I’m just sitting there like a dummy watching it;  the entire rod and reel flips over my head, off the boat, and is carried into the lake lock, stock and barrel by that fish!  I was just so surprised, and it happened so quickly, I couldn’t move fast enough.  And that was the end of that!  The rod, the reel – the whole thing – gone!  And that’s fishing!”

And then I got it.

We think we’re in control.  That’s the beauty of fishing:  its us humans, supposedly of superior intelligence, versus the fish.  And we should win, every time.  Sometimes we do  – – and sometimes we don’t.  Sometimes it’s because of skill, sometimes it’s because of luck – –  or lack thereof.  But ultimately, the joke is on us.  Fishing is humbling, because a small creature with no brainpower mostly outwits us.  We like to think we are in control:  in control of the fish, in control of our lives – – but we’re not. 

“That’s fishing.”

That’s life.

What powerful mussar the trash dump guy gave me, right before Rosh HaShana.

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