When I was in college, I worked as a sporting goods clerk at a department store. It wasn’t a very large or excellent sporting goods center. The store was better known for its apparel and housewares, and my department served as a sort of holding area for guys who’d wandered away while their wives tried on clothes.
To keep these fellows entertained until someone retrieved them, we set up a TV and VCR to play fishing and hunting tapes all day. The most popular and plentiful videos of the day were about bass fishing–folksy programs with sad production values but enthusiastic hosts. In one video there was a large model of a lake, perhaps 10 feet across, the surface of which was a thin expanse of blue plastic on hinges. To show the viewer where in the lake fish were likely to hide, the host lifted the water surface like the hood of a truck.
I still remember one line of the host’s narration, which he delivered quite without irony: “The hardest part about fishing is that all the fish are under water.”
At the time it struck me as awfully funny that he’d been careful to point out “all” the fish are under water. Not just some. Not most. All.
And yet the observation is not without value. If anything, it’s an understatement. It’s not just the hardest part of fishing, it’s one of the primary reasons we fish in the first place.
As air-breathers, humans have always been transfixed by the watery world. The fascination arose long ago from the discovery that most waterbodies harbor rich stocks of strange creatures that may, with a little effort, be taken from their homes and eaten. More recently, we have turned philosophical about our aquatic cousins, and in time we may become as interested in learning about them as we are in eating them.
Until then, whatever our stated motives, we constantly gather at the water’s edge because we can’t exist underneath it. We approach the water to peer and perhaps dive into it, but we eventually float to the top again. There is no hinged hatchway we can lift. We can never truly enter in. Even the most advanced underwater explorers only cheat nature for short periods by creating small pockets of our world to take with them.
We anglers connect with the aquatic world by hooking fish and bringing them to us. This places great demands on the fish. We deceive the them, hassle them, force them into fighting for their lives. And we sometimes eat them. I do what I can to compensate for my incursions into their realm, but when I was young I thought outwitting and capturing the quickest and most elusive of creatures on their own turf was a great achievement, and the reward was holding a fish in my hand to feel its weight and movement.
A few days ago I fished a tiny mountain stream to that end–to hold a fish in my hand. The water was somewhat colored with no risers, so it was not a sight-fishing day. Catching fish was a matter of prospecting likely holding water to entice hits from fish guessed at but unseen. I floated my fly over one such spot without success, then fished out the cast–not because I thought there might be a fish further down, but as a matter of habit. However, as the fly glided over the shallow, less-promising water, the gravelly streambed quavered, resolved itself into a cutthroat trout, and rose up. The fish was not just an inhabitant of the stream but an actual unpieced sliver of it. When I put him back in the water he sidled away from the bank, his edges vanished, and the trout–which lay cool and slippery in my hand only a few seconds before–was part of the stream again.
I’ve come to realize that for me fishing has always had less to do with cleverness and control and more to do with bridging air and water. That’s why I want to see the fish take a dry fly, and why I holler when a big fish leaps. While the fish is on the line, we are connected between two worlds. Today it is not as important for me to hold the fish as it is to watch him return to the water. Touching a lifeform that has crossed from one world to another and back is somehow sustaining and affirming. It may in fact say something about the future of our souls.