We all have something that we do to help clear our mind. All the great thinkers had some activity that provided them a means to gather their thoughts. Nietzsche went for walks, Freud smoked cigars, and Kerouac played pool (while drinking excessively). Today we are here to discuss such an activity that has propelled many a mind and soul: fishing. Some, it is true, simply turn to this “sport” to escape from life, but there are men and women who use fishing as a way to contemplate life instead of run from it, to become better connected to nature, for a feeling of tranquility, and for a deeper understanding of oneself. The latter are the people I am here to discuss and the form of fishing I champion. There are many who prescribed themselves fishing as a way to slow down thought to allow the consumption of it. Ernst Hemingway fished often and wrote many stories on the matter. Presidents Eisenhower, Hoover, Carter, Cleveland, and Nixon all fished regularly, even while in office. What is it about fishing that can bring one closer to oneself, closer to nature? Come with me as we go fishing in a Pennsylvania stream.
You have walked about a half mile following a stream looking for a hole where trout feed. The water is high and the banks are steep. The water runs quickly throughout making it hard to see the depth and any trout that maybe resting in the gravel. You continue to walk and scan the water as the thoughts of times past, present and future flow through your mind, though today you are here to focus on the present. A breeze gently caresses the trees and you as you walk. It chills you more then you expected and you bundle up the best you can with a rod in hand. Ahead you spot a slight bend in the creek and decide to wade in there. As you move to the spot you wonder if your Grandfather would have entered the stream here. You think back on his teaching and his seemly superhuman ability to know when and where to cast a line. Your foot now sinks slightly into the mud at the edge of the stream. This time in the morning trout stay in the slow moving water with white ripples like you see at the bend. Both feet hit the water and receive a chilling shock as the cold current rolls over your boots. You stop for a second and take it all in. The only sound you can recognize is that of flowing water running around your boots and the ripples just ahead of you where the water battles a group of rocks. Nature serves as your only company out here. You take a deep breath and continue to wade into the water up to your thigh, with every step the hip boots tighten against your skin under the pressure of the passing water and a chill runs up your spine as your legs adjust to their new surroundings. Suddenly as you take a step your forward foot slides across an algae-covered rock, which moved under your weight. You shuffle your feet quickly and try to balance, almost losing your rod. You splash around a little more and ultimately regain your stance. The sound of the water rushing through and around your legs heightens as you finally reach the spot where you will be able to cast into the bend where a few trout might be.
You place the rod under your right arm and reach into your vest and secure a salmon egg and place it on the hook at the end of the leader. You take your first cast, the line flies out, the rocks below your feet twist and roll, the ripple in front of you caused by your presence in the water becomes distorted, and then all goes as it was before the cast. You look at the line and then the water and start to reel in the line slowly; performing short tugs on the line now and then to entice a trout to swallow the egg whole not just bite it. The leaders are at the first eye of the rod and you cast the line back out. You watch the bright pink salmon egg drift quickly at first, then slowly, as the leaders drag it down, and you lose sight of it. You continue the process over and over without a hurry; no one looking over your shoulder, no need to focus too much on any one thing. You let your thoughts wonder cast after cast. Your thoughts reminder of the Hemingway quote: “Somebody just back of you while you are fishing is as bad as someone looking over your shoulder while you write a letter to your girl.” It makes you smile as you a finally enjoying your own company without the burden of the cell phone you left behind. You notice how high the water it as it scurries over the base of the trees on the banks. Your legs have fully adjusted to the water and you feel peace. You hurl the line out again. A few pebbles running with the strong current collide into the heel of your boots and you can feel each individual hit as they pass on down the stream. It’s been long time since you have been in a situation like this; out in the wild absent of others. Your mind races to the nights you spent alone trudging through the woods in Army Ranger School. During that you were hungry and cold all the time. You spent most of your night waiting for the sun for it was your only friend.
Almost automatically, another cast goes out and as you look at the water a few water striders scuttle by your left leg. The swirling current caused by your legs creates a vacuum in the water that one of the striders disappears in, and then reemerges not far down the stream.
You force in a breath of fresh, unmolested air into your lungs and you can feel the air occupy the spaces in your chest, almost as if you inhaled a full cigarette except the feeling is cool and sincere instead of warm and toasty. You throw the line out again. You notice that you have not thought about time since you started walking to this spot and not knowing how much time has passed and having no way to tell it and no need, make the experience even more rewarding. The salmon came off in the last cast so you reel in and place another on the hook and take several steps forward to allow your cast to go a little farther down the stream. You throw line out again then again. You are glancing at an eagle flying overhead, BANG, the line thrashes out of the reel and you snap the rod up to force the hook through the fish’s snout. The pole bends half-over in front of you. The fish tugs vehemently against the tension of the line as you keep the rod high, the line tight, and the reel slowly turning. You are pulling him closer to you and he rises to the surface. You can feel your heart thumping in your chest as you angle to keep the fish on, he jumps and splashes and you must keep the line taunt and began to reel a little faster. He makes a run to the shore on the left and pulls out some line, but you regain it quickly. Your right arm swells as blood comes cascading in supply the muscles at work. The resistance to your pulls lightens and you know he has worn himself out; the time has come to bring him in. You right hand holds the rod up and keeps the line tight, your left readies the net. You bring him in close and can see him in the water glistening. He is a stunning fish and one that will impress the boys once you get back to the camp. You step forward toward him with your net leading. He sees you and makes one last attempt to change his fate by jolting toward the hole you fished, but your net blocks his way. You pull you right arm back as far as you can and even lean back to get the net under the fish and then your left arm rises and the fish flops onto the metal rim of the net as it leaves the water. The fish lies straight across on the rim as to not fall into the interwoven ropes below, finally gravity forces him to collapse and fall. You smile and look around for a moment. What a feeling rushes through you as you hold the net with the new noticeable weight of the fish. You cannot wipe the smile off your face. It is a weird energy that fills you something between an accomplishment and a victory with the added variable of knowing there was a sizable amount of chance in involved, but you pulled it off anyway.
You wade to the shore and admire the fish. He is a native Brook trout shaded in brown with colorful dots covering his body. He will make a fine meal later in the day. While he is in the net you place your thumb in the fish’s mouth and press it to his back breaking his neck. The fish stops moving and you take the fish by the gills and hold him up. Grasping the fish you realize how slick he is and how nimble his body can be. You take out your knife and gut the fish and rinse him in the steady water. As you rinse the fish it comes back to life as his body flaps in the current. You take him out of the water and set him in a bag you had in your vest for such an occasion. The water turns to a chestnut color as you rinse off the knife and your hands. The water is intensely cold hurting your hands after a few moments submerged in it. You think of the upcoming winter in the city. Surely, the trails of winter will again wear you down as you long for the sun, but not yet. You rest a moment. You start to wade back in the water.
After our experience here you may be a little more inclined to understand why some use fishing as a form of mediation. A man who goes fishing with the only goal to catch a fish will fail, whether that goal is met or not. Fishing should bring much more than a fish or a story. Hemingway wrote some great pieces on fishing. Most famous is “The Old Man and the Sea” of course, but Hemingway also wrote two short stories detailing fishing called “Big Two-Hearted River (Part I and II)” Those two short stories first appear in “In Our Time.” The stories’ content goes must deeper than a simple fishing story, but the feeling and description that Hemingway uses greatly heightens the reader’s awareness of a fisherman’s sensation during fishing.
Now in traditional lore, drinking enhances any action and any action enhances drinking, and by god that goes for fishing too. Hemingway has a great detailed scene of a fishing trip in The Sun Also Rises where the protagonist and his friend Bill go fishing in Spain. These two characters brought with them what they needed to fish and three bottles of wine. In the story they put the wine in the stream to keep them cold. That is how you do it—no need for fancy coolers or rubbish, just tackle and drinks.