Archive for December, 2008

LOST FISH

IMAGINE IF YOU WILL how intolerably boring the enterprise of sportfishing would be if we were always assured of success in landing each and every fish hooked. It would certainly, in the long run, truly be unbearable and in fact, by theoretical definition, the endeavor could no longer be called a “sport” as the element of chance, an inherent criteria for any game, will have been removed.

While it is a generally accepted axiom in fishing that luck decreases as a factor determining success or failure as the skill level of the angler increases, in this brave new world of fisherman egalitarianism advanced skills become unneccesary and luck, either good or bad, no longer plays a role in the outcome. No longer will ten percent of the fisherman catch ninety percent of the fish as both neophyte and expert would equally be assured of unmitigated success. The infinite challenges that angling offers and the knowledge of a lifetime of experience would no longer be of any importance.

There is a famous story told of an angler who dies and goes on to the great river beyond which he is thrilled to discover is full of rising trout. Each and every one of his casts yields a three pound rainbow. They are all takers. The fish fight hard on both dry flies and nymphs and regardless of the presentation they are always willing and able to hook themselves. The first pleasant days turn into monotonous weeks and with each successive landing of an identical trout to the one preceding it, the angler soon realizes that the certainty of each cast in his utopia has all the ironies of a veritable trout purgatory.

One could quite easily argue along the line of reasoning that it is precisely because we do lose fish that we continue to make the journey back to the water, presumably to re-test our skills and attempt to catch that big one that always seem to get away. Ray Bergman, author of TROUT and other short stories that influenced the thoughts of an entire generation of fishermen, once wrote that it was the fish that get away that thrill and inspire us the most and that it is a neccesary good to lose fish once in awhile. Although Ray may be sounding like he (as all fisherman do at some point) may be trying to come to grips with the loss of a few good fish himself, there is certainly some greater truth to be gleaned beyond the simplicity of this statement.

All fisherman are haunted by the memory of a lost fish. It was none other than Theodore Gordon, the puritanical father of American dry fly fishing, who in his memoirs, bemoaned that every day of his life he saw the head of the largest trout he ever hooked but did not land. For some, long after they may have forgotten what peculiar yet appealing idiosyncrasies allowed them to fall in love with their spouses, or what the name of their first hunting dog was, they will remember that one particular fish that got away. There will be many sleepless nights during which they will pore over the minutiae of events that led to the ultimate demise. WHAT WENT WRONG? For many, although impossible to quantify for obvious reasons, it will most certainly be amongst the last thoughs that flash through their minds before they die.

Sometimes nothing goes wrong yet our efforts are still met with failure. On those rare occasions where we are guilty of no wrongdoings, and through no fault of equipment nor obstacle, we still manage to lose fish. It is an immutable law of nature that big fish get away – that’s how they became big, as goes the old adage. Such are the vagaries of fishing.

It was widely reported, several years ago, that some charter boat angler fishing the famous King salmon run on the Kenai river in Alaska, had hooked a world record sized fish that he fought for nearly thirty-six hours. The news had spread quickly via radio to other charter boats and then to national media affiliates who soon had boats alongside filming the event live where a nation could watch the drama unfold from the comfort of their living rooms. The fish jumped twice for the cameras and all those involved were certain it was an all-tackle record. After a day and a half of give and take, both man and fish at the point of complete exhaustion, the fish surfaced one final time and rolled on its side. The captain of the boat lunged to net it but somehow missed, the hook slipped out of the corner of the fish’s mouth, and the giant fish sank back into the murky depths of the river in front of a national audience. Hero to zero in a nanosecond, depsite the fact it was still a superlative angling effort. No one knows for sure what became of that hapless angler but what we do know is that what may have been a legendary feat in the annals of sportfishing got relegated to a minor footnote in the dustbin of piscatorial ignominy. Now there is not much fairness there.

Some fish afford such tremendous sport that the memory of an encounter can last a lifetime. The late Lee Wulff, a man whom we all owe a great deal, was said to have vividly remembered until the time of his death more than fifty years later, his first Atlantic salmon and how it changed the course of his entire life. This was the fish that prompted Wulff to embark on a pioneering journey of fishery conservation and it was he that coined the phrase that “a gamefish is too valuable to be caught only once“. His fish was a fresh-run twelve pound hen and it left a lasting impression on him until the day he died. Of course, this was a fish that he actually landed.

And while it is almost certain that a trophy fish well captured makes for a great memory, what about a great fish not captured? Well, that certainly makes for an entirely different memory. The former, the sweet memory of victory, the latter, the bitter residual taste of the vanquished. But as with most things in this world, memory is relative and all is in perception and how we view the proverbial half-glass of water. Success or failure are often the opposite sides of the same coin.

Many anglers, who would probably throttle Bergman if he uttered such heresy to them after they had just lost the fish of a lifetime, will with the many years thereafter distill the experience like fine wine or single malt scotch until the bitterness dissappears with the passage of time. No, it isn’t good to lose fish but it is a small price to pay if it keeps the sport honest and pure. Lost fish provide us with exhiliarating memories, sepia snapshots etched into our minds, that can both haunt and comfort us.

We should always endeavor to cultivate our memories as they encapsulate the long journey of our lives, highlighting the important events and destinations, like waypoints on a roadmap, giving definition and meaning to the things we cherish and hold close to our hearts. We are what we do and our sport and the way we individually approach it is an inner expression of ourselves. In the end, whether the fish was lost or landed is really of no importance at all. Fishing is a combination of many things and for myself it has always been more about the fishing than the fish. Don’t get me wrong, the fish are a blast too! But with some age and wisdom, I’m beginning to suspect that in the end, after all the fish of a lifetime have been culled and counted and measured and weighed, it is more about the journey than the destination and how we have acquiesced to the blessed uncertainty of the entire process. www.thefishinglife.com