I broke a record one night while fishing at the lake near my house. I had not thought ahead to bring along proper means of verification, but according to my calculations, it had been 18 fishing trips since I had caught a single fish — I mean anything at all. Eighteen trips, and I had not caught one panfish or baitfish or even a dying-of-starvation fish.
Believe me, it was not for lack of cheating. I tried spinners, rattlers, crank bait and plugs. I bought every variety and color of soft bait, and soaked each one in foul-smelling fish attractant. If it said, “Out-fishes live bait” on the package, it was in my basket before you could say “hook, line and sinker.”
I stayed up late into the night, researching fishing tips on the Internet. I read about daily routines and dining habits. I learned how to jig, how to reel in slowly, how to tie a Texas Rig. I was thinking so much like a fish that bugs started to make me hungry.
Yet still, I caught nothing.
You might think I would lose interest, give up and throw in the fishing net. However, I knew I was becoming an expert — a skilled specialist in the area of unsuccessful fishing. No one could not catch fish better than me — and this turned out to be the key.
Back when I actually caught fish, I was too busy prying out hooks and having my picture taken with my big catch to think about anything else. Once the fish stopped biting, though, I had plenty of time to sit back and figure out that the real magic of fishing was not in the “what” or the “how,” but in the “why.”
I caught my first glimpse of this magic while casting my line on a little peninsula that stretched out onto the lake. Well, most of the time it was a peninsula, anyway, although every couple of weeks it managed to be an inlet. I have seen it as a cape, a small isthmus, a beach, and even an island, depending on its mood. I never knew what it was going to be until I got there. So, I kept a crate in my car with the essentials: matches, a lantern, my tackle box, bug spray, a vest, and the waders that I really needed to return to my friend.
There, amidst the quarrelling squirrels and fireflies, I could set up, start a fire, and get a line in the water in eight minutes flat. This was the best place to hear frogs, if you’re into that sort of thing. For me, though, this was the spot where I came up with names for different casting techniques, such as the Double-Swish J Loop, the Lemon Peeler, the Dancing Frog, Baby-Needs-Fish-For-Dinner, and the Bl-Bl-Bl-Bloop.
The still water and endless sky were dizzying. I was intoxicated by the flickering two-step of bugs dancing on the water, the lake turning into a lava flow in the early morning sun, and the squirrels acting out “West Side Story” in the trees. Within a half-hour, my heart rate was noticeably slower, and by the time an hour had elapsed, I was overwhelmingly calm. It was then and there I learned that fishing had little to do with catching fish, and a lot to do with daydreaming, breathing and spending time in a space without walls.
When I craved the sight of other people, I would pack up and head down to the spillway by the dam. Tamed by the Army Corps of Engineers and conquered by concrete, the spillway was as hard-edged and unengaging as the folks who fished there.
There were the guys whose lawn chairs had grown roots. I never actually saw one arrive or leave. They just sat there as though they grew out of the embankment, with their Styrofoam coolers and thermoses.
Then there were the people who wandered along the water’s edge, dragging their lines slowly. I hardly noticed as they sidled behind me, carefully maneuvering their lines around mine. And there were the fly fishermen, the waders, the nesters, and the grandpas with their 8-year-old leg-swinging grandkids. Some were there to get away from family, some to fill empty hours, and some were there just to wrangle up dinner.
I casually watched each one out of the corner of my eye and pondered the differences in technique. Was his cast more of a “Bl-Bloop-Bl-Bloop” or a “Bl-Bl-Bl-Bloop”? Would I do better to cast my line to the side or toward the center? Should I drag the spinner slowly or jerk it like a little fish fearful for his life?
If I was up for a real challenge, I would set out for my spot at the creek that wound past the shooting range. The spot was packed with fish, but I could have probably caught more just watching a fishing show and throwing bait at the television. You see, the fish here had undoubtedly contracted outside help. Their land-dwelling cohorts had woven the branches above the water into prickly nets, designed to snag even the most agile of casts. In addition, there were no comfy places to sit or sturdy places to stand. The water’s edge was booby-trapped with mudslides and paper-machete logs. Oh, and if your tackle box wasn’t attached to you, you might as well throw it in the creek, because it was definitely going in the drink.
It wasn’t always a terrible place to catch fish, though. Last spring, on the white bass run, you could catch fish as fast as you could get your line out there. It didn’t matter what bait you were using — worms, spinners, pieces of an old sock. The fish were hungry.
I once saw a man catch 23 fish in less than 10 minutes. I caught so many fish in one afternoon that I stopped even bothering to count. It was mesmerizing. I was in the zone, and it was absolutely magical.
Now, 18 fishless fishing trips later, the tiniest hint of that magic still remained. It hung in the fog, trickled from the trees, and resonated in the voices of the frogs. It tingled on my skin and in my lungs, filling my head with visions of fish. It was then that I realized this was why, day after day, I returned to the spillway, the peninsula, and the creek, long after the fish had stopped biting. There, I would cast my line in the water with a smile on my face — and my wire snips at the ready — because there was nothing to say that today wouldn’t be the day that the fish would start biting again.
Sarah Coles lives in Ohio with her husband, son and two furry kids. She enjoys a variety of hobbies, including fishing, sewing, writing and playing the ukulele.
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