It’s 21 degrees Fahrenheit outside right now. Clear, with the Southeastern treeline painted orange and salmon as the sun’s drawn up out of the horizon. The snow outside warmed to 34 yesterday. It’s refrozen now and cracks underfoot. Today is the Ides of March, for you Shakespeare fans. I was one once; and feel at times I need to revisit the Bard.
An ice storm hit us a couple of weeks back and brought a big limb down directly across my little twelve-foot Meyer semi-V lake boat. I’ve named my boat the IBS (itty-bitty ship).
The impact broke the arm off the bow stop, and the limb pounded a lateral dent across the hull, bending the keel runners. I threw my back out clearing limbs out of the driveway so we could pick up my mother-in-law, who’d lost her power; but when my back’s better, I’ll need to haul the trailer to a welder and pick up some epoxy to hammer out and reseal the hull. Such is a fisherman’s life.
I wait with stifled impatience for that moment in coming weeks when, here in Southeast Michigan, I can make the provisional assumption that the ice is off Sand Lake — my favorite crappy hole. Crappy, for non-fisherpersons, is not an adjective, but a noun (pronounced CROP-ee). It’s a fleshy pan fish, prized for the table, legal to keep throughout the year. If I catch a few decent bluegill or shellcrackers, also pan fish, we’ll eat them, too.
There are sport fishermen and food fishermen. I’m a heterodox hybrid, who has neither the financial capacity nor the burning desire to go through the pricey retail phase for “sport” fishing. As you can see from The IBS.
My propulsion is limited to a (very quiet, very slow) battery-powered trolling motor . . . with a set of oars for backup. Electrical shit can fail. The oars only fail if I do. I have four rods and reels, two medium-light rods with spinning reels, two ultra-light spinning set-ups (I’m adding one seven-foot crappy rod this year), and two messy tackle boxes with as assortment of hooks, swivels, weights, bobbers, line, jigs, lures, and a nail clipper to cut line, as well as a set of hemostats to remove hooks from the fish. By most standards, this makes me a minimalist.
By hybrid, I mean I enjoy catching the fish, so I guess that’s sport-ish; but my father, who’d be 117 years old if he were alive, drilled it into us when we were kids that cleaning and eating was part of the whole process . . . almost as a moral imperative. There was something wrong about just toying with the fish for its own sake. Like an incompleted teleology. I bring fish home to eat every time I fish, providing I haven’t been skunked. (It happens sometimes, getting skunked. Part of the deal.)
For pure sport fishermen, especially the kind with heavy horsepower and a jillion dollars worth of gear and gadgets (why don’t you just use dynamite?!), the goal is to maximize the amount of thrill time — catching, fighting, and landing — and minimize all the rest. I don’t get that. I don’t get fishing tournaments either. Where I enjoy some light, friendly rivalry if I’m fishing with a bud (which I seldom have, I’m a fishing loner), the idea of turning fishing into a full-on competitive sport is offensive to me.
Not only that, I have an almost irrational hatred for high-powered boats, and multiply that ten times for jet skis. Jet skis are demonic. Jet skis should be struck by lightning.
I like to get out just after dawn, on a quiet lake, river, estuary, or bay. It’s a magical time, a sacred whole of wind, water, birdsong, and birth-light. It’s a time to breathe, move slowly and deliberately, to receive instead of send, to accept and say — just for that Sisyphean instant — enough. This is good. I can say, like my father who said the same, when I am there — in that time with cranes, gulls, sky, earth, and water — I know, I just know, I’m not alone. I feel it especially when I am “alone.”
I feel it on the inland lakes. I feel it when I wade into the East Branch of the Two Hearted River, where cell phones don’t work and I see no one for days, and I’m alone among the unseen bear and elk without a net. I feel it when I push off into the estuary between Southport and Bald Head Island with my stepson.
It’s a tradition in my family, fishing. My parents fished, their parents fished. We have pictures of my great grandfather fishing in exactly the same spot on the East Branch where I enter the river every time I go. There was a bridge there then. Only a few timbers on the banks are left now. The old Shamrock Road where the bridge was is nothing but game trail now. I run into partridge and spruce hens sometimes as I tramp toward the river through the alders, hemlocks, and white pines. We still eat the trout from that river — mostly brook trout, but a few browns and rainbows, too.
I release fish that are too small, too big, an off species, full of eggs, or bearing parasites. I quit when I’ve got as many as I feel we can eat in the creel, stringer, or cooler. Sometimes that’s in two hours, sometimes eight or more.
My wife, Sherry, lets the grandkids know, if you go fishing with Papa, be prepared to stay out for a good long while. Fishing is when you quit living by the clock for a while; and I’m like a gambling addict on the water . . . one more cast, then we’ll go.
You don’t read signs when you fish, at least not billboards and ads and street signs.
“Reading” while fishing is an ancient form. The text is the wind, the sky, the birds, the water, the vegetation, the light and shadow, the clouds, the subsurface topography. The fish are more active and aggressive a few hours on the warm side of a storm — before or after. They feed along the windward banks, where the phytoplankton and bait fish have been pushed. Fish don’t like the sun in their eyes. When the water is dingy from recent storms or a weekend of demonic machines churning the water, they’ll stay close to structure — submarine boundary features — ledges, banks, points, docks, bush piles, tree falls, weed beds, anything they can use to stay oriented when the visibility is restricted, like someone in a dark room keeping one hand on the wall. Gulls chase bait-fish schools, prey. The fish you want are predators. It’s a chain of predation. Watch the gulls. In the Spring, the dark and shallow weed beds are warmer than the surrounding water; and the fish will congregate there. Cold fronts slow them down, so bait presentation is slow and patient. Higher temps and lower pressure (warm side of storms) means more aggressive feeding.
When pressure is low, give them something to chase.
If you don’t get a strike soon, you’re in the wrong place.
When the surface water is too warm or too cold, the fish go deep. When it’s just right — the Goldilocks mean — they’re in the shallows and out of the sun. Different temps are the Goldilocks mean for different species. Some species feed near the bottom, some further up. Some hunt upward, some downward, some laterally. You have to learn to “read,” and the story has a twisty plot.
It’s a practice, fishing. It has traditional knowledge, knowledge handed down. It has rules. It requires a constellation of skills and practicing those skills. You need to know your knots. Knots to secure your anchor, knots to tie off on launch docks, and fishing knots — the uni, the double uni, the Trilene, the Palomar, the loop, the carrot, the Snell, the clinch. You need to know your baits, live and artificial, when and how to “present” them — choosing a casting target and a casting technique — and your retrieves — no-retrieve, slow-roll, steady, rise-and-plunge, twitch-and-stand, or rip. You need to know your lines, your configurations (Texas rig, Carolina rig, drop shot, wacky rig, bobber-and-jig, to name a few). You need to know whether to watch line or feel for the bite, whether to set the hook quickly or give it some time. You have to have your drag set, and know how to “play” the fish, especially the big ones, without breaking your line, how to keep some of them from breaking the water and shaking loose the hook. For me, I also need to know how to kill and bleed quickly and efficiently. I don’t let my keepers suffocate. A quick push of the kill stick (my own contraption for instant killing) behind the eye, and a knife slice under the gills. It makes a better tasting fish; but it matters to me to minimize the suffering, as primitive as it may be in a fish. You also have to know how to clean the fish. There are several ways. And cook them — I tend toward broiling them now, after a marination period in lime juice — kind of a broiled ceviche, with warm spices and olive oil.
You touch things and use your body. You touch the water, the ropes, the tackle, the fish, the tiller, the kill stick, the knife. You twist and turn, sit and stand, drop and draw the anchor, guide the boat, prep for launch and prep for travel. If it’s hot out, you’re in it. If it’s raining you’re in it. If the wind is bouncing you like a carnival ride, you’re in it. If it’s cold out, you pull down your cap against the wind and blow on your fingers, Those fingers are “dirty,” smeared with worm soil, fish slime, dust. When you eat or drink, you rinse them in the water around you, wipe them on your clothes, and put what you need down your neck. Nothing is abstract. It’s fully embodied, like slow dancing, washing the dead, making love, cooking, or carpentry.
Sometimes, it involves waiting, a lot. You can get your thinking done, or you can give open your mind like opposing windows and let the breeze blow through.
There are a lot of reasons I fish. With the advance of the cyborg dystopia, there are more reasons every day. I can be present and past, and set the future — that most deceptive and ultimately horrifying fiction — aside. The older I get, the more I dwell in the past. When I fish, I can summon ghosts — my father, my mother, my brother.
Some practices maintain those bonds, even after death. When I see an osprey preparing to dive onto a lake, I say, “Look at that . . . Daddy . . . Mother . . . Brother Glen.”
I’m not alone. They’re there, along with the God who holds them in his loving embrace.
Some of our most memorable moments are punctuated by, “Look at that.” Sharing ourselves through the mediation of Creation, with all its surprises. Sometimes that sharing in stated in the yelp of excitement, “Fish on!”
Here are a few more photos.