The Young Man and the Sea

A Landlubber Learns to Fish
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Via Lang Whitaker

When my wife and I returned home after a short vacation earlier this week, our little mailbox was jammed full of a week’s worth of worthless catalogues, as well as an assortment of utility bills, coupons and holiday cards. One of those cards was from the captain of the fishing charter service we used in Florida back at the end of the summer. It was a custom card, and the front was covered with a collage of photos of their customers proudly displaying what I assume to be some of their biggest catches of the year. So I was delighted to see, high on the top right of the card, an image of me holding up the 15-pound blackfin tuna I snagged.

My mind immediately ricocheted back to that morning on the Gulf of Mexico, and I remembered how bringing that tuna in had required nearly half an hour of struggling, of patiently allowing the tuna to run and then reeling back in a few feet whenever the fish would let me, trying to gain ground wherever I could. I remembered my arms and shoulders slowly turning into jelly as I fought the fish, getting more of a workout than if I had been lifting weights for the same amount of time. I remembered the excited conjecture that cropped up once the fish got close enough to the boat for us to see flashes of it through the dark water. Was kind of fish would it be? It was fighting too hard to be a snapper or a grouper…it couldn’t be a…was this really…did I just catch a tuna?

I set the Christmas card down and glanced at my left forearm, where I have a few circular scars from where the fishing reel kept digging into my arm as I tried to wrangle that tuna, and I remembered making the quick decision at the time to sacrifice my own flesh in the hopes of tuna flesh. While I generally practice catch-and-release fishing—a fisherman in the Keys once lectured me on the importance of having a good relationship with your business partners—this was the first tuna I’d ever caught, and less than an hour after reeling him in, the boat’s mate and I were able to eat that tuna, crudo-style, standing barefoot on the dock. It tasted like heaven.

I am as surprised as anyone that I have become an avid fisherman. I grew up landlocked, and now I live on the West Side of Manhattan. As I sit on my couch and write these words, I can look out the window to my left and see a long slice of the Hudson River, as gray and motionless as the cement that spans the distance between it and me. In theory, I suppose I could fish the Hudson, though I also suppose I’d be as likely to catch a box of hypodermic needles as I would a fish worth crowing about. The first time I went deep sea fishing wasn’t until just over a decade ago. But in the time since, fishing is something I have quietly pursued with passion, across oceans and lakes, from Africa to the Pacific. As a result, I now own a collection of photos of me holding fish in the air, briefly suffocating them several yards above their homes. More importantly, I have selection of memories tucked away in my mind. I have had to become willing to pay a premium for these things—fishing in beautiful places with people who know what they’re doing isn’t cheap. But no matter what I catch, or do not catch, it is worth it, it is always worth it.

In his lovely novella A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean writes: “Many of us probably would be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.” For me, fishing is not about a pursuit of perfection, but rather an exercise in recovery, an attempt to make the best out of circumstances that never go as planned. Just last week, my wife and I went bonefishing in the Bahamas. I ended up sore (from having to push the boat out of shallow water as the tide went out) and marked by several terrific bruises across my shins (while our guide and I were waist-deep in the water, a lemon shark we’d accidentally caught and then released immediately came after us, and we had to scramble into the boat). And yet it was a fantastic experience, and I treasure the memory of laying haphazardly across the back of that boat, adrenaline coursing through me, as much or more as I appreciate the memory of catching a half-dozen bonefish.

I'd always belonged to the big sports—basketball, baseball, football—sports I spent years playing and rabidly following while growing up. Then I stumbled across fishing, which connected with me as soon as I learned to cast. A bartender in the Bahamas last week swore up and down that fishing is the most participated-in sport in the world, and I believe him. Without delving into the argument about whether or not fishing is actually a sport—my shins would currently vehemently argue that it is—fishing requires exploiting a balance of patience and aggression. You throw your bait, let it find that perfect spot where it is just hidden enough not to seem obvious, but where a fish could stumble over it and find it credible. And then you wait, and you wait, and you wait.

As much as I enjoy the thrill of the catch, the waiting is the part of fishing that I find myself longing for the most: Standing motionless in or alongside a body of water, a brilliant sun climbing overhead, letting time drift by while keeping my guard up, while I wonder what, if anything, is waiting for me just below the surface.


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