On The Trail: On fishing, sort of

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Even when you no longer partake, fishing never leaves you, is always there, the stimuli ubiquitous whether walking, hiking, crossing a bridge along the road or just plain fantasizing.

I am reminded daily of the activity I so loved as a boy by a backyard brook named Hinsdale — its damp smell, its rattle, its tiny white-capped riffles dancing downstream – every time I go out back to greet the dogs. That babbling brook is there to greet me, too.

The gravel-bedded mountain stream’s voice undergoes seasonal change, from the inspirational, free-spirited rattle and roars of spring, when the fishing’s best, to the faint, soothing summer trickle, to that soft winter murmur muzzled by thick, frigid ice. Even a strong wind cannot silence that winter murmur. It’s all good and, in its own way, thought-provoking, especially for those of us who learned to fish such streams, usually alone, picking our way slowly, soft-footed, reading water, hunting wary mountain trout.

For some of us, such flowing waters represent much more, venturing deep into the spiritual realm, symbolizing the flow of life itself, its ups and down, highs and lows, circulation. Even when young, very young, you can feel a spiritual pull you aren’t ready to understand. It takes time. You feel the exhilaration, the joyful solitude, the ephemeral thrill of the hunt, but are unable to articulate the why. Unless exceptional — like, say, the fascinating boy-wonder William James Sidis I recently learned of — it takes time and maturity to interpret the many soothing streamside stimuli that captivate your senses, nestling you into a comfortable state of mind.

Yes, as a boy or girl, you keep coming back for the joy of catching fish, of matching wits, of evaluating situations, of success and failures. But what you can’t really comprehend or recognize at a young age is that, as much as playing the game is the lure, you keep returning because you’re enraptured with the forest air, the occasional muskrat slinking under an overhanging bank, the slap of the beaver’s tail, a turkey’s gobble, the drumming partridge, the flash of a fleeing whitetail or heavy, lumbering rumble of a black-bear retreat. That’s why you keep coming back, even if you don’t even know it until much later, when your innate sentience is sharpened to a razor’s edge.

First, as an angler, you’re greedy, snapping the neck and gutting every trout you catch, filling wicker creel after creel day after day to show your parents, your friends, anyone who’s willing to look and listen to your tale. You do it not out of disrespect for the trout, but rather because you’re trying to earn respect as a competent angler who enjoys consistent success. It’s not much different that filling a scrapbook with newspaper clippings documenting that you can hit home runs or pull in a long ball over your shoulder when it really matters.

These fish that go by the bagful into the freezer or immediately into bacon fat in an iron, breakfast skillet are trophies of success, prof of fishing skill. Same goes with the frozen bagsful you bring to your grandmother, your neighbor, your girlfriend’s dad. It’s a selfish form of charity, a statement of your mettle as an angler, a trout hunter, an outdoorsman. I suppose we all go through it before learning a better way, that of taking only what we need, not what we want to boast about and show off.

Soon to be 65, I find myself wondering if I’ll fish again when my clock-punching days are over. I wonder if I’ll still pull joy from a skill mastered long ago. I entertain such thoughts out back listening to the brook, or on my walks along the pretty Picomeagan, renamed Green River by European conquerors, my ancestors among them, because of its greenish hue created by fine, gray watershed clays.

It’s difficult to predict whether I’ll return to the streams. I remember clinging to my baseball past into my early 40s on the softball diamond and never looking back after I quit. That surprised me. I thought I’d miss a game I loved and had played since a young boy. I soon discovered the time was right. I didn’t need the diamond anymore. In fact, it was clear to me that I lingered too long, should have put it in the rearview earlier. There are many other more-fulfilling activities. That’s what I discovered. No. 1 among them, reading and probing and learning.

When you think about it after the fact, isn’t always all about learning — be it fishing brook trout on a stormy day, sitting on stand waiting for deer at dusk, calling a vociferous gobbler from tree to gun at daybreak, or wing-shooting game birds through obstructed wetland tangles. Once you master it, you move on, find another challenge to master.

Then, one day, preferably sudden, you’re gone, soon a fading memory, your ashes scattered in a blustery winter wind whistling through a high, lonesome, hardwood ridge. As united creatures of nature’s kingdom, it’s inevitable. We all get there one way or another. Here today, gone tomorrow — a poignant fact we all must accept.

That’s life. Why fight or fear it?

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gsand53@outlook.com.