Fish-Free Fishing

This morning I listened to a conversation between two fly fishermen. They were talking about using one’s wrist properly when you cast, and how someone else they knew was so good he could adjust the line in mid-cast, and the difference between dry flies and some other kind of flies (okay, so I wasn’t listening all that closely). They were having a wonderful time.

Apparently, they also have a wonderful time when they go fishing. It just sounds like work to me—especially because, after going to all that trouble, when they do catch a fish they just put it back.

When I was a child on a South Dakota farm, fishing wasn’t a sport on quite that level. It was a family outing for summer evenings or those days after a rain when it was too muddy for field work. We’d dig some worms, pile into the pickup with our bamboo poles, and head for a nearby stock dam.

For some reason, my father would always take his rod and tackle box and go to the opposite side of the dam. My mother got to help us kids fish. What with selecting the fattest worms and waiting for them to unwind from around our fingers so we could put them on the hook, untangling lines, watching dragonflies, finding just the right flat rocks to sit on, floating sticks on the water, and making sure the little kids didn’t fall in, somehow not a lot of real fishing got done.

Every now and then, though, one of us would catch a fish. Pulling it in was fun, especially if it was a bluegill and fought all the way to shore. But then somebody had to take it off the hook. After we got a little older, Mother wouldn’t do it for us, not even for the bullheads with their ugly green smiles and sharp whiskers. Sometimes the fish would flop off the hook by itself if we left it on the bank for a little while, but most of the time it was eventually necessary to lay hands on the slimy, slippery thing and take the hook out.

After we got old enough, we learned to help clean fish. As a fun activity, cleaning fish ranks right up there with going to the dentist. Of course, it did make us popular with all the cats, who always gathered around to watch and to wait for their share.

Finally, of course, would come eating the fish. Fresh perch or bluegills, breaded and fried the way my mother cooks them, are perfectly okay eating. But to me, they’re really not worth all the trouble of catching and cleaning them. It’s a heck of a lot easier to just put some chicken breasts in the crock pot.

In spite of all this, I actually do enjoy going fishing. I like the quiet of a small stock dam on a summer evening when the sun is just going down and the water is so still you can see yourself in it. I like the murmuring beauty of a shaded Black Hills creek. I like the drowsy peacefulness of sitting on a sun-warmed rock on a lazy afternoon. I like watching nursery schools of infant minnows drift by or seeing trout swirl to the surface. I just don’t like having all those pleasant inactivities interrupted by occasionally—despite my best intentions—catching a fish.

So now, if I go fishing, it’s as the designated non-fisherman. I trail along with a fisherman dedicated enough to pay attention to the fish and leave me in peace.

Then I find a just-right rock or a comfortable place on the bank in the sun. And I sit. Sometimes I read. Sometimes I sketch. Sometimes I watch dragonflies and butterflies, find shapes in the clouds, listen to the birds, or pull long weeds and nibble on the stems. It’s relaxing, enjoyable, and quite fish-free.

I don’t have to trouble myself with finding the right fly, or remembering to bring the bait, or untangling a line from trees or snags. I don’t bother the fish, and they don’t bother me. All of us are happier that way. 

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