I am dazzled by gear and distracted by shiny things, so you can imagine that I took to fishing like a fish to water. I could spend an hour just watching the precise mechanism of a spinning reel methodically wind line onto its spool like a spider retracting a web.
I could stomach weaving a worm or leech onto a hook, but I never could bring myself to spear a minnow. Minnows have eyes, and a little Mr. Bill-shaped mouth.
As a little boy, it didn’t bother me to catch fish in the Kearney Canal, which was a ditch. Harold and I would spend summer days crawling among the concrete chunks that buttressed the shoreline, eating cold beans out of a can and learning to lie. Carp would try to eat whatever garbage floated to the bottom, sucking crud off of miscellaneous junk that we, or generations of boys before us, thought would be hilarious to throw into the water. Amid that gunk, a worm looks good.
At some point, someone presented me with the notion of “catch-and-release.” It is supposed to be more humane and sporting, but I still pierced the fish’s lip with a rusty hook. I just no longer did it for a reason.
I imagined an alien landing on Earth, hooking me by the lip and dragging me kicking and screaming into his terrifying, suffocating spaceship, then saying “Just kidding!” and turning me loose. The trouble with fishing is that once I start thinking, I ruin it.
Art, my former father-in-law, had a cabin in Minnesota, where we’d vacation for a week each summer. It was understood that I was to fish with Art every night. I’d bathe in DEET, pick out a pole from his formidable array lined up like épées along the porch, and march dutifully to his 1950’s-era pontoon boat. The deck was carpeted with AstroTurf and her frame made roughly of steel that had been brushed royal blue. It looked like a floating football stadium, and was about as nimble. We’d cast off at 8pm, and the mosquitoes would clock in around 9.
We think Minnesotans are joking about their mosquitoes, but they are not. Minnesquitoes really do cast a shadow. At dusk they swarm you in such a thick cloud that they obscure light, and the drone of their wings sounds like suspense music from a horror film. Luckily the DEET I had marinated in was as repugnant to them as it was to me, or in seconds they’d have sucked me dry as a raisin.
I decided I liked fishing, I just didn’t like catching. Art would tell stories, and I’d nod and chuckle. Under the cover of darkness and behind the curtain of mosquitoes, I would skip baiting my hook. I’d simply enjoy the lazy repetition of casting and dragging my line through the water. Usually Art caught more fish than I did.
Art normally caught walleyes. It appears to me that all fish are wall-eyed. You never see one that is cross-eyed. One evening Art landed a wall-eyed pike. It fought viciously, which is to be respected, because pike have big, razor-sharp teeth. If you could train pike, they’d be great for making a julienne of potatoes. But you can’t train them, so they julienne whatever they want, like fingers.
“Pick him up by the eyes,” Art instructed. “It stuns ’em.”
I bet you could count on that stunning just about any animal, I thought. I grabbed a net. My brain went from fingers julienne to imagining an alien picking me up by the eyes.
As it happened, that was the last night of our vacation, so I didn’t go fishing again that summer. As it happened, I was divorced the next spring, so I didn’t go fishing again at all. But whenever I’m in a sporting goods store, I stop by the fishing section and admire the meticulously intricate spinning reels. My imagination may have ruined fishing for me, but it didn’t ruin the gear.