Thursday, May 16, 2013

Fishing lessons

At the lake with Tully and Khaki Man

The wind assailed my frozen body relentlessly. My legs stood stiff in my knee-high rubber boots, my arms felt like rigid, poorly engineered plastic, and my face and hands were numb and only getting more numb with each cast. Yet there I was, stubborn as a mule, soaked to the bone and standing in a lake a few feet off shore, just trying my best to catch some dinner.

Again I reeled in the line, bent my creaky arms to wind up the cast, and then whip the rod to send out the lure. I watched the small, barbed gadget careen over the angry water surface about 30 yards before landing with a seductive plop. This time, this is the cast that brings home the lake beef. I reeled in at a slow speed with a few jigs to see if that would prove a more alluring presentation. It did not.

Thoughts of the previous day started to annoy me. I recalled sunny skies, highs in the 70s, a calm lake with soft south winds and no bugs. Well, there are no bugs out here in the gusting rainstorm either, Seth. Look on the bright side - at least you're outside and fishing on the lake… better this than being stuck at a desk, staring blankly into a computer screen for hours. Just then the wind gusted and slapped me hard on the side of my face.

A chill, already set deep in my bones, released itself in a shudder up my hunched spine, and 'extremely uncomfortable' suddenly became 'what-the-hell-am-I-doing-out-here' mania...

I almost lost it then, in the face of the storm, I almost reeled in to pack up and go home. When I retrieved my lure, once more I found no fish attached to it, and the miserable voice inside me was silenced yet again by the stubborn voice. This one said, cast again! You will not catch anything if you do not try to catch something.

Like a robot repeating the exact same motion, I let the bail out on the reel and cracked the rod like a whip. Tully (yes I named my fishing rod after a "Game of Thrones" reference, judge me now) snapped at the cold air and sent the little yellow lure out into the lake once again. Ten more casts. Ten more casts along this point and then I call it a day.

Eight casts later and I was still without a catch, still stubborn, and still being put to death slowly by a cold spring rain. I was just about to cast again when I heard a voice speaking, and this one was not in my head (I was pretty sure).

"Hullo to ya! Nice day!"

I turned to find the voice coming from a man perched on the rocks behind me. He was a short man, older, probably mid 60's and dressed from head to toe in khaki-colored outdoor clothing. His beard was white at the chin, grey in the mustache, and peppered at his cheeks. He wore a boonie hat (also khaki) with the chin strap drawn up tight around his neck - a good idea considering the brim was flapping ecstatically in the rain.

"I preferred yesterday, to be honest," I yelled over my shoulder. He was standing with his hands in his khaki pockets, looking to me and then out over the lake again with a calm smile on his face. I waited for a response but got none, so I turned to cast my ninth and get out of there, but as soon as I turned my back again he spoke up.

"Catchin' anything? Other than a cold?"

I stopped just before casting and turned back to address him once again. "No. I… I don't know why I do this to myself. Yesterday was beautiful; smart people fished yesterday." I shook my head in disdain of myself, glancing at the ground like I'd been caught doing something down right stupid. "But today… today I should be inside eating soup or something. I'm not catching anything, and it's just down right nasty out here." As if on command the wind gusted again.

The man only smiled at that, his eyes still pointed out on the lake. I waited a moment more, expecting some sort of response, but none came. Two more casts and I can be home in a hot, hot shower. And then I'll sip on some chicken broth under a blanket and go to sleep. The thought of that almost made me feel warm, almost.

The promise of warmth was more tempting now than ever, and I had nearly forgotten the man on the rocks as I cast the line. Like a thousand times before it went out and plopped, and like a thousand times before I reeled it back in.

Suddenly, Tully's tip bowed. Her line went taut and I instinctively yanked back to set the hook. Here we go! I knew this would pay off eventually - this feels like a big one! The water broke in a flash of silver about 20 yards out, and I caught a glimpse of scarlet tail fin just before Tully balked and the line went slack. The wind gusted to slap me in the face.

"Noooooo!" I shouted in a crescendo at the loss of the fish.

I reeled back in rapidly, and with no hesitation cast out to the exact same spot again. Nothing. I cast over and over all around that area. Sent the lure deeper, shallower, left and right of where I'd lost my catch. Nothing. My tenth cast turned into 25 more frantic attempts to hook the monster I'd missed, and all of them failed. The adrenaline was subsiding, the cold and wet returning to my consciousness, and I was visibly shaking - knees knocking, teeth chattering, lungs coughing. I couldn't take it anymore, the weather won.

I reeled in one last time, secured the lure and line, and waded back to shore, head hanging. Khaki man was still standing there with his hands in his pockets. I looked at him and shrugged when I got close, but he just stared out at the lake. Talk about a slap in the face. Too cold to try for small talk, I gathered up my waterlogged belongings and started towards the walking path back to where I'd parked.

"I've been in your boots, lad," I heard Khaki man say behind me. "Good to see a young man such's yourself out here like this." At that I stopped, and turned around to face him. To my surprise, he was looking at me now, and I greeted him face-to-face for the first time. I wasn't sure what to say though, so I only waited, shivering.

"I use ta have a cabin not far from this lake," he continued. "When I was younger I'd come fishin' out here all th' time. Not always finding fish, but always findin' what I was lookin' for." At that he paused, and then his eyes met mine. "Did ya find that t'day?"

I was miserably wet and cold, frustrated with the catch (or lack there of), tired, hungry, and ornery to boot, but to this man's pointed question, I could only answer "yes." He smiled in that calm way again, turned, and stared off into the lake once more, boonie hat soddenly flapping.

The man's introspective question had me interested, and I would like to say I was no longer cold and all those other things, but that just wasn't the case. I had stayed out in the elements for too long, and the only thing I could focus on now was getting myself home and warmed up. I was shivering so bad by the time I got back into the car, I could hardly manage the steering wheel on the way back to the house. When I did get back, it was straight into a scalding hot shower for me - boy did that feel good.

It wasn't until later that evening, after the bone-rattling chill had finally been lifted via chicken noodle soup and a lot of warm clothes, that I got to reconsider the incident at the lake. I had, in fact, found what I was looking for. I missed the fish that time, sure, but there will be more chances. There will be more afternoons that I'm out of cellphone coverage, alone with only the lake, the trees, and the rocks to keep me company. Maybe next time I'll catch a fish, or at the very least maybe next time the weather will not be horrendous, but there will be a next time.

See, there will be a next time because I'm surrounded by opportunities like this one. The weather can be nice, the weather can be fowl, but I always have the option to spend my day fishing, hiking, exploring, or hunting in the woods. Maybe it's a bust, and I get skunked on finding what I'm looking for, but isn't that time well spent? Isn't that time well spent in the outdoors, learning about the land. What could be more important than a wealth of knowledge about the patch of green earth on which you make your home? Are we more likely to care about something we understand, or that which we do not understand?

Khaki man said he used to have a cabin in the area, implying he no longer does. But what I saw on his face was a deep adoration of what he saw on the lake. He clearly had not been there for a long time, but he knew the area well, and returning to that land was like returning home for him.

I guess that's really what I was out there looking for, too - looking for home. The more chances I get to learn about plant and animal life here, the better I can understand it. Studying this area means a lot to me because it is my home, and I want to know it the very best I can. I want to know the creeks and the hills and the different stands of timber. I want to spend time on a wild goose chase, trying to find hidden lakes that some crazy fisherman I met in a bar told me about. I want to know guides, scouts, who's good at what, and where I can find a friendly neighbor with a green thumb. If you or someone you know are these people, please contact me.

The following day I tried fishing the lake again, and this time I had my bag limit within the first hour. Let me tell you, those fish tasted extra good because I knew exactly what it took to catch them. I solved the puzzle from the day before, tried a new approach, and learned what worked.

We do not learn things fully without first-hand experience. We cannot appreciate things fully without being challenged by circumstance. We will not catch anything if we do not try to catch something.

"How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?"
- Henry David Thoreau

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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