I recently returned from a weekend of fishing and snorkeling in St. John, arriving in New York where Shark Week on the Discovery channel picked up where the tropical waters of the Caribbean left off. All of this contact with the ocean, whether first hand on an island or second hand through my television, has triggered an aquatic obsession within me and prompts me to proclaim:
“YOU HAVEN’T LIVED UNTIL YOU’VE GONE FISHING…”
…which I realize is both hyperbolic and, for those who know me, a significantly out of character thing to say, as I am admittedly something of a city mouse. Though that’s not an entirely fair label. I did grow up outside of Boston, which meant summer vacations and weekend trips to the beach in Cape Cod and Maine or to a lake in New Hampshire. Which is where my first fishing memories reside. With my cousin and grandfather pulling small fish—Carp maybe?—out of the fresh water.
I remember my grandfather taking my catch off the hook, approaching an adjacent tree with the flapping fish gripped firmly in both hands and violently smacking the its head against the trunk. The intention is to inflict instantaneous blunt force trauma to the brain, making death quick and painless. But the result is anything but quick, and—though I am unfamiliar with the ichthyic nervous system—it looks nothing short of painful. Painful even for my grandfather whose technique proves to be so inefficient that the exertion turns his entire head red and makes his breathing more labored and movements ever more frantic and desperate—grandpa?—as he more than any of us (except the fish itself) wants to bring this to an end. Contrary to my description, the experience was not that traumatic.
Chapter II: FISH TALE
Fast-forward a few years. I was probably about 11 now, off the coast of Florida fishing, again, with my grandfather and cousin. Here, the water is deeper, the fish bigger, and the potential reward much greater. If I had to estimate, I’d say we were about a dozen people on that boat. Honestly, I’d like to say the boat was 30 feet long and there were 20 of us—10 port and 10 starboard, shoulder to shoulder, each with rod in hand. But I recognize that everything seems more and larger when you’re 11. Though shoulder to shoulder dropping weighted lines dozens of feet below the ocean’s surface is most certainly accurate. I recall very clearly releasing my line too fast and watching it consequently bunch and tangle in the spool. One of the crew has to come over and let most of my line out to undo the mess.
About 30 yards off our port side, my side of the boat, a five-foot Sailfish bursts out of the ocean thrashing back and forth just like in those sport fishing shows. Whoa’s, ooh’s and aah’s from fellow passengers fill the air. The crewmember throws the break on my rod to bring the line back in when he immediately feels the tug of 70 pounds of thoroughbred sport fish on the other end. “He’s got it!” he yells to his colleagues operating the boat. In untangling my line, it had drifted yards off the boat and inadvertently hooked this prize fish close to the water’s surface. The guide hands me my rod, and without hesitation the crew order a full stop on all other activity, recognizing instantly the rarity of this moment. They shuffle me to the bow of the boat, cutting the line of every person fishing to my right. I can’t explain what a rush it is for an 11-year old to be the object of such attention and priority, as all other potential catches are abandoned without a moment’s thought and fellow passengers clear the way before me.
Once I reach the bow, the boat’s engine roars and we give chase. I’m reeling furiously with a crewmember at my side giving instruction and the rest of the passengers at my back cheering me on. Obsessed with the movie Jaws, I can’t help but bask in the parallel to Captain Quint’s pursuit of the Great White in his vessel, The Orca. After what feels like about 20 minutes, my arms exhausted from hand to shoulder, skin torn off the inside of my fingers, I’ve brought the Sailfish alongside the boat where it is darting back and forth, evading the crew’s gaffs and attempting to free itself from my line. Within moments, I’m jolted back a step, all tension from the line gone. I look up at the tip of my rod to see the severed line blowing in the breeze. And just like that, it’s over. My cousin claims the crewmember nicked the line with his gaff. He tells me later in a thick Boston accent, “I sawrit. The fuckin’ guy cut the line with his gaff. The douchebag.” The crew maintain that the fish bit right through it. Most likely it was my amateur technique that placed unsustainable tension on the thin line. Fellow passengers are disappointed and supportive. For me, as well, there is disappointment. But still shaking from the exertion and adrenaline, I’m not yet capable of fully absorbing the situation or being upset.
It was an exhilarating contest of man, rather child, versus beast—one that made me “get” fishing, beyond your typical childhood excitement. Hooking a fish like that, experiencing the thrill of the struggle and (though not in this case) the sense of accomplishment in hoisting a monumental catch on board sparks a passion for the sport that must be akin to that moment in other sports, like golf and baseball, when you strike the perfect drive or hit a homerun. That feeling of a flawless swing in which you can actually perceive the hard casing of the ball compress against the head of the club or bat—a sensation that turns thousands of people every year into fanatics of one kind or another, in constant search of repeating that rush. If you’re not a professional, then the perfect drive and the prize catch are most likely infrequent occurrences, and as such, that much more rewarding and laden with serotonin when finally achieved. I came close to that with the Sailfish that got away. Maybe not to the point that I wanted to dedicate my life to fishing, but close enough to understand why other people have.
Chapter III: CALL OF THE WILD
Despite “getting” fishing, my life took me down a different path, a more urban one, leading me to New York to live and mostly to European cities on vacation rather than the beach. But just a couple of weeks ago I went fishing with my girlfriend and her family in St. John. It was the first time in decades… maybe even the first time since my afore-recounted “one that got away” story from off the Florida coast. It’s a struggle to get the whole family on-board for the excursion. There are a couple of naysayers in the group who roll their eyes at the idea of fishing. That all changes, of course, when the first fish is on the line.
Our captain, Kevin, hands me the rod. It’s a good fight, the fish putting up enough resistance for me to release some endorphins and feel that primal satisfaction of physical domination over another organism. Most intriguing is the instruction I receive. Pull the rod up slowly, then reel rapidly as I point it back towards the water. If the fish resists hard and runs, let him go. Then start reeling again when it lets up. Just like Quint with the infamous 25-foot, three-ton Great White. When my fish is still feet below the surface, Kevin identifies it as a baby Atlantic sharpnose shark. A small breed that maxes out around four feet in length, mine measuring a mere two feet, a far cry from Spielberg’s mechanized monster. But it’s more than enough to get the rest of the family excited.
Once on board, I pick it up, placing one hand just behind its jaw, the other grabbing the meat between its dorsal fin and tail. Since sharks have no bones, you have to grip them behind the head. Otherwise they can bend back far enough to bite your hand. The skin, just like they tell you on Shark Week, is smooth in one direction, sandpaper in the other. We take pictures, everyone touches it, I even kiss it. Then I start to feel bad for the shark and a bit embarrassed by my now protracted fussing and grandstanding over this 24-inch animal that was minding its own business when a tourist yanked it out of its habitat for amusement. So I finally throw it back, and we continue to fish. Smaller and more edible fish are abundant and fill our icebox. There’s a palpable connection to nature, knowing that you are procuring your food in the most primitive and natural way possible. Most of the supermarket fish on St. John is imported, not to mention that Timemagazine article I read some weeks ago about fish farming. So there is significant satisfaction in plucking one’s own dinner directly from the ocean.
Then my wildest childhood fears and fantasies are stoked when Kevin asks if I’d like to catch an eight-foot Tiger or Bull shark. “They’re down there,” he qualifies. We’re at the edge of a reef, at a depth of about 85 feet. You can see the small waves breaking along this natural barrier, right where the Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. Kevin brings out the big rod with the big spool and the big line and puts a big filet of something on the hook and drops it to the ocean floor. “Just give them a few minutes to find it,” Kevin says. He’s right. Within minutes the rod folds over 90 degrees towards the water, the line streaming out of the spool making a sound I can liken only to a scream or siren. I shoot up to my feet. Kevin jumps to the rod and starts reeling. But no shark. An empty hook comes to the surface. Filet number two goes into the water. And within minutes the same routine repeats itself. Bait stolen, as we are outwitted by a shark for the second time.
Our final attempt is with what remains of our bait—a bloody fish head. My eyes are glued to the tip of the rod. To employ another sports metaphor, there is suspense in every second that you’re watching the line, just as there is with every pitch in a baseball game. To the average viewer, baseball and fishing are slow, monotonous, and dull. But to the even slightly more informed viewer (even someone who tunes is just for the playoffs, as I do), there is a world of possibility packed into every pitch. There is the knowledge that if the kinetic energy of that moving ball meets with the kinetic energy of a swinging bat then there is the potential for a jaw-dropping occurrence, something for the highlight reel or even history books. Well, the same goes for staring at a fishing rod. But this time, the bait is not so appealing to whatever’s down there. And much to my dismay, we call it a day. I could’ve stayed out there for hours predicated on the mere potential of a jaw-dropping occurrence. But the little brother was asleep, the mother had already vomited over the side (though to her credit, unbeknownst to any of us until we reached shore), and the rest of the family was ready to get back on land.
Epilogue: WAXING PHILOSOPHIC
I may not fish again for another 10 years. I hope that’s not the case, but who knows. However for those of us who live in cities and sit on trains or at a desk all day and have groceries delivered to our homes, it is nice, if not necessary, to reconnect—however frequently or infrequently we can—with the natural world. This is not to say that the automated urban centers in which we reside do not offer us countless wonderful things: from cinema to art, architecture, history, food, and so on. But nothing it offers can substitute what natures provides us and means to us on both a physical and emotional level. It evokes memories of childhood and the carefree joy with which we hopefully associate our youth; it solicits from us a physical exertion (whether from swimming in the ocean, hiking, or fishing) that is exponentially more fulfilling, fun and challenging than what we could ever find in a gym; above all else, nature gives us perspective—whether on safari in the sub-Saharan African bush or on a boat in the middle of the ocean’s infinite expanse–you see the staggeringly simplistic bigger picture, one unscathed by material possessions, financial wealth, or office politics. There is an overwhelming comfort in this reminder of our insignificance—one that enables us to wade through the superfluous and better understand and isolate in our own lives that which is, in the end, significant.