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Are we freeing our fish, or do they free us?
In case you’ve lost track of time, it’s summer. And I’m on the run again for a spell, in what I hope will be my last protracted check-out of the year. My niece is hauling the family to the Amalfi Coast to watch her get hitched. (Congratulations Adria and Jeb!) A joyous occasion, which nevertheless had me asking the nagging question I ask on all occasions: how does it affect me? Too lazy to get my passport renewed, I tried to convince Adria to hold her ceremony at an outdoor amphitheater in the woods where I walk my dog. Boy Scout Troop 347 has been kind enough to remove most of the poison ivy and deer droppings. But a destination wedding has become one of the sacred rites of her people, The Millennials, so off we go…..
Italy bores deeply into our psyches. My mom’s forebears hail from Sicily and Basilicata in the south. My wife’s dad’s people originate from Trentino in the north and from Cortona, the jewel of Tuscany – at least to us - in the center, where Alana still has a tribe of relatives who have yet to serve me a meal that doesn’t make me want to ditch my life and move there. Who knew that even eggplant could taste that good? Anyone who maintains that Italy is no longer a world power has never sat at the family table of its inhabitants.
But though we’ve seen plenty of Italy in the past, neither of us have ever been to the Amalfi Coast. Which is kind of like Big Sur with brighter buildings and more Kardashians in it. It’s hard to know whether to take in the matchless beauty, or to rent a boat and slip on a thong so you can become an Instagram influencer. Though I doubt I’ll be drafted for the latter, since this is my swimsuit, a tribute to the Great Pyrenees we had to leave behind at the “pet resort” (i.e., dog jail).
But rather than afflict you with tourist copy while I’m away, or worse, more politics, I think I’ll leave you with a golden oldie. It’s a short fishing piece, which if I did it right, is about a lot more than fishing. In fact, though I wrote it years ago, just last year, The Yellow Dog Flyfishing company picked it up in their catalog, which is more like a print magazine (note to young’uns: magazines were these things made of paper filled with words that we used to hold in our hands and read). If you don’t know the Montana-based Yellow Dog, you probably should. By reputation, they’re perhaps the best fly fishing adventure travel service in the business. (They are not paying me to say this.) And their founder and head honcho, Jim Klug, is not only a devoted Slack Tide reader (thus evidencing his sterling character), but is also a wickedly talented photographer. As today’s cover photo demonstrates. Here are more of Jim’s photos if you need to buy any, or to just look at them to elevate your spirit.
So without further ado:
There is nothing more boring than other people’s dreams, so I try to forget most of my own. Life's waking nightmares are vivid enough. But I'm dogged by one I had the other night. I was standing in a favorite fishing hole up to my waist, attempting to release a largemouth bass I'd just caught. Slow on the trigger, I'd missed the lip-hook. So my fly had lodged deep down his gullet. As I struggled to work it free with hemostats, trying not to injure the fish, hands grew out of his pectoral fins, gripping my wrists, as he patiently awaited his fate.
I woke up with my heart pounding out some thumping, jungle arrhythmia. What if fish had hands? Could I spend all this time doing what I love to do most, catching-and-releasing them? Thank God they don't. A good break for me, a bad break for the fish. Anatomy is destiny.
I've written about catch-and-release fishing in these pages before, almost exactly 10 years ago. Since then, I've caught 13,005 more fish on a fly rod and have let them all go. I know the precise number, because I've counted and recorded each one. They say fishing is cheaper than therapy, which my wife suspects I'm in need of. Though after tallying up the tabs for rods, waders, boots, flies, gas, and convenience-store junk-food on my runs, I'm not so sure. But it's given me a lot of time to think about this seemingly pointless blood pageant I participate in, and why. With another decade gone, I haven't come up with anything better than a weak paraphrase of Thoreau: Some men count fish all their lives without knowing what it is they're counting.
Non-fishing friends often look askance at you when you tell them how many fish you catch without eating a one. "Oh, you're just a sadist, then," they say. They call me "fish molester," "fish torturer," and worse, as though my fly rod and I amount to some piscatorial Abu Ghraib. I tell them I like to eat fish just fine on occasion. But Mrs. Paul has already done the dirty work for me. Why commit felonies when misdemeanors bring you more pleasure?
I'm free to just fish. I don't have to kill them, clean them, cook them, or take their PCB loads into my bloodstream. I can just hold something beautiful and wild for a second, before turning it loose to be fruitful and multiply. Maybe I will even catch its children and grandchildren down the line, before evolutionary calculus kicks in, and it finally dawns on the progeny that a woolly bugger isn't actual food. The fish, in the bargain, gets a good human tale to tell to his fish kin, scaring the bejesus out of them. Maybe fish like to be scared a little, the same way people do. Fear reminds us that we're still alive.
The science is divided on whether fish feel pain. But from my hands-on experience, I safely assume they don't relish being caught. While I enjoy communing with them, they seem like they'd be perfectly willing to go it alone. But even if fish had the neocortex and microcircuitry to guarantee they feel pain, it's nothing like the pain I feel when I can't catch them in deepest winter or when life presses in.
I don't know what it says about me that I always feel closest to God when I'm giving His majestic creation a lip-piercing. But the book of Hebrews states plainly that without bloodshed, there is no redemption. Jesus himself was a bit of a catch-and-release story. The Romans thought they had him good and dead; then three days later, the tomb let him go. Not for nothing were at least five of Christ's disciples fishermen, including his two favorites (Peter and John). So I rest confident that he'd forgive this minor blasphemy.
As for counting and logging all my escapees, I can't say what it amounts to. Except that each of those marks on a page represents a fleeting window of time. One in which I was looking neither forward nor back—I was just looking. It's my favorite kind of time, since it's the time we have the least of. String enough of those moments together, and a good fishing moment becomes a good fishing life, irrefutable evidence of what Roderick Haig-Brown called "living a life, instead of enduring it."
I'm not pretending that fish can save our souls. But on some days, they come close enough.
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Bonus Scene/Track: I realize you legions of Wilson Phillips fans will expect me to run their song “Release Me,” in tandem with this piece’s headline. But I’m going to skip it, on account of my Y chromosome. Instead, here’s a scene that has long moved me, and incorporates two of today’s themes: rivers and Italy. It comes from a screwy faux-documentary that Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix made back in 2010, I’m Still Here. It was a meditation on fame and spiritual and creative bankruptcy, as Phoenix appeared to be setting fire to his own career with stunts like becoming a rapper in what ended up being more of an Andy Kaufmanesque caper. Most critics who didn’t understand it mauled it, but I quite liked it. And I especially loved the closing scenes, where Phoenix, pretty near the end of his rope, goes and sees his dad in Panama. They drink a beer and sit in silence, the way we do with intimates for whom words have become redundant. After surveying a waterfall, then flashing back to a home video of him playing in the same waterfall when he and his siblings were kids, long before his brother, River, had died by drug overdose, Joaquin slowly walks into a river until he’s all the way in over his head. The haunting instrumental he does so to is called “Due Tramonti” (or “two sunsets”), by the Italian composer and pianist Ludovico Einaudi, whose grandfather was the President of Italy from 1948 to 1955.