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Black Lamb


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Programmed to fish

January 1st, 2016


I was supposed to have done big things… but fishing got in the way. It was fishing that kept me from being the professor, the comedian, the writer, the big star. “You’re a funny guy — you could have started The Onion when you were in Madison, man,” said one of my old college chums. Maybe I could have. Maybe a lot of people could have. But if you sit at a fly-tying bench for six hours, further relaxed by forty-ouncers of Carling Black Label, there isn’t much cerebral juice left for the demanding task of writing The Onion.

fishI was clever enough to get invited to entertain at a few obscure venues. A dozen years ago, when I was playing the fiddle in a bluegrass band, a deranged banjo picker came up to me and said, “You’re him, ain’t you? The guy from the radio — from the Prairie Companion show.” He wanted me to sign his banjo skin with a Sharpie. I told him I was not that guy, that I just had a habit of delivering long, rambling monologues in a midwestern accent. I had done that for years in bars and ice shanties but was too distracted by fish to get my rap together and sell it.

Fishing sabotaged all those glorious might-have-beens. No brain surgeon or astrophysicist has spent more time at his craft than I have squandered at the fly-tying vise, laying down swatches of yak hair and polypropylene, and adding doll eyes with a glob of epoxy, hoping to make a sardine that the fish will think is real.

To find out if the fly works, I have to go to Mexico or Central America and spend a week sweating in an open boat. And then, if success does come, in the shape of a yellowfin tuna or roosterfish, the whole effort gets reduced to a little package of photos that no one cares to look at. The package ends up in a drawer where it has about as much importance as Aunt Gloria’s 4-H ribbon for best Dutch dwarf bunny of 1959. But I keep fishing, pointless as it seems, partly because it’s too late for me to get good at anything but fishing. And partly because the “higher callings” can be meaningless, too. Sartre said so.
Music? I still practice the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin, and some other pieces, but I limit it to a couple of hours a week. Devoting one’s life to classical music is nuts, even if you are very good, which I am not. If I really practiced, maybe I could get into an ensemble of some sort, but the people who are already there are a little scary. Most symphony players hate their career choice later and deeply resent not having the dough for really good old-vine Zinfandel instead of six-dollar Chilean Gato Negro. The endless rehearsing and playing of old music makes these folks fidgety, sullen, and eager for the next cigarette break.
Writing? Up in the attic is everything I’ve managed to get published over the past thirty-five years, but it would be a blessing if a nice hot fire swept through. That would save our kids the trouble of someday having to store the crap or feel the guilt of setting it out for curbside recycling. Besides, writing can be a slave trip, unless you are independently wealthy like those venerable English colonels who fished salmon all day and wrote a little about the Punjab when they felt like it — and only when the evening fishing talk died from too much brandy. This last year I’ve spent maybe twenty hours at writing: less than the time spent mixing epoxy with a toothpick for sardine heads. To pour your life into a novel, say, and have nothing come of it would be a terrible waste. Why not do something fun, and just pretend it’s important? That’s where fishing comes in.
Others agree. Arnold Gingrich, founder of Esquire Magazine and publisher of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, devoted his last twenty years to chasing trout and salmon all over the world and was an authority on every fishing writer who ever wrote, including names more obscure than baseball players of the 1850s. When he could not fish, Gingrich fiddled on one of his three eighteenth-century Cremonas.
The wealthiest guy I ever met was a banker who lived for fishing, risking his life on remote Canadian lakes trying for a trophy muskellunge. The private Beechcraft and pilot, the sixty-year-old Port, the stamp collection with a fine copy of U.S. C3a (the 24-cent inverted airmail of 1918) — these were nice diversions, but fishing was number one until the day he checked out at eighty.
What the hell is going on here? Why do intelligent people throw away their lives on this pointless pastime?
Simple. It’s chemicals and neurons. We are programmed to fish. We are apes with clothes on, predators designed to seek and subdue other animals. Satisfaction comes when we stick a spear into a mastodon — except that they’re extinct (we killed them all). So now we get fulfillment from watching a sailfish grab a double-hooked Ethafoam popper cast from the transom of a fiberglass boat powered by a 300-horsepower diesel.
Some of my fellow predators have simplified the quest: reducing it to space invaders on a video screen, exchanging the spear for a gold club, substituting a hole in the ground for the mastodon heart. All variations on a theme. The details of the quest are unimportant. What matters is that the quest go forward. If it is not allowed, if it is supplanted by passive movie-going, circuitous intellectual discussion, housekeeping, or quiet walks on the beach, the predator becomes surly and despondent.
If the deprivation continues, the predator may even misuse alcohol or cannabis.

This essay first appeared in the January 2003 issue of Black Lamb.

Posted by: The Editors
Category: 13th Anniversary Issue, Roberts | Link to this Entry


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