Recreational fishing- catch and release style- what a pastime, eh? I’d like to have a chat with the gentleman who decided that drowning worms at six in the morning when your coffee is still piping was going to be his “thing”. Not that I’m down on this gent- I’d just like to know what his friends and family said when he didn’t bring any fish back. Recreational fishing has been relevant to me for most of my life, especially in my early youth. My father grew up in a rural town upstate so fishing was an absolute staple of his childhood, persisting into his adulthood and now his fatherhood. Ergo it had become part of my childhood, persisting into my adulthood and hopefully carrying over to my potential/eventual fatherhood.

So cut to the twenty-sixth of June, two thousand and sixteen. Five a.m. rolls around uninvited, as it often does. Woke up a little intoxicated from the previous night’s one man cocktail-and-documentary party that I often throw on Saturday nights when there is no better company to be found. Big yawn, yadda yadda, get dressed, yadda yadda. I meet my father at his truck, which was already packed the previous night. My father is that kind of guy, you dig? Plans are the big ticket and spontaneity was more of a weekday matinee. He and I drove to pick up my older brother from his place, grabbed breakfast, and soldiered on to the lake.

Drink in this smell with me: clean air, accented with a light breeze, lake water and coffee’s flowing aroma haphazardly blended together, a few cheap breakfast sandwiches in a crumpled brown paper bag. Best goddamn part of the outdoors is the smell. Suddenly you’re aware of how artificial every single room in your abode really is- even the outdoorsy aromatic sprays and various candles simply pale in comparison to the real thing. Growing up I was never a big proponent of the outdoors as the virtual and literary worlds gripped me in such a strong way that trees never had a chance with me. As I grow older, however, I find myself much more interested in the world beyond my walls and windows.

We begin the short trek from the truck to the pier that was such a linchpin in my childhood. The longer I’m away from home the more I realize how many things from home have stuck to me and, therefore, have become part of me whether I want them to or not. The long pier ends with a small platform, can’t be much more than fifteen feet long by the same measure wide. Every fishing excursion we begin with artificial bait, fat Albert pumpkin grubs to be exact; my father’s personal favorite. Now, I’m not claiming to be any type of expert in the ways of fishing. However I am unconvinced that the basic rubber of this fake bait would fool even the most moronic of finny fellow who calls the lake home, despite how it’s design allows it to emulate realistic movement. I imagine it is, to them (our water-bound compatriots), the same as when a person can differentiate computer generated special effects from practical effects in a film.

We cast out our fake bait for the first half hour with no avail. At this point my father breaks out the night crawlers. Now, for the uninitiated, night crawlers are borderline eldritch horrors when compared to your garden variety worms. These Ivan Drago übermensch bastards of nature are the ideal bait, based on not only their size and price but also on their effectiveness in bamboozling the unsuspecting aquatic residents. So we rig up the full set up; hook, bobber (used to indicate the movement of the hook and, potentially, the fish attached to said hook), sinker, and ultra-worm nine-thousand plus. For the first rigging my father set it up, showing us along the way the correct line length and all of the intricacies that aren’t necessarily obvious to the layman. So I cast my line, hopeful for some sort of hit. And holy hot damn- almost immediately there was a foolish fish who was looking for an easy breakfast. I set the hook and reel in, pulling the fish out of the water and holding it up triumphantly.

Although I’m here to tell you a story about fish I’m not here to tell you a fish story. This fish was a wholly unimpressive small-mouth Bass, maybe seven or eight inches in length. I turn, expecting my father to be next to me like he always has been to remove the fish from the hook and release it back into the water. But as I look backwards my father is far away, hunting for his own momentary fight and pursuing the momentary victory of the catch. It hit me, suddenly, who I was in this exact moment. I was no longer an eight year old pining for his father’s acceptance and praise; rather I was a fellow fisherman playfully fighting for the daily dominance of the biggest number of catches. So it was my job to unhook the flopping finny friend and release him back into the lake.

I had reservations in my younger years about the handling of live bait and the catches that follow. I can only imagine that there was a moment in my development that gave me an aversion to the handling of said bait and catch alike. I’m not worried about some form of emasculation when it comes to the previously stated topic. I have never been a squeamish person in the slightest, never have and never will. But there was a moment in my childhood that I cannot recall that made me averse to the whole deal. But there I was, without a choice in the matter.

I turn to my brother; sitting on a bench to behind me to the right, and an awkward smile crawled its way across my face. He chuckled to himself and I chuckled back. Slowly I recall the correct way I was instructed to handle fish, sliding one’s hand down from the face as to not get stuck by any potentially spiny fin. And, by god, I touched it. I not only touched it, but I properly let it go and the whole nine yards. Now full of vigor, I promptly went and baited the hook with another roided worm and cast out again.

I believe that things are not worth doing if they have no hand in improving you as a person. There is absolutely a place for irrelevant recreation, but a distinction must be made in what is a “thing” and what is “irrelevant recreation”. You must know when you go into something that it is one or the other in order to know where you stand. This moment in my life showed me something that I was hoping to see for so long. It showed me that my past only defines who I am, not who I am going to be. All people go through a certain amount of struggle, this is undeniable. The difference between people at large is how they allow their struggles to define them, significant and insignificant struggles.

A trap that we all fall into as humans is defining ourselves by our past decisions, usually the mistakes. Just because, as a young boy in the turn of the century, I didn’t want to touch a fish does not mean that I would never have mustered up the really underwhelming amount of courage to touch a fish. It was a mistake to not touch the fish as a boy, but it was a grand success to touch the fish as a man. I hope that one may take this idea and run wild with it, like a man on bath salts running through a field of poppies and daisies.

“Life is a series of experiences, each one of which makes us bigger, even though sometimes it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and grieves which we endure help us in our marching onward.”- Henry Ford