Until yesterday afternoon, I’ve never been tempted to kiss a fish. But then again, I’ve never caught such a beautiful rainbow trout as the one I landed yesterday. In that moment, the glory of “rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim” came alive for me, “fickle, freckled.”
I had barely cast my number 2 Panther spinner into the eddy when a heaviness and then gentle jerking told me that I had hooked a fish. I reeled in slowly, always a little afraid of my catch falling off the hook, although this seldom happens. So the game started, as I reeled and let the line out, knowing that I’d have an easier time landing him if the trout was a bit tired. He was sluggish compared with the little six- or eight-inch ones that had been more frequent guests of my hook in the past months. I watched his silver sides flashing in the stream. Then, grasping my hand net, I pulled him close, scooped his gently flapping body in the black netting, and quickly scrambled a few feet up the shoreline.
Laying the net on a rock, I could get a good look at him as I pulled my pocket knife out; and that’s when I wondered at this fish’s beauty. Grasping the trout tightly, I thought of the aboriginal hunters who offered prayers or apologized to the animal before slaying it.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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There was a mysterious elation, quiet and yet so strangely tingling that I honestly felt like reverencing this fish. I had caught a wild and beautiful thing. In the end, though, I didn’t kiss it; I firmly pierced its head with my knife, the blood running over my hand. I cut a thin willow branch, stripped the leaves off of it, and, passing it through the gills of the fish, formed a secure holder on which to keep the fish fresh in a shallow eddy.
Later, I measured the trout. Even though 11 inches is quite a medium size for trout generally, this was the largest I’d caught all summer; they don’t get so big in our shallow mountain streams as in lakes. He was the only catch of the afternoon, but he was highly satisfying.
There are several reasons I tell you of my fishing exploits. Firstly, because earlier this year I promised I would more fully explore some of the activities that are timelessly human. Secondly, because I feel like writing of the things that I love. Only the lover sings, St. Augustine famously quipped, and for me, writing is sometimes a song. In this way, I share the beauty that I stumble on from time to time in the hopes that others may find similar joy and life.
Andrew Paul Ward, whom I had the pleasure of meeting earlier this summer, pinpointed the joy of fishing in a remarkable way in his allegorical poem “The Mending Line.” An accomplished angler himself, Andrew writes of the “obligation to leisure on the lake,” the “rods whisper-whipping without wind.” As with my trout, “some mere moment after mending there was a subtle strike” and “that fat fish took the blissful bite far deep down in the lip!” For Andrew, the lesson was one about God’s grace; for me, about the sacred, surprising beauty of creation—feeling the verses of Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” rising to my lips as truth, the true and timeless voicing of the freckled, stippled, dappled thing which was the slimy trout between my fingers.
My third reason for this article, though, is more didactic: it is because I share the same sentiments that Jeff Gardner recently shared in Hearth and Field. He urges that over and against the onslaught of the media maelstrom, we
develop (or increase) a deep love for being outside and the elemental connections that come with it. We are hardwired to feel better outside, a process called biophilia, and we can improve our mental and physical well-being by just spending time standing under a tree.
The golden aspens and cottonwood trees that flank the river pull me into the fresh autumn air. I would you have this joy also. “Reconnecting with the land does not, blessedly, require screens, video or mass-produced ads” Gardener said. Rather, referencing Marshall McLuhan, we ought simply “to turn off as many buttons as we can” and embrace the wild. This is a truth for each and every one of us to follow, a task that John Senior strenuously advocated and which inspires much of Wyoming Catholic College’s educational vision.
Economically speaking, fishing requires, at most, $100 of gear, plus a license. Spiritually speaking, it requires patience and humility to learn when and where the fish are to be found. Socially, it requires comfort with being alone or willingness to find a fishing mentor. Geographically speaking, it requires access to a stream or river, lake or pond, preferably in the mountains, and this may entail travel for our city-dwelling readers.
For me, fishing is an adrenalin-boosting hunt, a breath of fresh air, excitement mixed with relaxation, a time for wonder and solitude and meditation, and, sometimes, a time for camaraderie. It is a time for Him “whose beauty is past change: Praise Him.”