Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

It’s the fishing, not the catching, that matters

By Shawn Perich

Recently I stopped by a local gallery where angler and artist Tim Pearson of Silver Bay was giving a watercolor demonstration. We chatted, catching up on the things you talk about with fellow trout bums who you occasionally meet on a river somewhere…or in an art gallery.

“I don’t fish as hard as I did when I was younger,” said Pearson, who is now a wizened 30-something.

He dabbed splotches of color on a canvas. As he swirled his paint brush, the colors became a moose.

“Now fishing is about the experience,” he continued. “It doesn’t really matter if I catch any fish.”

He continued working on the moose, which was becoming more alive with every brush stroke. We talked about his favorite method of fishing: swinging flies in the currents of Lake Superior tributary rivers to catch steelhead. This is a low odds technique with a high payout. The electrifying jolt of a steelhead taking a swung fly is among the most exciting moments in angling. But you may fish for hours or days just to experience one satisfying strike. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Most anglers, even the rabid souls who pursue muskies, prefer more action when they are on the water.

Swinging flies distills angling to its very essence and as such is an acquired taste. If you’ve caught enough fish (and Pearson has), then you may reach a point where you simply appreciate the act of fishing. The beauty of the place, the pull of the current, the rhythm of the cast and just the anticipation of the strike fully satisfy you. Catching a fish? Well, that’s great, but it’s the act of fishing that really matters.

Sometimes I fish that way, usually with a fly rod. But if there is little hope of catching something, I quickly lose interest. After all, the point of going fishing is to catch a fish. This doesn’t necessarily mean you bring home fish for dinner. Many anglers, including me, take pleasure in catch-and-release fishing. But I like to eat fish, too.

Last night, I was after fish to eat on a favorite lake just inside the BWCAW. Although the campsites are usually occupied, only occasionally do I encounter other anglers. Many paddlers are casual anglers at best. The lack of other anglers doesn’t bother me. When fishing alone, solitude is what I seek.

You are never alone out there. A loon joined me as I slow trolled the canoe, breaking into a wild song when just a few feet away from me. Claiming no understanding of these ancient birds, I am not sure whether the sounds were triggered by my presence, or if the loon was simply announcing to all creatures within earshot that it was alive and free.

Fish were biting, but not ones I wanted to catch. The bigger pike were hammer handles; the small ones were tent pegs. The perch were too tiny to filet. The walleyes had lockjaw. I trolled the length of the lake and then, as the sun set, trolled my way back. When even the magic time of twilight failed to produce a keeper, I admitted defeat.

Was the fishing excursion a waste of time? No. it was a lovely evening; peaceful and quiet. After a week (and weekend) of toil, sliding the canoe into the water was a just reward. For me, fishing is best when I feel like I’ve earned some time on the water. Out there, I have the ability to switch off the outside world and focus on the present. Some might say that means my fishing is therapeutic. I prefer to think fishing, unlike our daily routines, allows you to live fully in the present.

Maybe that’s what Pearson means when he talks about the fishing experience being more important than catching fish. Like me, Pearson has gone from being a serious trout bum into becoming a busy guy. I’ve no doubt that for him, like me, fishing is an escape into the here and now.

Someone who doesn’t hunt or fish, or who does so casually, may ask, “What is living in the here and now?” It’s a fair question. Few other activities allow you to become an active participant in the natural world. You need to think like a fish in order to catch one, which means you become attuned to an underwater world you cannot see. You are also keenly aware of the weather, waves or currents that move the water, and a myriad of natural factors that may affect your success. You are aware as well of your own presence and the predatory stealth necessary to approach your prey. All of this, as well as your skill with a fishing rod, must come together for fishing success.

Your peripheral awareness is also occupied by the natural world. The bird songs, the whisper of wind in the pines and even the annoying buzz of mosquitoes are part of your reality. If you are fishing well, the natural world around you is the only one that matters. Whatever you left behind at home or in the office is still there, but it doesn’t matter in the here and now.

Sometimes when I go fishing, it’s difficult to switch off those day-to-day concerns. I have a hard time focusing on fishing when that happens. Then the best course of action is to reel in and call it a day. For me, fishing isn’t fun when my mind is preoccupied with other matters. More to the point, a preoccupied predator goes hungry.

Occasionally I’ve gone fishing with competitive anglers, folks whose catch may place them on a tournament scoreboard. I marvel at the intensity of their focus. But I wonder if they are able to switch off their minds and live in the here and now. Or does their drive to succeed at catching more and bigger fish than anyone else transform their fishing time into what amounts to another day at the office? As long as they enjoy their time on the water, I’m not sure it really matters.

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