Late that night, after the cribbage board was put aside and the fishing gear was made ready for the next day, we tossed a pine knot into the woodstove to keep September's chill at bay, and then settled back with the good bourbon. Our group had been friends since boyhood, back when we fished with J.C. Higgins reels. It seemed incredible that in a few years we'd be old enough to retire. Time is a thief, especially late at night in a fishing camp, when the talk turns to second-guessing the choices you've made.
"Why fish?" one of us asked, a bit querulously. "Don't you ever regret wasting so much time on the water?"
To be sure, we squandered much enthusiasm on fishing; as a result, none of us was as well heeled as he might have been. While there was always enough money to buy the latest in graphite and Gore-Tex, our wives shopped at discount stores and clad our little ones in hand-me-downs; our oldest kids relied on part-time jobs and student loans to stay in college. None of us had ever taken the family to Disney World, though there'd been plenty of fishing trips to Yellowstone and Canada. True, our wives claimed not to mind, and our kids were growing into highly proficient anglers who enjoyed fishing as much as we did; but by anyone's standards our accomplishments were small change-unless you counted the 6-pound brookies we'd taken on the Nipigon.
"Why fish?" the question-and perhaps the bourbon-put us in a reflective mood.
I fish because I love the silences and solitudes of wild places as much as I do the trout that lurk there. I fish for the wonder and joy I knew as a boy, and for the adventure I still believe life can be.
I fish because I don't want to fritter away my time in not-so-quiet desperation and end up an embittered old man who shouts at the TV.
I fish for the enormous satisfaction of catching my supper, for the pleasurable pretense of being a woodsman living off the land, and because in releasing a 10-pound walleye I feel as magnanimous as a king. I fish not because I'm particularly good at it but because I'm equally inept at everything else. I fish because I can.
I fish because it is a gift my father gave me and that I have passed on to my son, and because without it the three of us might never have been friends. I fish because goodness and unsullied artlessness are increasingly rare, and I don't want to lose what little I've kept. I fish for the thrilling thunder of river rapids, the mournful wailing of loons, and the lure of an untrammeled forest trail that leads to a tarnÂ¿Â¿Â¿somewhere.
I fish because even though the wilderness is shrinking, the best water is overcrowded, and the fishing isn't what it used to be, there's always the chance it might be different for me. I fish because there are lakes and streams that brim with reflections, where I visit with old friends who have vanished like yesterday. I fish not to escape, or meditate, or wade through midlife crises, but because in battling an enormous pike, I remember what spirit really means.
Because it's the best way I know to convince youngsters that there's more to life than shopping malls. Because it's not mandatory, critical, or important-except to me. Because without it I would be a different person, and I don't think that person would be as happy.
In the end, my friends and I agreed that of all the dreams in this transient world, only the joy of fishing remains true. A line from Wordsworth seems to convey what we tried to say: "Nature never did betray/The heart that loved her."