Thursday, July 17, 2014

Missing ‘Time on the Water’

Several men wet their lines in the Fox River near Slade Avenue Park in Elgin, Illinois, as the sun sets on July 9, 2014. | Credit: Ted Schnell

Sometimes the things that matter require sacrifice.

Some may scoff, but I have found that fishing is a spiritual activity in many respects.

Just as water is a focal point for life, a lake or river that is habitable to fish and other aquatic life is a focal point for the beauty of God’s creation. The reflections and the motion of the waves have an allure that is almost hypnotic, demanding inward reflection that can bring clarity to clouded thoughts, peace to troubled minds, comfort to broken hearts. Such is has been my experience when fishing, times I have used as much as for prayer as for pleasure.

I have not been fishing since late summer or fall in 2010, just a few scant months before my first layoff in late 2010.
My reason for giving it up then is straightforward: I have what I call a “passion for splashin’,” and I half -feared that if I picked up a fishing license in 2011, I just might spend more time trying to catch a big bass than trying to land a full-time job.

After 19 months of freelance work, I finally did land a full-time job as the local editor for St. Charles Patch and, later  for Wheaton Patch. But, because I usually worked 60 hours or more a week, the second half of 2012 and all of 2013 passed by without seeing me wet a line.

Patch laid me off in January 2014, and I remain without a license, holding one of my great passions at bay yet a while longer as I search for full-time work.

My more than three years of abstinence from angling stands in stark contrast with the experiences journalist Bill Gardner wrote about after he took about a year off of work to stalk the ultimate musky in the northern lakes of Wisconsin and, if memory serves, of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Gardner wrote about his 200 days of fishing in his book, Time on the Water, which was published in 1982, as I was entering my final semester of college. I read Gardner’s book a year or so later and envied this man. While he never caught his “ultimate musky,” he did take the time to try, and he did catch some, just not the monster for which he longed.

Few people other than anglers or hunters truly can appreciate what that time represents.

For me, as an adult, fishing has been a mostly shore-bound venture that for years I enjoyed once or twice a week with my father-in-law, Guy, when my wife and I still lived in Wyoming. We would fish for all manner of trout, sometimes with spinning rods, sometimes with fly rods. We always enjoyed our times on the water, whether on the North Platte River and its famous Miracle Mile, the Encampment River, or the streams and lakes of the mountains to the south of Rawlins, Wyoming. I lived for seven years in that town — my “second hometown” —where I took my first news job, met my wife, where we had our first son and bought our first home.

When we moved to Fort Collins, Colo., in 1990, I pretty much abandoned fishing for the next four years. It is a nice place to live except for the fishing, which I found largely unproductive for a variety of reasons. I also was commuting too far for a job that demanded too much of my time. Many weekends I simply was too exhausted to go out.

When I returned to my native Elgin, Illinois, in the mid-1990s, my work hours dropped back to a manageable 40 or so hours a week. I took up my sport again, getting out at least once a week, twice if I could. Typically, I would fish when I’d visit my parents, who at that time still lived in the home they built west of Elgin in a subdivision called Wildwood Valley.

The 2-acre lake in that subdivision is open only to residents and their guests, so I was very blessed to be able to fish there so often. I would regularly catch 2- and 3-pound bass measuring 18 or 19 inches in length. The largest bass I ever caught in that little lake came before I had a scale to weigh it, but it was a full 22 inches long and had a hefty girth. My wife, who rarely accompanies me fishing, happened to be nearby when I caught that one. She even cracked a smile as I held it up and, in my best Steve Irwin voice, called out, “Crikey! Look at this beauty!”

I find that time on the water is time well-spent.

In addition to its contemplative aspect, I enjoy fishing for the hunt:
  • Trying to figure out the lay of the land, as it were, by peering into the depths through sunglasses with polarized lenses to see gaps in the weeds, drop-offs, sunken rocks or logs and other spots that bass might use as ambush points to prey on other fish, tadpoles, frogs, or even small snakes. In murky conditions, or when the water’s surface is too static to see through, you learn to use your lure to “feel” the layout of the areas you fish.
  • Learning which lures to use and under which conditions to use them — top-water baits, minnow baits, spinnerbaits, rubber worms and other soft baits, jigs, crankbaits. Each serves a different purpose, and each can be fished in more than one way to trigger a strike.

The satisfaction, I think, is threefold:
  • The strike: Demonstrates you have found that ambush point and that you are presenting the lure properly.
  • Setting the hook: It’s no guarantee you actually will catch the fish, which still could break the line, for example. But, when you do it right, you are well on the road to the next step.
  • Playing and landing the fish: This is the final stage of the “battle.” When I was young, I learned to play the fish slowly, to tire it out so it would not break the line. Today, the prevailing wisdom is to use extra-heavy line to reel in the fish much more quickly. Horsing the fish in rapidly helps ensure they do not become exhausted and assure their ability to recover when released.

I even find releasing the fish after I’ve unhooked it to be an exhilarating part of the sport, and, like at least a few other anglers, I have my own little ritual before gently returning the fish to the water.

I work quickly to measure and weigh it, then pause only a moment or two to look over it, admire its color, perhaps its scars, and the beauty it represents. The whole time, I thank God for such precious moments. And, as I release the fish back into the water, and even though I know it is not capable of understanding me, I say thanks for playing.

It has been more than three years since I last went fishing, and I continue to set aside my time on the water until I find work. Someday soon, I hope, I will play again.