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A Contemplative Person's Recreation: Fishing

Aug 19, 2008
For Americans in landlocked areas, it may be easy to forget how central fishing is to the world's economies and cultures. So feast on this whopper of a statistic: two hundred million people owe their jobs (directly or indirectly) to fisheries. No wonder, then, that per capita, we each eat over twenty-one kilograms of fish per year. That's a lot of brain food.

And, perhaps most impressively of all, according to one estimate, there are thirty-eight million fishers in the world.

But for a large minority of those thirty-eight million people, the journey to the lake or stream in search of a big fish (or a big fish story) does not have to do with livelihood or survival: it has to with recreation. (Put another way: they don't fish to survive, they fish to live.) Though humans have been fishing since at least the Paleolithic period (forty thousand years ago), and though fishing was one of the first activities to allow for permanent human settlements in certain areas (thus giving us an alternative to the roving hunter-gatherer lifestyles of the earliest people), people have fished for sport since at least the middle ages. A 1496 treatise on fishing for fun was one of the first English works to roll off of a printing press. The sport really took off during the late Renaissance period, and even gave rise to one of the classics of early modern English prose, Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler.

Walton argued that fishing - as his subtitle had - a contemplative man's recreation ("or woman's," we would add). Millions of people since the seventeenth-century book's publication have agreed. Fly fishing, after all, first developed among the English aristocrac - not among people who needed the fish to survive. And though fishing hasn't had the gentried associations in America that it may have had in Europe, it remains a site where people compete with each other, tell stories ("There was this one I caught last summer"), contemplate nature, and get away from the daily grind - an activity with its own dedicated subculture, as well as its unique and irreplaceable value in the larger culture. (Just think of all the intellectuals and writers who valued the time to think and spiritual clarity that fishing afforded them, or the great books that fish hunts have inspired: Moby-Dick; The Old Man and the Sea; Deliverance; A River Runs Through It.)

A would-be fisher's initiation to the sport should probably begin with a trip to the library - to learn about nearby streams, lakes and waterways in your area, the kinds of fish available (nature guidebooks are a good bet), and the laws regulating fishing in your area.

After that, you'll want to consider buying or borrowing a rod. (Some fishing resorts will offer equipment for rent; beginners may want to avail themselves of this option, since nothing is more annoying than a closetful of expensive sports equipment that you never get around to using. Why not find out if you like the sport before you buy the accoutrements?) Fiberglass fishing rods are often recommended for newcomers to the sport. They don't cost as much a bamboo or graphite rods, and they don't break easily. (Graphite affords extra agility - and a corresponding fragility - for those experienced fishers who need it.) Rods vary in length as well as material, but the rule of thumb is: short, flexible rods for places where you can't cast your line too far (because of overhanging tree branches, perhaps); long rods for uninterrupted water with moderate winds; short semi-stiff rods if you're after big tough fish.
As for baits, lures, and tackle, well, the options are too wide to generalize about. Everything depends on the kind of fish that can be caught in the area you intend to explore. (That's why I recommended you start with a trip to the library.)

A word about catch-and-release: as more and more fishers realize the importance of keeping worldwide fisheries well-stocked, they are increasingly opting to throw fish back into the water upon catching them (expediently enough to ensure the fish's survival). For sport fishers, this is increasingly a requirement of ethical fishing: after all, if you don't need the protein, why deplete an already-depleted stream?
About the Author
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