Sports Column: Friendship, fishing and philosophy

This past week I was able to get out fishing on three consecutive days for the first time in this summer of rain. More importantly, I was able to get out fishing with my close friend David O’Hara.
Dave is a philosophy professor at a small college in South Dakota. We met 23 years ago when he was in his final year as a student at Middlebury College. I was starting my third year of married life and my second as a professor. Still relatively new to Vermont, I was just getting to know the area rivers. Dave, who grew up in the Catskills of New York, was also an avid angler getting to know the area. He married his long-time sweetheart Christina the week after graduation and they stayed in Vermont for eight years. We ended up spending a great deal of time exploring and fishing together. And since fishing together often involved driving from place to place, and walking together streamside — and since we share many common interests — we got to know each other pretty well.
Even then, I could tell that Dave was on the path toward philosophy. He loved to ask deep and probing questions. “What fly are you going to start with?” was one of his favorites, and it always got me thinking about life and meaning and deep existential angst.
Another deep philosophical question he asked me once, while fishing on Mad River, was, “Do you think that is a bowling ball or a beach ball sitting there on the gravel bar?” Actually, come to think of it, he never asked that question. He just assumed it was beach ball until he kicked it really hard with his toeless sandals. On the drive home, as he iced his freshly broken toe, he decided that in the future he needed to ask more questions. Like, “What is the difference between a beach ball, a bowling ball, and what is the source of human happiness?” And to learn more about asking good probing questions, he decided he needed to study philosophy. Thus eventually Dave left Vermont, going to graduate school in New Mexico then Pennsylvania, where he earned his PhD in Philosophy. Then his questions became even more profound and thought-provoking. “I was thinking about Kierkegaard and how his … hey, what fly are you going to start with?”
Sadly for me, Dave ended up taking a position teaching in South Dakota. But while I eventually seem to lose touch with most of my friends who move away, Dave and I managed to stay close — in part because our wives were good friends, too, and partly because we have written three books together, but mostly because we continued to fish together. We have caught trout together in Maine, New Mexico, Wyoming, Tennessee, North Carolina, Oregon and Kentucky.
But we still have a special fondness for the rivers of Vermont where we became friends. So whenever Dave has a chance to get out East, we make a point of fishing together. That was the case this past weekend.
Admittedly, our first excursions on Sunday afternoon left something to be desired. We were en route across Vermont and used it as an excuse to fish the White River at two different locations in Bethel, including the special regulations wild trout stretch. Neither proved very good. In fact, we didn’t see a single trout. The water was warm and also too murky from thunderstorms the previous day. But good fishing and bad fishing both tend to make a person philosophical. And Dave did ask some more profound questions. “Why did the sole of my wading shoe suddenly just fall off when we have to walk a half mile along the river bank, through woods, up a steep hill, and along a railroad track to get back to our car?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. I had not read Kierkegaard in many years, but I didn’t want to admit it. But I had learned from Dave that asking questions was a good way to be philosophical. “Want to stop at the upper Middlebury River in Ripton as we drive through? I’m going to use a small mayfly nymph.” Fortunately, Dave had another pair of wading shoes in the car, and the stop salvaged the day as we each landed a couple small brook trout.
And then came Monday. Good company, beautiful Vermont surroundings, a gorgeous day of weather, and the cooperation of some hungry fish, added up to make one of the most enjoyable days of fishing I’ve ever had in Vermont, and one I will remember for a long time. We did some gorge fishing, where the water remains cold even in the summer, and managed to land about 20 fish between us, including each of us scoring the Vermont trifecta of brook trout, brown trout and rainbow trout. The biggest fish landed was a hearty 18 inches. We saw and lost a couple even bigger ones.
As we were coming down out of the last hole, making our way down a steep and slick rock at the end of a very good day of fishing, Dave began his usual philosophizing. “Aaaiieee!” he said, in a very passionate and breathless sort of way, followed by a very philosophical splash.
I knew just what he meant. I have felt that way on more than one occasion, when I have lost my footing working along a ledge and found myself suddenly plunging toward a deep pool. It is a shorthand translation for one of the great philosophical questions of all times. “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
As he was wringing out his wet t-shirt and expressing thanks that no bones had been broken when he plunged a dozen or so feet into the water, we remarked again at what a wonderful day it had been and how we needed to do it again soon. I’m going to try to read some Kierkegaard first though. And figure out what fly I’m going to start with.

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