Matt Dickerson: Fishing brings people together
I am often amazed at the connections that happen through fishing. Indeed, “connections” is too sterile a word. They can be profoundly serendipitous, community-building, and often lifelong.
Fishing is about connections. The most obvious one is between human and fish.
A classic blessing among anglers is “tight lines”—a quick way of saying, “may you often find yourself connected to a fish.”
Sometimes we find ourselves connected to other things as well. The bottom of the river. Overhead branches. Other anglers. Two weeks ago my friend Dave O’Hara was fishing in South Dakota and his friend lost his fishing rod. A week later Dave was back fishing the same river two hundred yards downstream, and to his amazement he accidentally snagged the lost rod. The level of connectedness and serendipity in that catch is hard to fathom.
I have mentioned in this space the community that exists in groups like the New Haven River Anglers Association, or various chapters of Trout Unlimited. These folks initially came together because of common love of fishing, but friendships have grown that extend far beyond the stream bank, and result in collaborations of community service, conservation and education. And, sometimes, in more fishing.
Fishing communities tend to be very welcoming. I have been shown hospitality by complete strangers from the Guadalupe River Trout Unlimited group in Texas who took me fishing to their favorite spots on the limited 10 miles of year-round trout stream within 100 miles.
That is, we had been strangers. Then we went fishing together. Now we are friends. I have also mentioned how my own friendship with David O’Hara—master catcher of lost rods—grew out of fishing. He has since lived in three different states. But we remain close friends and have co-authored three books, only the most recent of which is actually about fishing.
A few years ago I had a trip to Milwaukee where I was invited to give an afternoon lecture at Marquette University. The visit was in October, when king salmon are running up the Milwaukee River out of Lake Michigan. So, of course, I brought my fly rod and waders, and went fishing the morning before my lecture. I landed five king salmon.
I might have landed more but the fifth one broke my rod. I also bumped into another angler who had traveled up from Illinois. We started talking streamside, and realized we also shared a common interest in the writings of C.S. Lewis. That evening we had dinner and a drink together at some nearby restaurant. We have stayed in touch ever since.
Then last year I was at a big summer music festival in New Hampshire. I happened to be wearing my TFO fly rod hat at a back stage dining area. One of the musicians saw my hat, and immediately struck up a conversation. He said he was a big fan of TFO, and we soon started talking fly fishing. Next thing I knew, he had hauled out of his car an impressive fly tying kit with an extra vice, and were sitting together in the catering area tying flies for each other. We’ve stayed in touch.
Fishing has also opened doors in my teaching.
A few years ago I taught a creative non-fiction writing class titled “Essay Writing on the Literature of Fishing.” I offered the class twice. Surprisingly, though a few of the students had been fishing before, many had not. Something about the literature associated with fishing—books like A River Runs Through It or The Old Man and the Sea—attracted them.
In addition to reading, I also took my class fishing for a day on the New Haven River. One student caught his first ever trout, and his first ever fish on a fly. It was one of the most engaged groups of students I’d ever had, and some continued to send me notes or stop by and visit for several semesters after the class ended. They also wrote some really good essays.
After that I taught a class on “Essay Writing on Nature and Ecology.” The readings for the two classes were entirely different. In the former we read essays and stories by Hemingway, and novels by Norman Maclean and David James Duncan. In the latter we read Aldo Leopold, Bill McKibben and Wendell Berry. Many of the underlying discussions, however, were similar—not just about what makes for a good narrative or a good essay, but also about nature and human relationships to nature.
And some of the practices of careful observation, and of looking at the world through the eyes of a naturalist, were also similar. In the fishing class, most of our looking was at or under the water at macro-invertebrates and other aspects of aquatic life, while in the more general class we found ourselves looking at trees and grass and dirt and stars. But the way we looked and the way we wrote about what we saw had much in common.
So this summer I decided to combine the two approaches. I will be teaching a creative non-fiction writing class on Alaska and its char.
The course (which I will be teaching in Alaska) will explore the cold-water fish genus Salvelinus. The genus, which also includes Vermont’s brook trout, has three species native to Alaska: lake trout, arctic char and Dolly Varden trout. But learning and writing about these fish will not so much be the goal of the class as the means of exploring other questions about nature, ecology, culture and various environmental threats to ecosystems in Alaska and the world. The class is a way of helping students make new connections.
The class hasn’t even met yet. Almost none of the students have any experience fishing. They come from all over the world. Asia. India. China. Afghanistan. Columbia. Cape Verde. One from Vermont, too.
But despite our disparate backgrounds, I can already sense the building of community, and the excitement to connect with each other and with the fish we will be studying. I am looking forward to standing by a river with my students and watching ten thousand bright red sockeye salmon swim by. Watching them pick up a rock from the bottom of a stream and look at the amazing variety of insects crawling over it. Or, for those interested in fishing, watching for the first time as they slide a bright red Dolly Varden into a net, gently remove the hook, stroke its sleek sides, and watch it fin off into the river to gobble more salmon eggs.
I’m also looking forward to sending some columns back to the Addison Independent from the wilds of Alaska and staying connected with everybody back East.
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