Sports

Matthew Dickerson: Fishing porn and the year that wasn’t

My good friend David O’Hara introduced me to the term “fish porn.” At the time, we were collaborating on our 2014 book “Downstream: Reflections on Brook Trout, Fly Fishing, and the Waters of Appalachia” (Cascade Books).
Contrary to what some might imagine, “fish porn” does not refer to scantily clad (or completely unclothed) persons in provocative positions pretending to be anglers (although apparently that also helps some social media sites draw viewers). Rather, it refers to a type of photography intended to titillate audiences and stimulate in the viewer (in this case an avid angler) a lustful desire to catch a fish like the one in the photo, with the ultimate purpose of selling magazines and guide services. The archetypal fish porn is a close-up image of a person holding a large fish, taken with a camera angle intended to exaggerate the size of the fish even further, but with little or nothing to deepen knowledge of the place the fish was caught.
Dave didn’t introduce the term to me in order to recommend the practice. Quite the contrary! Although I have no doubt that such photos can help sell magazines or draw somebody to an Instagram page, for him it was a pejorative term, a criticism of a practice, something for us to avoid.
When we worked together on our book, one important goal was to write about place: not place as an abstract idea, but specific places where we spent time listening, observing and learning. It was to draw our readers into a deeper knowledge, love and concern about the landscapes, rivers and creatures that lived in and around them — including our fellow human creatures whose lives are so impacted by the waters around them. And through writing about specific places, we sought to elicit in our readers a greater overall appreciation for the beautiful creatures known as trout, a greater concern for rivers where those trout live, and a greater knowledge about river ecology in general. That has been one of my goals in the books and magazine articles I have written about fishing since then.
Fishing porn does none of that. It merely makes readers lustful after the fish and envious of the person in the photograph holding the fish. As one of my favorite philosophers Peter Kreeft once observed: Love is like a fountain flowing; lust is like a toilet bowl flushing.
•••••
In some ways, 2020 was the year that lasted forever. Like those who lived through the Great Depression, we will all forever be marked by this past year. In another way, though, it was the year that wasn’t. That is to say, so much happened. And yet so little happened because we all spent so much time at home unable to go anywhere or do anything. After winning his seventh Super Bowl on Sunday, Tom Brady commented that 2020 was a good year for a football junky like him because there was absolutely nothing else he could do except live, breath and eat football. Everything else was closed.
2020 was a year that introduced many people to the outdoors — because, as it turned out, there weren’t many indoor places we could safely go. Many manufacturers of outdoor gear and apparel saw sales skyrocket. More people took up hunting and fishing. In that way, 2020 was a great year to be an outdoor writer.
Except it was also the year that most of my work-related and writing-related travel was canceled, as it was for many of my colleagues who work in outdoor-related media. My planned trips to Maine, Tennessee, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas and Pennsylvania where I had speaking and writing engagements were all canceled. In late January 2020, just before the pandemic shut us all down, I did manage to get in one trip to Arkansas to work on an article for a fly fishing magazine. And because it was secluded on an off-the-road system — and for a while most airplanes were empty and seemingly safer than grocery stores — I was able to get in a late summer trip to Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park and Preserve and Katmai National Park and Preserve to work on a book project about the Bristol Bay drainage. LCNP&P is roughly the size of Connecticut, yet even on a “busy” year it gets only 40,000 to 50,000 visitors — fewer in a whole year than Acadia, Yellowstone or Glacier national parks receive in a single weekend. In 2020, its visitor center didn’t even open. Maintaining social distancing was not a problem.
•••••
Our single-engine Cessna floatplane flies low over the Alaskan tundra. The late summer landscape below is a patchwork of white lichen, autumn-gold grasses, and blueberry bushes already displaying bright red fall foliage. In the sheltered hollows, protected from the wind and holding a little extra soil, forests of mixed birch and spruce provide some dark greens and bright yellows to further color the already richly hued landscape.
Silver ribbons of countless and often nameless rivers and streams weave through these varied colored patches. The smaller rivers flow from beaver dam to beaver dam like a rural Champlain Valley road flows from farmhouse to barn to cornfield. In the larger rivers, we catch sight of big brown bears patrolling the shores and shallows hoping for a few more bites of salmon before the last of the summer sockeye run spawns out, and the dead pink flesh floats downstream in mouthfuls for hungry trout. Or perhaps it floats all the way to saltwater where waiting halibut will feast on it. Much of it has already been carried away by bears, gulls and eagles, and defecated onto terrestrial soil to feed those trees, berry bushes and grasses — and indirectly the many insects, birds and beasts that feed on the plants and berries that feed on the digested remains of salmon flesh.
The intricate tundra quilt work, exquisite when seen from above, proves equally beautiful from the ground when our pilot drops down onto the corner of a large lake in Katmai National Preserve and we step onto the shore. A few remaining blueberries, shriveled from many nights of frost, still cling to the bushes below the red leaves. Piles left by the bears on the streamside trail make it clear that the bears have been mixing dried blueberries with the salmon in their diet. Blueberry glazed sockeye salmon?
I lift my five-weight rod, rigged with a fly to imitate rotting salmon flesh. In a few days, I’ll be back in Vermont, back in the endless year that wasn’t, joining my neighbors in a fight against a microscopic foe armed with spikes more deadly than any medieval mace. But for a time, I’m concerned only with fighting a stiff wind that whips along the top of the blueberry-lined bluff and tries to keep me from landing that fly out in the water where hungry rainbow trout are waiting.

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