Yesterday, I cut the head off a calico bass that I caught on the pond near my cabin.
I had forgone the motor and rowed my boat out myself with two paint-stripped oars that squeaked and stuttered as I skimmed my way out onto the center of the quiet lake.
It was my only catch — my only bite — of the day. I reeled it in without too much of a fight and plopped it into my net. It wasn’t remarkably large, but it was fit for eating.
After bringing the boat back to the dock, I pulled its guts out, and filleted it with a red-handled knife that I had been gifted as a volunteer firefighter. My fingers pulled out a yellow clump of mucus that I realized were unfertilized eggs.
In the evening, I threw the white, semi-translucent meat into a greasy frying pan that I’ve been using to cook while on quarantine in a tiny lake cabin in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, and fried it up for dinner.
I’m a terrible cook, and it tasted pretty bland.
But for those few bites of that unimpressive fish, I felt a deep and abiding communion.
It was hardly the first time I’d gone fishing. I’ve been fishing sporadically my entire life. My father, my grandfather, my brother, sister, uncles, cousins, they all fish. And I’ve fished with them since I was old enough to hold my first fishing rod — it was blue, I think, and covered in some sort of cartoon character, maybe something to do with Looney Tunes or Batman.
No, it wasn’t my first time fishing, and hardly my most impressive catch. But it occured to me as I cut the incision up its slick belly that this was the first fish I’d caught, dressed, gutted, and cooked all on my own.
Writers and poets love to talk about feeling “one with the earth” or “in touch with nature,” but it really wasn’t nature, nor the lake, nor the fish that I felt moved by while hacking my knife under the gill plates of that calico bass.
I wish it was God that I felt, but it wasn’t Him either. At least — not directly.
St. Peter was a fisherman before he met Jesus. We are reminded of that routinely by our Church traditions and the names we give the pontiff’s accessories. The Ring of the Fisherman. The Shoes of the Fisherman. He was told he would become a fisher of men.
Jesus blessed Peter with an unimaginable bounty of fish in a time when all other fishermen had concluded that there were simply none to catch. Heaps and heaps of fish spilled out of his nets and into his tiny, peasant fishing boat.
Yet, the tactile reality of fishing in the lives of Our Lord, St. Peter, and the other disciples is something that so many go their whole lives without experiencing. What I’m talking about is the actual, physical act of fishing.
Tension on the line, the pull of the fish as it swims frantically in all directions, the weight of its flapping and frantic body as you raise it out of the water, and the slime of its skin. Many people — most people — don’t know what the pick of a particularly sharp backfin on a pickerel or the sting of an angry catfish’s whisker feels like.
It’s different from hunting. Hunting is killing an animal that has its own defense, whether that’s running away or in the case of more dangerous game, fighting back. A turkey flies. A deer leaps. A bear attacks. Hunting is active, and it’s engaged. It’s a decision to go out looking for game and to bring it back by besting it in a type of combat.
A fish just swims. It swims up and down and back and forth scavenging for food in the murky depths of a muddy, sunless pond. And sometimes, that food that it finds is actually your hook, and by the time you two have become aware of one another, the fish’s fate is largely sealed.
Fishing isn’t going out into the wilderness looking to take the life of another entity that stumbled across your path. It’s a patient and methodical attempt to draw life out from where we cannot see it.
Fishing is a practice in meditation and faith. The fisherman puts his line in the waters and reels it back gently. He recasts, reels gently, and recasts again. And when he finally hauls in a catch, the animal is still alive, flailing in his hands. He kills it unceremoniously and without much thought. No battle, no decisive victory. No killing blow or well-placed shot — just a bash to the fish’s brain or a knife into its gills.
No, fishing is not hunting and not foraging.
You can call it a sport or a pastime, but at its core, each rod cast is a simple, optimistic toss of hope and good faith into the wilderness’s well.
I am only thankful that as I write this I do not need to rely on the wild’s good favor or blessings to feed myself. One calico bass doesn’t go far.