What is it about fishing that possesses our hearts and minds the very first time we wet a line and then can't be exorcized during an entire lifetime? I was just a young innocent, maybe 4 or 5 years old, when my dad introduced me to the sport on a dock jutting into Okoboji Lake in Iowa. The sum total of my fishing gear then was a 5-foot cane pole, a length of plain old string, a sinker that I clamped on with my teeth, a hook and a cork bobber. Now, decades later, I'm man enough to admit I was hooked from that humble start.
Between bites, fishing allows plenty of time for thinking. My contemplations on the sport, looking for its most addictive quality, focus on the sights and sounds we experience when we've got a rod in our hands. All of that is part of the joy. But just being around a body of water can deliver those visual and aural pleasures.
What's added when our eyes are riveted on a rod tip or bobber? Here's my thinking; see if you agree.
My favorite T-shirt features a line drawing of an iconic rowboat, two people fishing, a low, red sun in the background and these words: The Hours Spent Fishing Are Not Deducted From Your Lifetime. I believe that, and so did people in Mesopotamia 4,000 years ago. It's a Babylonian proverb.
Sitting on a glassy lake, it's hard to match the uncommon tranquility that settles into us. Mare's-tail clouds high overhead and morning air thickening into a classic summer day. Then a breeze shatters the watery mirror, flinging a million shards of sun. It warms us delightfully after months of low-angle winter light. The water mesmerizes us with its constant motion, like the flames of a fire.
A fishing boat affords a 360-degree view of high-definition sights. Far across the lake, the oars of a rowboat appear to be winking at us as they dip into the water. An early-rising sailor hoists a distant white banner honoring the promise of the freshening breeze. A power boat, trailing a tail of white froth, struggles to achieve level plane. A clearwing dragonfly alights on our rod tip, resting momentarily on its watery flight.
Sounds heard fishing, so different from land-locked city neighborhoods, are also part of the appeal. Conversations that skitter across a half-mile of water, still distinguishable, would be well-kept secrets beyond the backyard fence at home. Franklin gulls bicker raucously over dead minnows dumped from an oxygen-short bucket. And yes, with luck, there is the whir of line stripped from a reel by the lunker of the day.
Beyond the sights and sounds, the fish, of course, draw us to the lakes and streams. It's a fair-chase competition with both predator and prey looking for the same thing: food. And because fish always have home-field advantage in this game, they often win. My dad used to say, especially after I had been skunked: You have to be smarter than the fish.
Still, I don't think reeling in a fish, exciting as it may be, is the prime motivator for rising before the sun on a summer morning. Instead, I propose we are lured to the water by the anticipation of catching fish. When you rearrange jigs in your tackle box in March, you do it with visions of springtime crappies flopping in your head. You don't need an electronic box to see them. The image of the fish is crystal clear in your mind's eye.
Even if fish are smarter than us on a given day, we sure have fun anticipating, participating and remembering the time spent on the water. This much we know: The best fishing trip we'll ever take is the next one.