To fish is to live just a moment in the future

Your pole tip could bend in the next second – or in a second that won’t happen till tomorrow, essayist Murr Brewster writes.

Robin Loznak/The News-Review/AP/File
Chinook salmon pass through a fish ladder by a dam on the North Umpqua River near Roseburg, Oregon.

My husband, Dave, never cared much for fishing, until it was late enough in the game that the frying pan came out. He’s a whiz in the kitchen, but he likes a little more ... activity in his activities. Fishing is boring, he says, because most of the time nothing happens. He’s not wrong.

I like to fish. 

People fish all over the world, and every place has its signature species. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are famous for the mighty salmon. We are also known for the worthy and iconic steelhead trout. We can dispense with the steelhead right away. They’re mythical. They’re a little regional hazing exercise: “Let’s see how many hours we can get her to stand in a winter stream with ice water filling her waders.” Sure, they show up on menus, and friends claim to have caught them, but they’re all in on the joke. At least that’s how I see it.

That leaves the mighty salmon.

The easiest way to go about fishing for salmon is to invite yourself onto a friend’s boat and use their equipment. Then you sit back and troll. It’s a hypnotic pursuit. The motor is set to “mosey,” and the shoreline drifts by at the same pace as the day itself. Once you are settled in, with your pole tip bobbing gently like a metronome, it is possible to match the passage of time – even your own heartbeat – to the rhythms of the current. One lives in the present. And, as wise people seem to agree, it is always best to live in the present – to refuse to mire oneself in regret or guilt, or to sign on for worry, or fear.

Fishing is a study in faith. There’s plenty of precedent for believing in things you can’t see. So although I can’t see the fish below the boat, I trust they are there. I sense the purity of their motives. I am heartened by the notion that they are going about their salmon business perfectly. I don’t even feel the need to intervene, really.

A lot of people put their poles in the pole holders so they can sit back under the canopy and eat sandwiches, but I never do. I want to hold it in my hands. I want to feel the rod thrum as the big old chinook salmon nose past the tackle. I’m living in the now, sensing the studious indifference of the fish, the rippling of seaweed accumulating on the flashers, the gentle lurching and chugging of the lure. 

The chinooks, I’m sure of it, are stacked in layers three deep on the river bottom and slide past each other, excuse me, excuse me, excuse me – salmon are very polite – and their graciousness and civility are transmitted through the line. 

But fishing is even better than living in the present. It’s living just a little bit in the future, in heightened anticipation, with one toe edging into the pool of possibility. That pole could bend over at any second. It could be a second in a whole different day, but it could also be the very next second. 

When I was little, I used to hide in the coat closet when my mom came home. I’d wait for her to open the door, and then I’d jump out and scare the living daylights out of her. This was long ago, and in a more innocent time, so “the living daylights” were the most we could expect to scare out of anyone.

The anticipation was delicious. I could spend all day in there, with my mother apparently requiring nothing from the closet and not unhappy about how quiet her “little handful” was being. Meanwhile, I was quivering in excitement. I was fizzy with suppressed giggles, my joy under pressure and on tap, and I could remain that way for hours.

I was born to fish.

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