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“Fish-Syphus”

Fly Fishing

“Just One More” | photo by Robert Binkley

Why We Stay Chained to Our Obsessions

For the last decade and a half, like Sisyphus, I have rolled a rock uphill. When I reach the summit, I momentarily stop, see the rock teeter, and as with the accursed mythological symbol of futility, I watch the rock make its gravity-assisted descent, where I will join it at valley bottom, starting the uphill slog anew. Except my “rock” is the number of fish caught on a fly rod. I have to clear 1,000 of them each year, every year, meaning technically, I have to catch 1,001. Who says I have to? Only the cruelest slave-driver I know: the howling void inside.

I have done so for 14 years straight, and am currently working on year 15. I do this come rain or shine, whether my life is in high clover or in the crapper. I usually catch plenty more than 1,001 fish. (My record was 2,350 in 2012, which included 798 stripers on the fly over a four-month period.) If you just reach 1,001, however, and you fished every day (I don’t), that would be 2.74 fish per day, or one fish every 8.75 hours, or .0019 fish every minute. But who’s counting?

Besides me, I mean. And I can’t stop.

When I first took up this odyssey/burden back in 2007, the world was a very different place. Twitter barely existed, and Instagram was still just a malevolent spark in some pervert techie’s dark imagination. The mainstays of eighties pop charts were all still alive: Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince, David Bowie, George Michael. Magazines still existed. Some of them were even readable. Bookstores, record stores, video stores, and sporting goods chains were on every street corner or in every shopping mall. There were shopping malls! This, being before we all decided to give up and glue ourselves to our couches in our pajama bottoms, observing the sacred rites of His Holiness Bezos, mindlessly visiting all our stations of the cross: “add to cart…….proceed to checkout…..place your order.” My kids were young. My optimism, undimmed. There was still dew on the world, which I promptly eradicated by buying DampRid Moisture Absorber for $26.98 on Amazon (five percent less with Subscribe & Save).

Ten out of ten social observers agree that the world is more insane now than it was then, and suspecting where it was all going even 14 years ago, I needed an excuse to escape it as often as possible. So I fish. A lot. I catch fish, then I sometimes kiss them. (Not all of them, just the hot ones – I’m not some kind of fish weirdo.) Then I let every single one of them go, encouraging them to be fruitful and multiply. I like eating fish, but if God had intended for us to eat over 1,000 fish per year, he’d have made them out of beef or pork.

Most of my fishing is nothing fancy – mainly short stingers or day trips from my house. As a Marylander, I’m not targeting sea-run brown trout in Tierra del Fuego or goliath tigerfish in the Congo. I am merely fishing muddy rivers and clear tailwaters, brook-trout mountain streams and bass ponds and sewage-treatment plant outflows, as well as the Chesapeake Bay (the largest sewage-outflow of all, thanks to the Pennsylvania yobbos who dump all manner of pollutants in our watershed.) It’s meat’n’potatoes fishing. Nothing spectacular. But when you’re a diabetic, you don’t want your insulin shot to be some rare spectacular. You just want it to come regularly. Daddy needs to take his sugar.

Sometimes, I fish to be with my sons. It’s like having a great conversation without anyone diluting it with actual words. But mostly, I prefer to fish solo. I fish to be alone with my thoughts, and I fish to get away from them. Even for us catch-and-releasers, it is arguably a cruel and weird way to get close to nature, to touch wildness by driving steel through its mouth. I love watching bald eagles, too. We have plenty in our neck of the woods. But I’ve yet to hook one in the beak with my 6-weight and a muddler minnow.

While the fish would likely prefer we do otherwise, fishing, like most true pleasures, is something that it pays not to overthink, so I don’t. It provides a reason to stand amidst the natural splendor of sky and sun, trees and water, looking busy while doing next-to-nothing. It sometimes helps to have an excuse. For as the comic Steven Wright has said, “There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot.”

I fish legally, sometimes. But I mostly fish illegally – flouting posted signs and crotchety busybodies who gather that I don’t live in their bayfront community or lakeside subdivisions or wherever. This only enhances the experience, of course. I like the illicit thrill of catching things I’m not supposed to have.

Though as I’ve always instructed my kids since they were young: Who put some ill-tempered HOA goon or the Department of Natural Resources in charge of all of our water, anyway? The much-maligned book of Genesis says that when the earth was without form, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters……And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life.” Take it literally or don’t. Doesn’t matter to me. But in no translation I’ve ever read does it say, “And over all these waters, the Lord putteth in charge crabby old bats and DNR nerds.” In all my time on the water, I have learned there are two kinds of onlookers in this world: those who good-naturedly ask, “Catch anything?” And those who want to stop you, because you might be having fun that they aren’t. For too much of humanity, hell is other people’s happiness.

But of course, even if I wanted to stop fishing illegally, I couldn’t. I have a 1,000-fish-a-year obligation to service. I can’t drop it now. Though I might have to. This year, it seems, all the stars have crossed to suppress my numbers. The stripers, blues, and perch have mostly been AWOL from all my spots in the Bay, and the ponds scummed over too early this summer. I started a new Substack, an endeavor I like, but a time-suck that takes me away from my true business. Finally, I recently went down to a fishing injury that took me out for a good month during prime-time catching season.

This past August, I started feeling feverish, having cold chills, etc. I thought it might be a COVID breakthrough, but after waiting several days for two tests to come back, I came up negative. Still feeling on the verge of death, I went to my doctor, who said I seemed disoriented, dehydrated, and really sick. He sent me to the emergency room, stat. They hospitalized me right away. I did nearly a week in the hospital, as doctors pumped me with antibiotics and tried to straighten out my heart arrhythmia while my body fought the infection, keeping their fingers crossed after I’d gone septic. The culprit? Ehrlichiosis – a disease spread by a lone star tick, which I run into a fair amount in my line of unofficial work. (Fly fishing.) I’ve pulled ticks off of me before, with no problems whatsoever. But this time, I never even knew tick contact had been made.

I fully recovered after several weeks of weakness and all-around ill health, but it really put a dent in my fish logs. While I often cross the 1,000-fish threshold by late September or early October, allowing me to relax the rest of the year so I can do things I want to do (like more fishing), I was several hundred fish down by that time. I have since fought back to a respectable 853 fish on the year. But with the leaves turning and the cold bearing down, as writing chores stack up, I’m flirting with failure for the first time since 2007. The streak is in serious jeopardy.

A fishing buddy, who goes by the nickname The Cool Refresher ( a moniker he gave his own ‘80s era jump shot, back when we participated in more taxing athletic pursuits than swinging streamers in fast water), inquired as to my health. When I told him I was fine, but that I was really concerned about my fish totals, he scoffed: “I’ll let you in on a little secret: nobody cares about your ‘number.’ Except the chattering little monkey that resides inside your skull alongside your true personality. Just relax.”

I couldn’t, of course. I thought maybe I’d be spooked off of fishing, after having a brush with mortality from a lousy tick bite. But duty called. I put on long pants, tucked them into my boots, bathed myself in DEET, grabbed my fly rod, and headed to the water while trying to stay out of the tall grass. With my numbers suffering, I came to think of the ticks as just more annoying pests with no earthly utility except to persecute humanity before we shuck this mortal coil. You know, like mosquitos or OPEC or Lauren Boebert.

I can’t help it. I need to catch fish, then count them and log them. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s proof of a life well-lived, or at the very least, well-wasted. I’d be lying if I said each fish meant something to me individually. But collectively, they do. As interchangeable as so many of them are, they each signify a perfect moment in time, even down to the lowliest bluegill. Those numbers on a page represent the electric jolt of resistance, which then yields to unity with something beautiful and wild, even if to the fish, it means nothing but a lip-piercing and a scary encounter with a man smelling of too much DEET. It’s one of the few times where I’m looking neither forward nor back – the time I like best, as it’s the rarest kind they make.

The late, great Texas singer-songwriter, Townes Van Zandt, understood it, even if he wasn’t a fisherman. (His son, JT Van Zandt, on the other hand, is a pretty accomplished one.) Before Townes drank and drugged himself to death on New Year’s Day of 1997 at the ripe young age of 52 (the official cause of death was a heart attack), he sang “To Live Is To Fly”:

We all got holes to fill
Them holes are all that’s real
Some fall on you like a storm
Sometimes you dig your own

When grousing to my wife the other day that my 14-year-streak might be ending, she told me to celebrate if it does. To quit digging my own hole. Lay my burden down. Be free! I didn’t have to count fish anymore. She makes sense on paper. But we don’t live on paper. We live in a world of complications and crosscurrents, of attachments and compulsions. I love freedom, but I’m not sure that’s the kind I want. Not to go too S&M on you, but maybe sometimes we’re freer when we find ways to be bound to our own lives.

Since I was a small child, I have always loved dogs. We seem to understand each other, even though I do most of the talking on account of them not being blessed with the gift of language. My own dog, Solomon, is as regal and wise as his name suggests, a stately Great Pyrenees. Solo-balls, as we sometimes call him ironically (as in, he doesn’t have any – he came to us as a neutered rescue, and kids are cruel), often demonstrates royal reserve. But each day, when I let him out for his morning squirt, we have a little ritual.

As he waits for me to open the door, I start up: “Solomon, you ready to go get a squirrel?” His ears perk up and he goes on high alert. “C’mon Buck-o, let’s get a squirrel. Go get a squirrel!” By this point, he is frothing, doing a door dance. He is ready for war. I have nothing against squirrels, mind you, other than them climbing the trunk of the willow tree in my front yard, then hyperextending their nimble rodent bodies to reach out for the suet cage I hang from a branch to feed the birds. The greedy, squirrelly little bastards often scarf down the whole block after just a few visits.

In any case, Solomon has never actually caught one. He’s fast, and all. But by the time the door creaks open, and his big half-bear/half-wolf body lumbers down the porch steps, any squirrel that is present always has a sufficient head-start for the woods. What most amuses me, however, is that ninety percent of the time, no squirrel is there. It’s just Solomon, running to the tree, gazing up it, barking at phantoms. It makes me laugh every time. Until I realize that but for the four legs and fur, Solomon and I have a lot in common. We both need squirrels to chase. Even if they’re imaginary ones.

Matt Labash’s writing can best be appreciated and supported by subscribing to his Substack “Slack Tide.” Republished with permission. All rights reserved.