I am haunted by waters.  – Norman Maclean

Why do you fish?

Recently, I put that question to some of the best fishermen I know, anglers with the right stuff who are continually successful.  Their responses might surprise you.  It isn’t a love of nature, the quest for solitude, or the thrill of the fight that drives them.  Instead, they look at me with a what-kind-of-crazy-question-is-that glare and answer simply, BECAUSE I HAVE TO.

I get it.  This winter has been hard on Chesapeake Bay anglers.  Because of bad weather, opportunities to fish have been limited.  It’s frustrating to the point of resentment.  Take a look at any online discussion forum in the winter and you’ll see that some guys (and gals) take their frustrations out on their fellow anglers.  Here’s what I think this frustration might look like in the format of a popular television commercial:

When you can’t fish, you get angry.  When you get angry, you growl at people and animals.  When you growl at animals, they growl back and you get chased by a bear.  When you get chased by a bear, it shreds your pants and you hide naked in your neighbor’s garage.  When you hide naked in your neighbor’s garage, her husband comes home and shoots holes in your boat.  Don’t get holes shot in your boat.  Go fishing.

The compelling last line of Norman Maclean’s American classic, A River Runs Through It perfectly echoes our overwhelming desire to fish.  Every good fisherman I know is haunted by waters.  When we aren’t fishing, we’re captivated by memories of our last trip or we’re obsessed with planning for the next one.  It’s an inescapable passion that eternally calls us back to the streams.

You’ve probably heard me talk about my father who, in addition to being the best fisherman I’ve ever known, was a Church of Christ minister.  Since he often preached at neighboring congregations or at traveling tent revivals,  he would sometimes repeat his sermons.  I got to know them pretty well.  The one I liked the best was called The River of Life.  It was about what he expected heaven to be like.  “I don’t know exactly what’s up there,” he’d preach, “But the Bible says there’s a River of Life and I’m confident the Good Lord has it well-stocked.”

Almost every religion features expectations of heaven –  I’ve read that Muslims hope for 72 virgins, Christians look forward to mansions of gold, and Hindus anticipate eternal peace.  In my dad’s heaven, there is a river full of fish.

Whether or not we expect there to be fish in our eternal abode, it’s clear that good fishermen are entranced by an overwhelming desire to fish whenever we can and for as long as we can.  Is it the haunting by the waters, or something more?

Fishermen with the right stuff possess an inborn predatory instinct.  Whether we’re casting a fly, jerking a jig, or dangling a red worm, we get tuned in when we tune everything else out and concentrate solely on the chase.  For centuries, humans have refined a stalking instinct.  We are now capable of solving problems, prioritizing, and evaluating simply because we had to learn those things in order to find food.

For some, that age-old impulse to hunt for sustenance remains very strong.  We are hard wired to catch, kill, or gather food and bring it home to our families.  While that’s extremely satisfying, over time, we realize that there is also a profound enjoyment to be found by experiencing the pursuit. We recognize that the hunt doesn’t always need to end with killing our prey.  Our conscious desire to take only what we need and sustain our resource can overrule our predatory instincts for food. When that happens, the challenge of outsmarting our quarry can, by itself, satisfy our urge for predation.  In other words, we are haunted by a desire for the hunt and not necessarily by the need to kill.  Don’t take that to mean we should never keep what we catch.  The drive to bring home food is one of the primary motivations for our sport.  It’s just that we don’t have to kill in order to have a successful fishing experience.  It baffles me that some people will never understand that.

Just like our ancestors who had to hunt in order to survive, fishermen can refine their predatory instincts. We can cultivate our prowess to the point of developing a heightened sense of awareness.  As a result, we get better at making the right call about where, when, and how to fish.

In my last book, I wrote about the heightened sensibility that can be reached just by spending a lot of time with a good fishing rod in your hands.  An angler using the right equipment who is experienced at thinking down the line (another of my father’s expressions) can exhibit an almost superhuman ability to “tune in” to what is going on with his or her lure.  I bragged that, when fishing at the Bay Bridge,  I can tell the difference in a bread truck and a semi crossing above me simply by the way it vibrates my fishing rod.  That’s not an exaggeration.  It’s an example of how we can cultivate our predatory instincts and use them to make us better at the sport we love.

Obviously, you don’t need an inherent predatory instinct to enjoy fishing.  Any kid with a can of red worms and a cane pole can have a great time catching fish, but it’s also true that some people take to fishing more passionately than others.  Think back to your most memorable fishing experiences.  Did they involve getting lost in the pursuit?  Take a closer look at those kids with the cane pole and you’ll notice that some get engrossed in the quest while others quickly move on to other interests.  That kid with the stronger predatory instinct has the right stuff, or as Darth Vader might observe, “The Force is strong with this one.”

For me, there’s a point in all of my meaningful fishing trips when everything clicks into place and things seem to go right. It’s a time when I’m tuned in to my lure and completely focused on my primary goal of catching a fish.  I’m in that primal predator-vs-prey  zone where nothing else matters except whether I feel the bite.  Everything is secondary to the next tick on my line.  I’m addicted to the adrenalin rush of a successful hook set.

I crave it.

It haunts me.

This past week has been a good one for catching panfish in the Chesapeake Watershed.  We seen a few days of warm weather; hopefully spring is right around the corner.  Water temperatures in the tributaries are reaching the high 40s.  The yellow perch spawn is well underway.  Crappie are moving into the shallows, and white perch are schooling up in the deep holes near the headwaters of the creeks.  While water in the main stem of the Bay is still holding in the low 40s, the longer days have put big rockfish on the move.  By big, I mean huge.  My fishing partner Rich Jenkins released two fish in the high 40-inch class one day this week and caught several more that were close to the same size.  I’ve had a couple of good days catching perch, bass, pickerel, and crappie in some nearby Eastern Shore rivers.  All the pictures in this report are of fish caught in the past 7 days.

Unfortunately, it looks like we have a few more strong cold fronts to survive before spring officially arrives, but hopefully it won’t be long until the weather gets more stable.  In the next couple of weeks the cherry blossoms around the Washington DC Tidal Basin will start to bud and hickory shad will begin their annual run up the Potomac River.  When that happens, look for me somewhere around Fletcher’s Boat House where I’ll be stalking these hard-fighting poor-man’s tarpon.  For updates about when the shad arrive, follow me here or on Facebook. Along with some of the Potomac River guides, I’ll be using the hashtag #DCShadRun on Twitter.

Hey, cheer up!  Don’t get holes shot in your boat!  It’s happening, so shake off those winter blues and let’s fish.

 

Related posts:

High on the Hog – Spring Report
A Recipe For Good Fishing
The Right Stuff – Dedication
The Right Stuff – Catch & Release Quiz
Kill Your Fish Finder & Other Stealth Techniques for Trophy Stripers

Posted Wednesday, March 12th, 2014 at 3:07 pm
Filed Under Category: Fishing Reports
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

16

Responses to “The Right Stuff – The Haunting”

  1. Steve says:

    Nicely done tried to get the wife to read it so she would understand “why” no luck it reinforces one of the two great truths
    You can’t fix stupid or instill passion unless desired
    Love the pictures I recognize all locations but the pickerel
    Keep writing I’ll keep reading

  2. Shawn says:

    Put that pickerel three feet in front of my last photo and you have that one too! Thanks, Steve. This post is a bit of a stretch, but part of an essential chapter to my next book. Wondering how it will go over!

  3. RonMcMorrow says:

    That is one fantastic write up. It sums everything up. “BECAUSE I HAVE TO”, It’s too simplistic of an answer to those who don’t have to, but it makes all the sense in the world to those that do.

  4. Mike O'Keefe says:

    Well stated Shawn, I have to share this with my loved ones to give them a little insight into my addiction! Nice pic on top of the spillway.

  5. uncle phill says:

    Great follow up article…just great!

  6. Steve F says:

    Glad you came back with this one Shawn, very good article. I have the most understanding wife out there so I don’t have to worry about getting holes shot in my boat I just need to get out.

  7. BillJacks says:

    No need to come back. I thought the last one was very good too.

  8. Miss ReelThang says:

    This is a very nice write up. Thank you for such a well done blog.

  9. jumbo1 says:

    I only fish in extreme conditions because of peer pressure. .
    is that a fanny pack you are wearing? ..

  10. Peltz says:

    Good read, as always. I too am haunted by waters.

    I really like the b&w photo with the fish in color. How do you do that?

  11. Shawn says:

    Not too hard to do. In any photo editor use the free select tool to cut out the fish. Then, make the photo black & white and paste the color fish back in.

  12. Tom Maynard says:

    Nice piece Shawn. I always figgered heaven to be 98% water and 2% boats. Don’t picture any “waist worn gear pouches” though. I’m on the western side of the Bay and cannot wait for the Hickory shad to show up. I think I’m the only person I know who fishes for them around here, far from the fall lines of the James, Potomac and Rapp.

  13. Rick Dell says:

    Great read Shawn. Funny how cane polling for shell crackers or spinnerbaiting for bass or jigging up stripers can turn things around. I’d like to add being with your family or friends, makes it all the better.
    Great talking with you and your wife yesterday at the CCA seminar. Really liked your new rod. Thanks

    Rick

  14. Greg says:

    Great read as always Cant wait for the white perch

  15. Jeff Little says:

    I enjoyed it. When I used to guide I could see who had it and who was more casual. I could tell who fished as a kid, and who took it up as an adult. I think that “haunted” has a negative connotation, but it might be appropriate. There is a lot of joy in the obsession of fishing, but there can be some resentment. Significant people in our lives may not understand why they can’t have all of us, all of our attention. It’s sort of like when virus scan is running in the background of your computer – everything else slows down. Call it daydreamers syndrome. If I didn’t just hear you, its because I was busy thinking about which topwater lure I need to tie on in the garage this evening as I get ready for next Saturday’s trip.

Leave a Reply