When my longtime friend and fishing buddy Brian invited me to go wet a line during my recent visit to Juneau, I expected to write about it. Of all the activities that engaged me during a lifetime in Alaska, a day of fishing is one that bears closest resemblance to the kind of day I work toward having more and more of now in Yucatán.
Why? Fresh salmon is soul food to me, but the experience is more about having a day than getting a fish. In fact, Brian and I have a way of talking about going out fishing. We don't say we're going to go out and catch a bunch of fish. We just casually say that we ought to go and "have a look around."
Years ago I heard various Alaska Native elders talk about going out hunting. In some cultures tradition says that the hunter needs to be humble, because the animals sense human arrogance and will not give themselves to someone who is not respectful, not "right" in heart and mind. The hunter who says something like, "I'm going out to have a look around," or, "I'll just take a walk down river," might come back with meat for his family. Someone who offends nature -- "let's kill us some fish" -- will come back empty handed.
So we have a routine: I bring all the food, Brian gasses up his boat, and we head out for the day and start "looking around," with carefully-prepared bait trailing in the depths behind us, of course.
And there is always plenty to look at: varieties of birds, fish, innumerable eagles, seals, sea lions, and often lots of whales. Interesting things float by. It is a day in which moment succeeds moment.
The wind shifts, and we're in a chilly mist. I am sipping coffee as the tide ebbs. The sky changes and the day evolves. Clouds thicken and briefly a shower drenches us; the sun finds an opening and highlights the snow-capped Chilkat mountains and a distant glacier.
As the overcast dissipates, I warm up and begin to shed layers: raincoat, halibut jacket, wool shirt. I trail my hand in the water, and taste it as it drips from my fingers.
The peace and calm of observing nature and weather is punctuated occasionally by the quiver of a fishing pole, and sometimes that leads to the capture of a nice salmon or halibut. But more often than not, bait is snatched away and something down there has got a free meal on us, or we carefully release an undersized or unwanted fish.
Or nothing at all happens.
Although not always a lot of it, there's talk. After about twenty-five years of fishing together we've shared a lot of experiences, so at times we retell old fishing stories: long hauls in his small skiff before Brian got the bigger boat; getting caught in bad weather; monster fish that got away; the time we hooked halibut and several species of salmon all in one day. We laugh about the time I got seasick on the brand-new boat and my trip to the ER with a hook in my thumb. The conversations range through many other subjects. Talk flows easily.
There's also the music, always jazz or rock oldies. And food. I habitually bring fat prepared sandwiches from the deli counter of a local store, apples, other snacks, drinks and Snickers bars. It's become a tradition. I only eat them when fishing, but for fishing you've gotta have Snickers.
Breaking out the food used to be a good luck charm. It seemed that for years, no sooner would we have all the lunch goodies spread out than we would hook something. Inevitably some of the food would end up dropped and trampled on the deck, a casualty of the action. We've continued to try the "get out the sandwiches" ploy when fish aren't biting, even though it hasn't worked in years. Fishermen, like baseball players, are superstitious. Speaking of superstitions, there's my fishing hat, but that's another story.
We don't always connect with fish, but as things went on this recent day, we were watching some "rock jockeys," beach fishermen on North Douglas Island, when suddenly one of the poles started vibrating. It wasn't long before we reeled in a magnificent gift from Mother Nature in the form of a medium-sized King. As I looked into its eye and felt its fat but sleek body I felt truly blessed to be who and where I was and in the company of a good friend.
I could not have wished then to be any other place nor to be doing anything else on earth. What more could one possibly ask from a day than that?
Every fishing day is different, but each "look around" is also a nostalgic repetition of something that could not be improved upon and that I wouldn't change in any way. Catching fish is not the main point. For a whole list of other reasons, every fishing day is a perfect day.