the biggest fish we never caught

The ling cod rose out of the deep, its head as wide as a Volkswagen. Then it turned sideways in the green water of the bay.

The ling cod rose out of the deep, its head as wide as a Volkswagen. Then it turned sideways in the green water of the bay.

I was, maybe, 12 years old, and screaming, terrified, along with the other children in the four-metre wooden dory.

When that leviathan turned, snapping the heavy line as if it were thread, it seemed as long as the boat.

But when you are 12, every giant fish seems as big as your boat.

My crazy uncle, his eyes as big as saucers, switched over to a steel line, and cast into the small bay again.

Astonishingly, the huge weight struck once more, and he fought the monster to the side of the boat.

This time, the giant cod burped, and a smaller cod popped out, hooked on the steel line.

The big one had eaten the little one while it was taking our bait. Later that night, accompanied by much storytelling, the ‘small’ cod was big enough to feed our two families at the campsite.

They say that the biggest fish ever caught are the ones that got away.

In this case, that was certainly true.

It’s a story I tell often, and sometimes I wonder if the fish grows bigger every time I tell it.

The glory of fishing is that it allows for fantasy. In fact, it’s an occupation that thrives on fantasy — it’s a collision between the natural world and our imagination.

“Going fishing” gives us reason to dream.

And to dream beside a river, in a lake, or at sea, is one of the greatest joys life allows.

These days, governments are doing their best to restrict our fishing, especially through the mean-minded taxation system called user fees.

User fees are a direct attack on our communities. Unlike graduated income taxes, they are designed to inflict the greatest pain on the poor and the underprivileged, who most need our support.

In British Columbia, a family of four would have to pay at least $300 for permission to fish steelhead.

You can imagine how many impoverished families are fishing. Hell, they can’t even afford the new, skyrocketing, campground fees.

We’re preserving the fish and our public parks for the affluent, and making sure the poor stick to their ghettoes.

Still, a few of us fight our way to the water. That’s when we discover a natural world as glorious and absurd as when we were children.

The memories flood back — the fast-swimming moose, which almost caught our canoe in the lily pads after we’d arrogantly teased it. Nobody had told us a moose could swim like that.

Then there was the time I accidentally drop-kicked father’s new fishing rod right out of the boat and into the lake — never to be seen again.

And who can forget the sexist era when the men went fishing while the women remained home to cook and clean up camp?

I always recall, with fondness, the day the men were skunked and, arriving home, learned the women had discovered a big cod trapped in a tidal pool. The women were smirking that night as they fried it in butter for their glum fishermen.

Another time, I was lolling about on a hot, windless beach when I heard a thundering “Jesus!” echo across the water.

My Uncle Duke’s little skiff, outboard cranked to the max, came roaring towards shore while a mischievous killer whale played in his wake.

The absurdity of fishing includes some lucky fool snagging an 85-kilogram catfish in a polluted river under a bridge in a major city.

Or the time we caught our limit of salmon and as we were tucking our gear away, a big one jumped into the boat.

Mix these goofy moments with the red dawn of morning’s first bite on a metallic, blue lake, or watching a bear fish a river mouth while you reel in your own salmon offshore. The sheen of mist on black rocks under a waterfall. The cold green glacial water of uncontaminated streams.

Fishing is food and beauty and madness linked together. It’s the way of the world. To call it sport is to debase it.

Fishing puts us inside the natural world while seeking sustenance; it’s a hunt amid all the glory the planet can offer. Sports are wonderful, but fishing is richer.

That’s why debasing it by practising catch-and-release (unless you accidentally catch something rare and endangered) is a sickness.

If there are no fish, don’t fish. If you’re not hungry, don’t hunt. It’s as simple as that.

Fish feel pain. Maybe they have minimal nerve cells at the tips of their mouths, but they still feel pain, and they think. I’ve seen my share of them circle a lure and snub it with obvious wisdom.

I’ve also listened to divers describe their friendships with groupers and, especially, wolf eels. There’s a wolf eel in Porlier Pass that remembered a specific diver after not seeing him for 14 years.

Fishing is a way of living. It doesn’t need complicated bureaucratic regulations or bizarre ‘sportfishing’ practices to make it genuine.

Fish don’t arrive on the third week of June under the yellow bridge in Region 5A, nor do the bureaucrats devising mountains of ludicrous ordinances in their fishless offices — spending more time on their regulations than saving fish.

Nor does a fish thrive when its throat is jammed with a rusting hook, after having some ‘sport’ fisherman drag it for an hour through a rough river before hauling out his pliers to cut off the unrecoverable hook in its maw.

Yet after all is said and done, fishing is even more than the hunt, the food.

They are only part of our extended dance with the natural word, which is always willing to teach us about ourselves when we are ready to listen.

That’s why I’ve often admired Thoreau’s observation on fishing: “Many men go fishing their entire lives without knowing it is not fish they are after.”