I grew up in the rural West, on a 5‐acre parcel of land just outside of Pomeroy, Washington. We had horses and chickens and barn cats, and there were Rainbow Trout Oncorhynchus mykiss in the creek that bordered our pastures. Straddling the creek were two decommissioned power poles, lashed together into a makeshift bridge from which I would drop baited hooks.
Spring rains and snowmelt would annually reshape the creek. On one particularly rainy day in May, school was dismissed early; floodwaters were rising and buses needed to roll before some country roads became impassable. Teachers struggled to maintain order; kids struggled into rubbery rain jackets and boots. For me, the giddiness was short‐lived. I made it home just in time to see our bridge washing away. Later, after the waters started to recede, I squished and squelched my way across the waterlogged pasture to the creek. The bridge was gone, but something new had taken its place: an island, scarcely bigger than a card table, now sat between a newly scoured channel and a stone‐paved riffle. Soon, my dad would lay a thick plank over the channel and I’d start fishing from the island and the nest of long grass that grew there. It was the summer of 1989 and I was, as kids that age will say, “Eight and three‐quarters.”
I spent a lot of time fishing that summer, often joined by the family dog. She was a prissy and standoffish shih tzu, but she liked fishing. She would lay on the plank while I baited hooks and untangled line; when it got hot, we would both soak our feet in the water. When I stuck my thumb with a hook or lost a fish, I practiced swear words I had heard the older kids saying at school. I listened and I watched. One afternoon, I saw a plump black slug oozing its way along an overhanging blade of grass. I figured that it was not the first to have done so, but that less sure‐footed slugs might occasionally drop into the water. My slug‐bait hypothesis was confirmed by an almost immediate strike from the biggest trout I had ever caught. Other afternoons were equally gratifying, if less immediately so. My knots have never been very good, and one fish managed to wrench itself and my hook free from the line. Shoulders slumped and not yet familiar with the ability of fish to dissolve and purge tackle, I was sure that I had relegated this creature to a slow demise. I turned to the half‐sleeping dog next to me and said, “Well, goddamnit. I guess we have to catch that fish again.” A couple of hours later, I did and dutifully removed both hooks from its mouth.
Fishing teaches us to find the quiet places in our lives and in ourselves. It engenders an appreciation for the living world: the green smells of nature, the thrumming white noise of insects, the potent mixture of fear and fascination at what might lie below the water’s surface. Snarled monofilament and the infuriating refusal of a “perfect” cast teach us patience. When we fish, we learn to respect life as a fleeting, wondrous privilege. We begin to see all of the extraordinary happenstance and little evolutionary miracles that surround us. Fishing is equal parts memory and hope: it is recollections of childhood loss and triumph and the eternal springing of optimism for the next cast and the next generation. Fishing is a way (or rather, many ways—see sidebar Uncommon Angling for details) to understand the world and our place in it.
These thoughts often cross my mind when I find myself in the natural world, though I may come up a bit short when it comes to expressing them. Such times call for someone more earnest, philosophically minded, and at ease with the language of our inner lives. Past AFS President Don Jackson is one such person. I will leave it to him—and his preacher’s prose—to finish my thoughts on recreational fishing:
Many years ago, I was conducting a creel survey in tailwater reaches of a river immediately downstream from a large hydropower dam in the Southeastern U.S. One morning, as I was making my rounds, working with the anglers and recording their catches, one middle‐aged man approached me and said, “Hey, aren’t you that fisheries biologist who works on this river?” I confirmed that I was one of the biologists on the river but that I was usually the one who worked this particular section of the tailwater. He said, “I just want to tell you thanks. You know nothing about the life I live, or the challenges that I am facing. You don’t know my history. You don’t know what forces are determining my future. But still you are here, day after day, and frankly you are saving my life. If I did not have this place and the fishing here…if I didn’t have you making sure that it is all here and working as it should… I would probably be dead. Every time I’m here I come back to life.”
I thought about the term “recreation” and reformatted it to “re‐creation.” It is all about forming something new or making something new again. When engaged in re‐creational activities we have the opportunity to re‐create ourselves, to strengthen ourselves and to establish or improve focus. We can re‐create relationships, with place, people, and the deeper spiritual dimensions that reverberate in the core of our being. As science‐based professionals, when we call a “time out” and engage in re‐creational activities such as fishing, we afford ourselves the opportunity to capture the wind that spoke its messages to us during our formative years. We are reminded that science is all about selfless giving for the common good. And that with this orientation we become lifesavers for people, communities, and nations. We are dedicated harbingers of truth who refuse to wither under fire because so much is at stake. There must be periods for deep reflections, periodic episodes of re‐creation, charging the batteries, evaluating vectors, turning on and tuning switches, and finding our way along a foggy pathway. It is the fishing that matters, for in that re‐creation dwells the creativity needed to address our challenges and fulfill our highest purposes as scientists.