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Fishing is a life lesson. You learn more about yourself in an afternoon sitting at the end of a boat in the rain than you would from three years of lying on a psychiatrist’s couch.
Fishing is good for the soul. You have to relax because you can only catch fish when your mind is empty. Will a fish on the line and it won’t happen. You must purge your mind of all piscatorial thoughts, which is hard to do. In a state of transcendental meditation you can be sure you’ll get a bite that will jerk you out of your reverie. Then all hell breaks loose. That mystical moment when the fish hits is as much a surprise to you as it is to the fish that took your lure.
I am reminded of this every year on a week-long fishing trip in Northwestern Ontario. I also relearn that you cannot choose a lure that will attract fish to your line. You can have a tackle box filled with Wally Divers, Dardevles, Pixees, Rapala Tail Dancers, Jigs of all sizes, Mrs. Simpson flies, Woolly Buggers, whatever, and the fish won’t give them the time of day. What looks attractive to you – the bright colours, the flash of silver, the streamers, the feathers – means nothing to a fish. If the fish are not biting, you’d have as much luck dangling a diaper pin in the water. Changing lures is merely an exercise in relieving boredom and it makes you look professional. But it does not impress your fishing guides. They’re happy as long as you catch something for shore lunch.
The shore lunch is not a meal for the faint of heart. It is taken rather later than one would lunch in town since it involves catching something first. Everything is fried in a half-gallon of vegetable oil – potatoes, onion, fish – and cooked in large carbon-caked frying pans set on metal grids over an open fire. To find out if the frying pan is at the right temperature for cooking, Ike, one of our guides, has a favourite trick: He plunges a match head into the oil until it touches the metal. The oil has reached the requisite temperature when the match explodes. Cans of beans and other vegetables are opened and placed directly on the grid to heat. Emeril, please note.
To pass the time, while the guides gut the fish and prepare them for the pan, it is mandatory to drink. Most fishermen will down beer from the can. My group, however – six guys who have been fishing together for years – drinks wine. Copious quantities of wine. In fact, we have a tradition called the Three Bottle Lunch. And not just any wine: A few years ago, the cellar we flew up with us to Sanford Lake, Atikokan (four hours from the Manitoba border), included Dauvissat Chablis Les Clos 1995 ($380), Etienne Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet ‘Les Referts’ 1992 ($150) and Latour Meursault-Genevrières 1997 ($100). Neither are we averse to serving red wine with fried walleye, since we happily consumed Acacia Pinot Noir Beckstoffer Vineyard 1996 ($60) and Acacia Pinot Noir Reserve 1991 in magnum ($300, 1500 mL) out of plastic glasses with little plastic fish in the stems.
Guides are special people. Over the years, we’ve come to know a few. Bob is a gamekeeper turned poacher – a former Ministry of the Environment inspector who gave up a safe civil-service job to run canoe trips and guide fishermen. (In his former life, he once trailed Ike.) Brian took early retirement from his bank-manager job after suffering a minor heart attack so that he could fish without stress. While they appear to have given up the rat race, they are highly competitive among themselves. Bragging rights go to the boat with the most fish and the largest fish.
Guides also have to know how to talk to the paying customers, and offer reasons as to why you are failing to catch fish. “Too much sunshine.” “Too overcast.” “You should have come last week.” " You should have come next week." “We got a 24-pound lake trout right here yesterday.” “The wind’s blowing from the east.” “The wind roiled up the water – the fish can’t see the lures.” “This is the season the pickerel shed their teeth.”
Usually, the guides will not fish themselves but sometimes they have to if it looks as if your boat is coming back empty-handed. That’s when we resort to using the fish finders, sonic devices that purport to mark where the fish are and at what depth they sit. These are reverse polygraph machines. They lie. The more expensive models actually do work: They show you the precise position where the fish were before the sound of your engine scared them off.
But what I’ve come to understand about this hobby is that a fisherman is never satisfied. Casanova must have been a fisherman. At least, he had the instincts of a fisherman. His quest for perfection led him from woman to woman with an escalating sense of expectation. So it is with fishermen. You drop your line in the water just wanting a strike. When you get a strike, you want a fish. When you land the fish, you want more fish. Then you want bigger fish. When you get bigger fish, you want the Trophy Fish.
But what I really love about the sport is that when you are catching fish, you are oblivious to rain and cold. Back at shore, a plague of locusts might be devouring the landscape; overhead, there could be a total eclipse of the sun but nothing will break your concentration in that magical moment when there is a tug on your line. It is worth all the backache, the numb fingers, the cold feet, the damp clothes, the mosquitoes and the black flies… the expense of flying in all those bottles of great wine. It is a good thing that both fish and fishermen have short memories.
Tony Aspler lives in Port Dalhousie, Ont.