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Slow Motion Fishing

This short story is best read on a cold winter evening in Minnesota, in front of the fireplace, by yourself, with the second bottle of beer half empty. Under no circumstances should you read it in when you have things to do or are in a hurry.


"Fishing is worthless, absolutely boring. I can't stand fishing, nothing ever happens, it's all way too slow. I need people, I need action, and fishing doesn't do it."

Sooner or later, all fishermen encounter these comments. So how do we respond? My own first reaction? The thoughts drift to memories of my biggest muskie, a twenty–five–pounder I caught in Canada one year. Nothing happened? No action? Boring? Is that right? Or how about that seven–pound largemouth bass I caught on six–pound line the summer before? No action there either?

But then I also remember the old story about the fly fisherman who died and went to heaven. He was taken to the banks of a trout stream overflowing with fish. His heavenly guide supplied him with the finest quality flyrod outfit and started him fishing. And the gentleman caught fish, magnificent fish, on every cast! He couldn't cast without catching fish. No matter what he did, he caught a fish every time he put his fly on the water. Fish after fish after fish, fierce battles, continuous action. And he knew it would last forever.

It dawned on him. He wasn't in heaven at all.....

In responding to critics of fishing, be careful in countering with stories of lunker muskie and bass action. I believe that action is far from the most important thing. It is just one fragile piece of the joys of fishing. It can become a burden, rather than a delight, as that doomed fly fisherman found out. Don't dwell on it.

For you see, there is truth in the lack of action, the slowness of fishing, but the true essence of it lies in that slowness. In fact, I believe that the ultimate in fishing is when things happen in "slow motion," and especially when time stops entirely. The action moments are only the tip of the fishing iceberg, with the true slow beauty hidden from immediate view.

For example, let me return to that muskie of mine, far richer for me in memory – in "frozen time" – than it was in real life. The actual capture and release of the muskie took no more than five minutes. The action and excitement, certainly intense, were over quickly, and that was a long time ago. But do you know how many hours of pleasure that muskie has given me since then?

A Minnesota winter's night, a bottle of beer, a fire in the fireplace, and memories of that muskie. No intensity, nothing moving at all, except smoke up the chimney. No action. All slow motion inside me. The glow of the fire and the glow of the memories, for years afterwards. All part of the very best of fishing.

A lifetime of fishing can be relived many times, and fishing gives that to you. The slowness of timelessness. But even the "real time" that slows down is a source of unique pleasure. A classic example – and only one of very many – is an encounter with a fair-sized smallmouth bass in deep water......

I'm fishing with a jig. I feel the strike, set the hook, and it's solid. The rod bends, and as I watch the line starts coming up. And it keeps coming, and coming, and coming. In the mind's eye it's always in slow motion, although in reality it may happen quite quickly. At last, the line is almost level with the water, and then the bass is standing on it's tail above the water.

At that point time stops entirely, frozen in place, as the bass hangs in mid air. Wildlife artists, with their professional instinct for the climactic moment, often capture this instant, freezing it forever. Every fishing magazine seems to require such a painting or photograph on its cover at least once a year. But you don't need the artist's paint and canvas. It's one of the parts of fishing that paints itself in your memories.

And are memories such as these worthless and boring? So that's another piece. The slowness of memories.

Here's one more. I have found that fishing can create some very special moments, precious in their own slow and quiet way, even if fish are only indirectly involved. Let me share one with you. This one is very vivid in my mind......

My good friend Ron Knapp is not a muskie fisherman, but he does have a way of getting talked into things. In this case, I get Ron to go muskie fishing with me some years ago, despite misgivings on his part. We go to Woman Lake that July day, in 90–degree heat and sun and stillness.We spend the day on Jerry Peters' boat, fishing muskies, or attempting to. As so often is the case, the muskies are scarce. We cast bucktails, trolled diving lures, all the usual things, to no result.

We're finally reduced to dragging live twelve–inch sucker minnows around weedbeds. Every once in a while we get hung up on the weeds. On this particular occasion, Ron's sucker minnow gets snagged in the weeds, a good distance behind the boat. With a couple of tugs, Ron manages to free it enough to start reeling it in so he can clean it off.

He must have a mess, because it's hard to reel, and it comes back slowly. We can't see the sucker or the weeds, all we can see is the line cutting through the water, slowly. And that's odd. Most of the time when you get tangled up with weeds, your lure or sucker will surface immediately as you reel in. This time it doesn't, it stays down. Only the line is visible, slicing through the water, slowly.

As Ron keeps reeling, the angle of the line entering the water gets steeper. Peters stops the boat to watch. When the line gets to the back of the boat, Ron stops reeling.

The line continues moving. Slowly past the rear of the boat, past the side, and to the front.

We watch the line slicing through the water, in slow motion.

The boat is motionless, the water and air still. Even the three of us in the boat are immobile, staring at the line in the water, one of those frozen moments.

The only motion is the line, moving past us, slowly.

Ron's exclamation of "What in the world?" breaks the stillness. The line twitches, and the sucker pops to the surface at the front of the boat, entirely free of weeds, of course. Ron lifts it from the water and we examine the sucker, and the bloody teeth mark gashes on its sides.....

I can see the scene as I write about it, and I treasure it: Ron and his snagged weeds that turned out to be a big northern or muskie, invisible, which left only scars on the sucker minnow. All in slow motion.

And there it is, an exceptionally slow moving, actionless, fishless fishing story. Actionless, right? Yet why does that incident, now almost ten years old, remain fixed in my memory?

So there you have some of what fishing is about – the slowness of timelessness, of memories. Is it all really boring and worthless? Can you change the mind of someone who thinks so? My advice is to not try. Let them have their own opinions – your waters will be less crowded that way.

Leave fishing as something between you and the fish,
and if on occasion the fish are not involved, why,
that's great! You've got all the time in the world!
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Date Created: May 15, 1996
Last Modified: April 5, 2004
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