Carl Safina
A fish expert settles into his place on a river. The salmon pay little attention.

The author finds zen in casting.

I recently lived a few days on a river in Canada. The idea was that I was fishing for Atlantic salmon. But very few of the fish got that memo. And if there were fish in that river with my name written on them, they couldn’t read.

For days, focused on catching something yet catching nothing, I found the fishing tedious.

Then one morning more than halfway through the trip, something happened. I realized I was so intent on the fishing, I hadn’t really been taking in the scene. I decided I’d better take a look at the river while I had the opportunity to do so.

Life is like that; you’d better take the opportunity to look around. Thoreau said it so resonantly: ‘I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.’

The thought resonates because his idea of having lived was not to scale up, but rather to pare life down, and by so doing, expose the bone. Maybe that was Thoreau’s next thought, because just a couple of sentences later he wrote, “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close… to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account.”

But on the river, despite my conscious decision to pay attention to my immediate surroundings, my mind kept wandering. So to focus my thoughts away from the world, bills, and the office—and onto the river—I made up a little mantra that helped me attend, and helped me to keep refocusing my attention if it drifted. The mantra was, “Silver stream sings its salmon song.” It helped a lot, because it took up the space where other thoughts intruded, and it kept me looking and listening.

And so, I finally found the Zen in the casting. Relaxed. Enjoyed it.

You strip some line from your flyrod. Wave it over your head till it straightens out, and lay it upon the waters. The current takes hold of it. You watch its floating arc taking its time, slithering a bit on roiling water. Eventually the current more or less pushes it aside, and your line swings toward shore. When that sweep fails to find a taking fish, you make one step downstream on the bank. Repeat. With each step, in the next cast your fly covers a slightly different band of river. Working your way along like this, you can cover significant stretches of water.

And I did. For days.

In most fishing, there are times when the fish simply aren’t biting. But Atlantic salmon are never biting. They enter the river preparing to spawn, and stop eating. You might see a few fish every day. To catch one, oddly enough, you must ignore the reality that they are not biting, while hoping for a lapse. Every few days, a fish might momentarily forget that it is no longer eating, no longer even interested in food. It might turn its head as your lure drift into view and, for no real reason at all, take your offering.

Then you and fish connect. And because the fish is in the current, you’re connected to the river. And by extension to the sea to which the river flows, whence the fish has come. But there is nothing in the equation that should interest a fish. And for the most part, it doesn’t. Many salmon find all offerings irrelevant; they ignore them.

For four days I cast, six or so hours each day, without experiencing any sensation originated by a salmon.

Safina connected with a grilse, a male salmon that has returned to the river without maturing to normal size. After a brief photo op, it—like all salmon caught here—was quickly returned to its pool.

Then, after 26 hours of casting over 5 days, I felt a decisive tug. True to its Latin name, the fish pierced the swift water and repeatedly hurled itself into the sunlight. We stayed connected. I led it to shore. The salmon here average 20 pounds. Mine was about five. More like four. It was a “grilse,” a male that has entered the river prematurely, without maturing to normal size.

But after I caught that small fish, the possibility of a more substantial tug and a more substantial connection slid into the realm of the possible.
Later, in a downstream pool, I cast my fly to three large fish—I could see them—holding motionless despite the flow. In the manner of most salmon in rivers, they had indeed ceased feeding and did not respond at all.

They seemed deep and pure, holding in their pools, seeking proximity of their kind, maintaining their mute counsel. I felt the magic of salmon driven from within and guided from without. The vitality. The odds conquered. The moment we mysteriously share at so different a pace. Me alert, focused, endeavoring. Them having endeavored to this point, now letting all things pass until their hour ripens, somehow keeping the ancient faith, the unbroken chain of being, from deep pools of time to the cool shaded recesses and riffles of this river, to—right there.

I cast. They saw my lure slide past. I hoped they might experience a momentary reminiscence of a time when a salmon would not pass up something easy, when food mattered. I wanted to catch one. I was, though, a bit relieved that they held their decorum and exercised the luxury of their prerogative to ignore me. They thwarted my plan to become a source of disruption in a place of such hard-earned peace.

“Silver stream sings its salmon song.”

I cast and watched my line float downstream. I cast again. And cast, and cast. The river remained a stranger. But at least I was seeing that much. That realization alone was progress.

Our lives barely scratch many surfaces. On the river, with my attention aided by my mantra, I could see only skin deep. A beaver on the bank was into my world for a few seconds, then vanished. I saw a few birds, and heard others unseen. This was neither my river nor realm. I knew nothing of what lay beyond the river-lining trees. I knew nothing of fish that might lie in deeper pools beneath riffles and rapids, where the water closed its turbulent canopy over the river stones. Even in shallow water, salmon are exquisitely difficult to see. I knew nothing of the river’s personal or natural history, of its multitudinous fish-nourishing insects, of the fishes that had, over centuries, millennia, come and gone. In sum, I saw but a little and understood far less.

It was a start.



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