Sunday, May 3, 2009

And - the heart of a competitor

But, on the other side of the coin is competitive fishing. Here is where the big boys take over. Here is where the joy of just being out there is forgotten - no longer important. Here the focus is simple and ruthless. The focus is; Win, baby! Beat the other guys! Leave not a man standing! And - the worse you beat them the better. You want them to remember how badly you beat them. At the next tournament you want to see them looking at you with fear and doubt in their eyes. You want them to remember - to know - today you're going to beat them again.

I fished tournaments when I was a younger man - when I had the stamina to stand on the front deck of a bass boat for eight hours or more - constantly casting - constantly analyzing and, most important, constantly worrying about the other competitors. They never leave your mind. Have they found fish, are they into big fish, have they already limited out. The physical abuse is terrible but the emotional abuse is worse. As you weigh-in at the end of a tournament you'll be sky high knowing you've won or, and this is more likely, you'll be down - slump-shouldered - beaten like a whipped dog. In either case you'll be drained, physically and emotionally.

Competitive fishing leaves no room to sit back and enjoy the day. You watch the surroundings and the weather, but only because these things affect the fishing and you certainly won't take the time to see the beauty of nature. You eat nothing - you drink very little. Drinking water takes away casts. If you ain't casting you ain't catching. You concentrate on the things that matter. The shoreline breaks, the depth finder, submerged structure that might hold fish, these are all you care about. And the constant pressure of lure selection, water temperature, water movement, barometric pressure, probable movement of the bass, all these have to be analyzed and mentally updated routinely, without even realizing you're doing it. Whether you're fishing a club tournament or fishing for money - it's the same. The difference between a winner and an also-ran is the ability to deal with the pressure. As they say; keep your head while those around you are losing theirs.

Consider this; it's six in the morning. It doesn't matter if it's a fine summer day or a blustery cold early spring morning. It can be clear, the sky promising a perfect day, or it can be windy and raining buckets, promising an altogether miserable day. You'll either freeze all day or the wind will beat you unmercifully. It doesn't matter. Nothing matters. Nothing stops a tournament - nothing except an electrical storm - nothing except lightning. Lightning within several miles will delay or even halt a tournament - it's that dangerous.

At the ramps dozens or hundreds of bass boats are launching, all sporting gleaming metal-flake fiberglass, in every imaginable color. All are garish - all are obscenely colorful - all are beautiful. On their transoms sit huge outboard engines of 150 to 300 horsepower, easily capable of launching their rigs to speeds of 70 to 90+ miles per hour. In order, they quickly slip down the launch ramps into the water and the engines roar to life. The sound is awesome.

After launching each boat idles past the staging platform and draws their lottery ticket - their position in the start. Back in the early days of tournaments it was different. Someone would fire a pistol or simply shout "go?" and every boat would take off in unison. That approach was dangerous and, when several boats collided in their haste to get to their favored fishing spots it ended. Since the mid-nineties boats take off one at a time, each drawing a number to determine their position in the start. To insure everyone gets the same fishing time the last boat gets extra minutes before the weigh-in.
You've launched, you've gotten your ticket and you've "blasted off." Now you're running up-lake, heading for the area you pre-fished last week, one of the areas you know holds good fish. You get there and rejoice! No one's there. It's all yours! As you approach the spot you throttle back the big engine and shut it down. Even as you're rig slides to a stop you're on the front deck, flipping the electric motor into the water - grabbing one of the dozen rods strapped neatly to the deck. You take a moment to scan your surroundings - the depth finder - and then throw your first cast. The tournament - the pressure - has begun.

At the end of the day you know. You either got it right or you miscalculated. Your live well holds fish or it doesn't. You fish until the last minute, hoping for a kicker fish, a fish that will bring you over the top. No matter how many are in the well. One more big one so you can cull one of the dinks! You need one more big one! It's all about pounds. How many pounds? If you have five two pounders you worry. Someone must have caught a couple six pounders. If you have two six pounders you know someone must have caught five three pounders. If the fish were "on" and you have twenty pounds, you figure everyone must have cleaned up today. No matter what you catch - you worry.

At the weigh-in you watch as each guy carries his bag of bass to the scales, knowing they're doing the same. You wince as a good string coming out of a live well and you thank the Lord when the string is lighter than you thought. Then it's your turn. You start pulling your fish from your live well. You're either excited by the reactions of the others, knowing they're thinking what you had thought, or your ashamed that you've been beaten. You carry them to the scales - the moment of truth - when you jump into the lead or know it's over. The thrill of victory - the agony of defeat. A check or a trophy - it doesn't matter. It's a win or a defeat. One is gut-wrenching - horrible - the other is a high you'll carry for days. If you win you enjoy the looks - the resentment - the admiration - the "who in hell does he think he is?" If you lost, the others avoid eye contact - they empathize. Now you're one of them. At best an also-ran, at worst a loser. And now you're looking at the winners and thinking, "who in hell does he think he is?"

At the end you pull the boat onto the trailer and leave, usually to stop at a roadside cafe or quick stop, to sit, drink coffee, commiserate with others, both the winner and the losers. Here it's not about winning or losing. Now it's discussed in great good humor. Now it's just a bunch of guys sitting down to rib each other and to review their mistakes - their error in judgment - while they were out there on the water. Here the bottom guys, the losers, will take some heat from the others, from the guys who placed in the money, but here and now it's just for laughs.

You drive home, clean the rig and put it away. You either annoy your wife, extolling your fishing prowess - your brilliance - for hours, or you sulk and simply say, "Hey! I lost! I don't want to talk about it!" If you won maybe you go out to dinner. If you lost you eat a peanut butter sandwich and go to bed early.

Soon, within days, you once again look at the tournament schedule and begin thinking about pre-fishing the next lake or a river. It's never too early to be prepared. It's never too early to get the edge on the competition.

And you know - this time you want to see that look in their eyes - that look of fear and doubt and, as you plan your strategy you think, Man! It's wonderful!

It has always been my private conviction that any man who pits his intelligence against a fish and loses has it coming.

John Steinbeck

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Fishing - Almost a Religion

A well-intentioned friend made an innocent suggestion over lunch several days ago. Why not get together, three or four of us, and go fishing. His intentions were first-rate. He considered a few hours fishing to be a natural adjunct to good friends spending time together. It was a logical - it was meant in the truest sense of friendship and, for many people, it would be wonderful. For me, it would never work.

For me, fishing is one of two things. It's something akin to a religious experience or it's a dog eat dog competition. For me, fishing is either time alone, enjoying all that nature has to offer, or, fishing; fierce, competitive fishing. To my friend, who hasn't fished much, fishing is an idle pastime, a time when friends can sit on a riverbank - drown worms - swap lies. My friend, like everyone who hasn't fished much, has no understanding of the fine art of fishing.

Think about it in your mind's eye. Let your mind carry you to a fine spring day, a day promising seventy degree temperatures, beautiful cumulus clouds and giant bass. You push the boat off from shore, easily an hour before the sun crests the hills to the east. The inky blackness of night has given way to the neutral greys of first light. The lake is calm, there is no wind, a soft fog hovers low, clinging to the lake as cool morning air meets water still warm from yesterday's sun. The air is damp - soothing - wonderful as it dampens your skin and clothes. The distant shoreline is shrouded in mist - ghostly across the glassy surface of the lake. In your minds's eye you see the shallows along that shoreline, thick with gnarled cypress knees, long-dead downed trees, thick clumps of aquatic grasses, all invisible in the darkness. And yet, before you even get there - you see it all clearly.

You slip into the front seat of the boat, lower the electric motor over the bow and steer slowly toward that distant shoreline. There's no hurry. Relax. Take you foot from the switch - sit back - luxuriate, taking in as much as you can. Close your eyes and feel the perfection of the moment. You know it will be fleeting - gone in mere minutes. Enjoy it while you can. Five minutes pass, ten, still you sit idly - out there in the middle of the lake, absorbing it all. Don't think. Don't analyze. Let it wash over you. Soak it all up - the beauty - the silence - and finally become aware - everything that's bothered you, right up to this very moment, is gone, washed softly away. Then there is nothing but you and this magical moment. Finally, you step softly on the foot pedal and again move toward the shoreline ahead - toward the giant largemouth bass you're surely to catch and release today.

The fishing? Well, the fishing is secondary. Do you wan't to catch fish? Sure. Does it matter all that much? No. Fish would be nice. A ten pound bass would be nicer. But, compared to just being out there, the fish fade to a distant second. You're confident. You're always confident. You'll catch bass. If they're big enough you may put the camera on the back seat - set the self-timer - take a picture - you holding a giant. Worth remembering. Still, thirty or more years ago you started releasing fish. Killing these magnificent creatures seemed wrong somehow. And so, like all those fine fish caught so long ago, these will be returned to the lake to fight another day.

A day alone out there must surely be worth a year in therapy. A day out there is unforgetable and yet can't be repeated. Each time will be it's own unique experience. Each time, when the day is though, you'll go home thanking the Lord for such an opportunity. And, when you're lying in bed that night, clear-headed and relaxed, your problems somehow unimportant, just before you doze off you'll remember - and you'll smile.

“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after.”

Henry David Thoreau