Fishing For Morals – A Father’s Day Story
Regarding my dad, two things I know are true: one, I can’t imagine what a better one would be like; and two, where my dad has flaws and shortcomings, I almost unilaterally find them permissible. This is because he has a good heart, and although he is a man of mathematics and reason, I believe it is his heart that guides him when it comes to childrearing (though I don’t believe he would ever admit to it). Finally, I’ve never called my dad father, or referred to him by his first name, Daniel – nor have I ever felt the need to. Take that for whatever it’s worth. Still, my dad is not perfect. There are some things he’s told me over the years that never sunk in which I think he wish had, and some things that have which he may wish hadn’t.
When I was a child and we lived in Los Angeles, my dad’s parents had a little cabin on Donner Lake up near Lake Tahoe. We would go there in the summers – my sister my parents and I, my dad’s brothers and sisters, grandma and grandpa, and all the cousins. When I was about 6 or 7 years old the eldest cousin, Benjamin, who had 6 years on me (and still does) took me fishing. It was my first time, and I was very excited. We sat out on the end of the dock, he and I, put worms on our hooks, and tossed them over into the water. We put the poles between our legs, and sat there, just waiting around and not doing much. Eventually I got bored and walked away to inspect crawdads in shallower waters – which Ben purportedly would catch and eat. This I had a hard time imagining since they had claws, and looked so unpleasant to chew.
While I was contemplating the potential qualities of crawdad cuisine, a big fish presumably found itself similarly fascinated with the portents of worms, for it took mine and the hook all in one and began to pull at my line. Benjamin, of course, was still there, so he grabbed hold of my rod and started reeling the fish in, calling to me excitedly to hurry up and come see. Since Ben was 12 years old, he was as good as God to me, so I ran over to him as instructed. I saw a shimmering ripple quiver back and forth in the water, a fin parting the surface from time to time, and finally the whole fish leapt out of the lake like a rainbow-colored comet sent from the heavens straight to me. In retrospect, I recall the fish being about a foot long, though memory certainly has a predilection for embellishment – especially in fishing tales.
Anyway, it was a big fish, and a beautiful one, so we did what any good fisherman with a rod and a reel and a worm and a hook would do. We cut the fish’s head off, gutted it, cooked it, and ate it. I don’t remember anything about the process itself, so perhaps I didn’t actually see it. Nor do I recall feeling sorry for the fish, or recollect any thoughts about its recent demise. What I do recall is my dad telling me a little story about the fish after dinner that evening, probably as he was tucking me into bed. I am paraphrasing, but that story is as follows:
“Once there was a little fish named Christopher. Christopher was a good fish, and he had a very loving mother and father who cared about him very deeply. As Christopher grew older, he became more and more curious, and daring, and he wanted to see the whole lake that was his world. So his mother and father decided to let him go. But before he left, they sat him down and gave him one piece of advice. ‘Don’t eat tasty looking treats that fall into the water from the sky and float around temptingly’, they told him, ‘for those come from above, and they can be very dangerous. Many fish have lost their lives from just such tasty treats.’ Christopher promised he would not stray, and off he went.
But one day, Christopher was swimming around in his great big world, and he saw the most delicious looking worm. He swam up to it, and looked it over. It didn’t look like any worm he’d ever seen before, but it looked so delicious, he couldn’t help himself. He grabbed the worm in his mouth, and tried to swim away – but something dug into his lip and hurt him – and before he knew it, he was getting reeled into shore, and no matter how hard he swam he could not escape the pull. He knew that his end was coming, and he cried, remembering his parents’ advice. ‘Why didn’t I listen’, he cried, ‘why didn’t I do what mommy and daddy told me’. And he cried like that all the way to shore until we reeled him in, and ate him up.”
And then he probably smiled at me, squeezed at my sides like he was gobbling me up, and wished me goodnight.
Ten years later, I was a vegetarian.
I was also a little shithead teenager, and I didn’t do the majority of what my parents told me to do. In fact, them telling me to do something was grounds enough for doing the opposite. I was a bad little fish. But, that story my dad told me had stuck with me, and I was – for better or worse – terribly empathetic to any living thing that wasn’t a human. I had listened well, I just didn’t hear the story my dad was trying to tell me – I heard the one he wasn’t.
I started eating meat again my senior year of college, because I worked on a small organic farm, and we slaughtered chickens there, and I thought to myself ‘this is good, because this is real’. At least, it was more real than the ‘mechanically separated chicken parts’ listed in the ingredients on a can of Spam. So I started eating chickens. Then we slaughtered a lamb and I ate some of that. Then I began to travel abroad with some regularity, and I got really tired of trying to explain to people in my pigeon version of whatever language they spoke that ‘yes I do appreciate their overwhelming kindness and hospitality and, yes, I do realize that meat is a very special treat for them but, no, I will not eat it because I think eating meat is wrong – no, not for you, of course; just for me’. So I made exceptions for animals I killed, and gifts of hospitality. Finally, in the years following college I became an avid dumpster diver, and I started eating meat I found lying around in the trash since it seemed to be the only respectable thing to do in a situation like that. I still think humans have many vile habits. Throwing perfectly good food in the garbage is one of them; eating perfectly good food from the garbage is not.
Anyway, by the time I turned 30, I had begun to refer to myself as a sometimes-atarian – which is basically just another way of saying ‘next question, please’.
In the Spring of 2015 I accepted a job as a backcountry ranger in Sequoia National Park. Now I’m a rockclimber, which means I eat, sleep, and breathe rock climbing, so I asked everyone the same question about where I’d be stationed: “is there granite there? Are there like, big terrifying looking walls of sheer stone that nobody has ever climbed?” Most people said there was some granite, yeah, but nobody described anything like El Capitan, much to my dismay and sadness. Overwhelmingly, people talked about the fishing.
So I decided to get a fly fishing rig. My new friend Cody – a trailhead ranger out of Mineral-King, recommended a Tenkara rod. Cody’s from Montana, and that’s where A River Runs Through It takes place, which is all about fly fishing, so that was good enough for me. I bought one the next day, Cody and his friend hooked me up with some flies and line, I learned a fishing knot, and soon enough I was out at my station at Little 5 Lakes ready and rearing to catch some fish.
I fished the lakes near my cabin unsuccessfully for a couple of weeks. Then I took a climbing trip with my friend, Austin, to the nearby Spring Lake wall. Austin is a photographer for Patagonia, so I decided I’d bring along the old Tenkara. I didn’t think I’d catch anything, but I figured Austin could get a couple nice pictures of me fishing with a big old whale of granite in the background for the next season’s catalogue, and I’d get a model’s check big enough to buy some new pairs of underwear.
Sure enough, with fish hopping and flopping all over the lake, I had a bight – that got away. Then another – and it got away, too. Then I had another bight, and I’d be damned if that one got away – I literally fell over pulling the line back into shore before the darned fish could wriggle off the hook. Then, all of a sudden, there it was. In my hands I held this beautiful rainbow trout, its belly reddish pink like the sunset in these parts, and golden light shimmering on its patterned scales.
“Shit! What do I do?!” I yelled, as if Austin knew.
“I think you put your thumb up under the gills and break its neck,” he yelled back at me, fumbling with camera equipment.
I tried and tried to break the neck, but it was a small fish, and a very slippery one, and I just couldn’t manage to do it. I was mutilating the poor thing, ruining its last moments on this planet as a beautiful living fish, and I was starting to lose my cool. I couldn’t bear what I was doing any longer. I put the flopping fish in a pot, put the lid on the pot, and put a rock on the lid. “He’ll just suffocate in there,” I said to Austin, “That’ll be fine.” Austin looked at me dubiously.
When I returned, the fish was dead, and stiff with rigormortis. I cut its head off, cut down the belly pulling out the guts and organs, and cleaned the meat in the water tossing the refuse in to the lake where I’d seen a grip of fish heads earlier. Then I kept fishing.
Austin and I caught and kept another five fish that night. Each time I pulled one into shore, I had the distinct feeling that I liked the fish better in the water than out of it. At the same time though, each fish I caught got easier to kill. In only an evening, I thought I’d been desensitized. And the meat was really really good. I knew I’d be fishing again. You could say I was hooked (my dad is addicted to puns, by the way – I guess I got that from him, too. You do remember my dad, right? This is a story about my dad).
Shortly after the Spring Lake extravaganza, my girlfriend Megan was out visiting. She really wanted to go fishing, which surprised me because she is even more sensitive about animal cruelty than I am. She’s not a vegetarian, but, for example, she quit eating Salmon because we saw Cohos, Chinooks, and Steelheads spawning on the Skykomish river in Washington state, and we agreed that they were all little heroes. That’s the kind of girl Megan is. Cold turkey.
I told her that the whole affair could be a bit grotesque once you got the fish out of the water, but she persisted. That night, I had a dream that I caught a big beautiful rainbow trout in the lake nearby. I took it as an omen, and after a day of patrolling the Big Arroyo, Megan and I went fishing.
I went to a spot that I’d had a nibble before, on the lowest Little 5 Lake, and began casting about. In no short time, I was getting some fishy looks. Then I got a pretty good bight, but when I yanked to set the hook, the fish ripped through the line and took the fly into the depths. I tied on a new fly, and tried again a few feet away, but to no avail. All of a sudden, I got a solid bight. Gracelessly and frantically I began to pull the fish and the line into shore. Megan, who had been getting pretty bored and bug-bitten, perked up all of a sudden and said “Oh my god, it’s real! What do I do?!” I got the fish up on shore, and it was bigger than I had even dared to hope – close to a foot long. It was, literally, the fish of my dreams. I told Megan to bring me the knife, and told her it was about to get ‘really real’.
I’ve seen a lot of movies and pictures of people posing with these beautiful fish, but somehow when I pull one into shore I go into this crazy kill mode. All I can think is that the fish is suffering, about to die, and that it knows it. I want death to come as quickly and painlessly as possible. I grabbed the knife from Megan, and before she could so much as ask what came next, I was explaining the gutting process while cutting off the fish’s breathing head. I tossed the head into the water near the shore, and picked up the fish off the grass to carry it over to the water. Megan and I looked at the bloody stump where the head had been, and both saw the beating heart at the same time. “Oh my god,” she said, “its heart”. It was unmistakable. There’s just this abrupted body, and then a beating heart. The whole thing was very unsettling.
I continued cutting off fins and ripping out guts, explaining all the while, and in short order what I held in my hand was no longer a fish, but fish. I put the remains which closely resembled something you might buy in a grocery store into a ziplock bag and put it in the water to stay cool. Megan suggested I grab the head out of the shallow water, and toss it deeper into the lake. It seemed like a good idea to me, so I did. We said a little prayer for the fish, and kept on fishing. Neither of us was as shellshocked at the time as I had expected. Megan was, if anything, more enthusiastic still about catching her own fish. She got a bight later on, which stole the fly as she was pulling a good-sized trout into shore. This was followed by a frenzy of desperate casting, and relocating, as the sun set over the great western divide, and mosquitos ate us up. In the end, we only got the one, which we took home and ate. It was, of course, delicious.
I haven’t been fishing since that afternoon with Megan, though I’ve had ample time. On a couple of occasions I’ve foregone the fishing pole for a pair of climbing shoes, even when patrolling to lakes or creeks that I knew had good fishing. I’ll go again before the end of the summer – I’m sure of that. I quite like the act of tossing the fly about, watching the light play off the water, seeing the rings rippling outwards around the lakeshore as fish surface looking for dinners of their own.
But each time I see a fish swim up to my fly, sniff it, and swim away, I smile a little bit – I feel a little bit of relief. Sometimes in the early evening when the light is getting just right and the Kaweahs are glowing in the setting sun, I think to myself, ‘Let’s go fishing – maybe we’ll get lucky and not catch anything.’ Or sometimes I just walk out to the shore and watch the fish flopping in and out of the water, like little rainbow-colored comets sent from the heavens straight to me, to consume with my eyes alone.
If there was one moral my dad emphasized above all others throughout my life, it was the importance of sacrificing your own happiness and desires for those of others. To this end, he’s worked tirelessly as long as I’ve known him. It is part of what makes him such a special person, and such a good dad. At the root of that moral, I believe, is compassion. I think he just made a very simple decision that he didn’t want to be the cause of anyone’s suffering in life – and to the best of my knowledge, I don’t believe he ever intentionally has been.
I may not be quite the humanitarian my dad is. I relish my free time, and often put my needs above those of the other people in my life. That’s a big part of why I’m out here this summer – living at the lake, catching sunset after incredible sunset – my own selfish needs.
But I still think I got a little bit of that dad morality. For the time being, I’d rather enjoy the sunset with the fishes than with the fishes in my belly. I guess that story my dad told me so many years ago helped me to see myself in the fish, instead of seeing those fish in myself. I still like fishing though, and I think it’s a hell of a lot better eating a fish than mechanically separated chicken parts.
If I ever have kids, I think I’ll take them fishing. If they catch anything, I think I’ll tell them the story of Christopher – the fish who listened to his dad, but heard the story he didn’t mean to tell instead of the one he did. In the end, I wouldn’t mind being quite a bit like my dad – who, when he’s feeling particularly Shakespearian, has taken to removing his hat, pointing his balding head at me, and, sagely announcing ‘take a good look, son, you’re looking at your future’.
No, I wouldn’t mind ending up like my dad at all. He is, as they say, a good fish.