The Odd Appeal of Fishing
Some people have asked why I don’t post some previously published work. I couldn’t think of a real reason not to, other than the fear of seeming horribly self-indulgent. But perhaps there’s room for some old stuff on here. I was lucky enough to have a column called “According to Mike” in the fine entertainment newspaper, “Lowcountry Weekly,” during the late 1990’s. The following column came out during the winter of 1998. I’ve kept the local references although they will mean little to most of you. Beaufort, SC was a fine place to call home for awhile.
It is the middle of December and we’re still in shorts and flip-flops. The pace is slow, the sky is clear, the snow is somewhere else. This is why we’re here.
We are fortunate to live in a region where the seasons cruise into each other with the grace and urgency of a Waffle House waitress. Some places lure you with ski slopes and changing leaves: the Lowcountry specializes in the extended summer.
With this lingering pleasant weather, you can’t help but notice all the boating activity. From Charleston, Folly Beach, James Island, and all the rivers big and small that divide the land, everyone is out on the water. Some are cruising, some are smuggling, some are lost—but most are fishing.
There are a lot of big-money boats out there on the water. Floating Winnebegos with complex trawling and rigging equipment, double Evinrude engines that could propel an oil tanker, stocked wet bars, bean-sprout pitas, air-conditioned cabins and crews with matching golf shirts and docksides. These vessels are usually tied up at the fancier marinas, freshly scrubbed in the sunshine, with faint whispers of Buffett and blenders and convivial small talk drifting out to the envious fellow-boaters and tourists who gawk along the dock.
Last Father’s Day, I joined my dad, grandfather and uncle on a charter-fishing trip out of Hilton Head on a similarly well-equipped boat. It was reasonably priced and the captain was knowledgeable and friendly enough, but it felt like maritime grade school. The captain not only drove the boat, he also caught the bait, found the spot, hooked the lines, cast the poles and offered condescending directions on how to appropriately reel in the fish that he had actually caught. But we played along and posed with our trophy fish and enjoyed the cheesy spectacle that we had become. We also left with three coolers of mackerel fillets, which was the whole idea anyway.
Though there’s nothing like fishing out on the open ocean, the intracoastal waterways encourage a different kind of fisherman. Drive by any public boat ramp in the Lowcountry on a warm winter morning and notice the trucks parked with their empty boat trailers. These are the people I appreciate the most. The guys who take their boat from the front yard, stop by the Texaco for coffee and powdered doughnuts and beer, back that sucker straight into the water, and head out in search of fish.
Realistically, your supplies list needn’t be very long or detailed for a good day of fishing. 15’ of buoyant watercraft, some bait, a few hooks, a pole and faith that some mysterious aquatic creature will go along with the plan. No escape from the elements, whatever the elements may be. Direct cancer-causing sunshine or full downpour, you deal with it. There’s no posh cabin to hole up in, not even a flimsy tarpaulin on rods to duck under. No pampering, no comfort, no radio? No distractions.
There’s a casual de-evolution thing that happens when you board a small fishing vessel; you drop several levels on the civilization scale and have permission to behave like someone else. Where you jettison all the good manners you practice on a daily basis and reinvent yourself for the afternoon. The someone else you become can be gross and dirty and altogether unrefined. The new-you can mayonnaise his sandwich with the same knife that was just used to gut baitfish and was cleaned by a quick submersion in the ocean and dried off with the oil-rag. He can eat said sandwich with his grimy barefeet propped up beside the cutting board where fish parts and blood and fecal goo bake in the sun. He can stare at that carnage while he eats, without a stir of nausea or guilt, and flick random fish scales from his bread and take another bite. He can belch aloud while peeing off the side of the boat, and not say “excuse me” for either action.
It takes you back to when early men survived on Cheetohs, bologna, RC Cola and secret caches of warm bottom-shelf liquor. You can be burly and barbaric like Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea and get medieval on mute, unassuming fish. It’s beautiful and liberating and makes for a glorious day off.
Besides, what better way to test your survival skills as a possible technological doomsday approaches? [Note: Pre-Y2K] Next time you’re out on the water, play the Subsistence Fishing Game: no matter how ugly or small or previously unidentified the fish, if you hook it, you have to take it home and eat it. Moreover, if you catch NO fish, you have to eat the bait. Squid-ka-bobs and Menhaden-head Marinara will surely be a welcome change for holiday get-togethers.
So all you people who cut work or school to fish, I applaud you. You are unshaven and smelly and probably doing something illegal, but we love you. You are the heart and soul of this spit of land we call home. Most of all, you provide picturesque images as we look down at you while crossing the bridge to the drudgery of our own jobs and the domestication of our own lives. We all hope something’s biting.