So I went fishing with my dad and sister this weekend. It was a belated Father’s Day Bonding Experience to which I was looking forward all week, but may have received more than I bargained for as soon as I stepped foot on Grandpa’s old motor boat. Not only am I rethinking ever taking part in an age old tradition for all members of the White family (my maiden name is actually “White” for anyone that may stop reading this because they think I wear a pillow case over my head and participate in blatant displays of bigotry in parade form with other pillow-case wearers), I may never eat fish again. AGAIN.
Cue background info:
Ever since I was five years old, I’ve been fishing with Dad, Grandpa, and, when she was old enough, my younger sister Lauri (I love you, sister!). I was casting my own line and reeling in my own fish before I attended the first grade. I was never fazed at impaling live, squirming worms on a barbed hook, or netting flopping, gasping fish at my tiny cowboy-booted feet. I didn’t mind yanking the hook (artfully, of course) out of the fish’s mouth as it gulped for life, or throwing back ones deemed too small (“dinks” my dad calls them), even if they were missing a jaw from the “artful yanking” or ended up “sleeping” on their back afterward. I got praised like a conquering queen whenever I caught a fish, and I felt like God when I freed the little ones. Even my dad’s “You catch ’em, you gut ’em” motto didn’t hinder my brandishing a knife to these poor suckers. (You’re probably wondering why someone didn’t call Social Services on my dad while witnessing a 6 year old wield a Bowie knife and a creepy grin as she slit these fish open Candyman-style, but everything was somewhat supervised and my dad was, and still is, the greatest teacher.)
So basically, fishing used to be awesome.
Which comes to the main part of my story. I realized this weekend that it has been longer than I thought since I last hooked and gut a fish. Originally I had thought, maybe a few years, but really it had been more like nine or ten. This realization occurred when, on the way to fishing, my dad, sister, and I stopped by the usual two pump gas station in Elgin where the scruffy, suspendered owner will sell and issue you a fishing license. I don’t want to waste your time describing this classy establishment when I have this picture:
Yes, you need a license to fish. No, you don’t have to take a test. For the low price of $32.50 you can reel in, gut, and eat fish to your heart’s content until December of that year. The owner had to call someone to change my name from “White” (I’ve been married almost 4 years) and asked if I still lived in Milton-Freewater (not since before college in 2003). That’s when I started wondering how this whole “killing live animals” thing was going to play out.
After the whole raccoon and snake thing we carried out the ritual of buying ice for the on-board cooler, drinks, snacks, and of course, live bait (we’ll get to that later). We three gleefully reminisced the buying of sarsaparilla from the local 50’s style diner in Joseph (if you’ve never had sarsaparilla, go buy some right now from Safeway and Welcome to America), and how we would covet the fake rifles and horse figurines in the toy aisle of the bait and tackle shop. We then drove by the ranch on the left that’s owned by a cousin before reaching the breathtaking view of Wallowa Lake. We launched the boat, cruised around to get some speed through the main motor, and then set to trolling and the business at hand. No, this isn’t Middle-Earth. Trolling is basically moving at a snail’s place and then casting your line out about 90 feet so that it passes by, and tempts, surrounding fish. But first, you have to bait your line.
I took a final swig of my sarsaparilla and set out to start hooking up our live bait. We are fishing for Kokanee (pronounced: Coke-a-nee), which are land-locked salmon, meaning they don’t go to the ocean and get large so they are small, tasty, manageable salmon. Kokanee love grubs, which are basically maggots. Yes, I was hooking up these guys:
Grubs make this weird “Pop” noise as you skewer them with the end of a hook and you put about six on there to tempt those Kokanee into taking a fate-filled bite. And they’re still moving as you drop your lure into the water. And perhaps still moving as you remove them from your first hooked fish. Remember before how I said I had no trouble as a child jamming these things on a hook? Well, something changed and I decided that I did not like killing these maggots. While I was “popping” these guys on my hook, all I could hear in my head was the sound of each maggot screaming, and eventually all six together, as I spilled their guts onto my fingers. It was how I imagined it would sound if you massacred Alvin and his whole chipmunk family. I had their guts on my hands and I was ashamed. I didn’t want my dad to suspect anything awry from my corner of the boat, so I gritted my teeth and continued my skewering, silently telling each maggot “I’m sorry! I’m SO SORRY!” I kept jamming my hook into those innocent, oblivious, screaming maggots. I was murdering them.
Can you hear its scream? Can you feel its pain?
As I dropped my wailing lure into the water and set out to start the fishing part of this depravity, I realized that I was about to also murder some FISH.
I said a silent prayer as I let my line go out, hoping the fish were down too deep and would miss my line; my conscience would be off the hook! (I’m sorry for all of these puns but it just comes naturally.) Within five minutes I caught a fish. I saw the end of my line twitch so I picked up my pole and felt the familiar flutter and vibration that means a fish is both chomping and thrashing desperately at the end on my bait (THE MAGGOTS!). My dad gave a vibrant shout and my sister eagerly grabbed the net. Did I mention that my smart, now-vegan sister wasn’t fishing this weekend? Oh, how I envied her at this moment. I grudgingly and slowly winded up the line, hoping and praying some more that the fish would just let go, but he was hooked and also really wanted those maggots (THE POOR MAGGOTS!). With another triumphant shout, my dad said it was still there and he and my sister netted my first fish.
If I wasn’t wearing sunglasses you would see that the smile does not reach my eyes.
I felt a moment of remembered euphoria from winning at something and then looked down at the flopping fish at my Chaco-ed feet. The dying fish. The dead maggots. I dutifully grabbed the slimy prey to unhook him, his wide, unblinking eyes pleading “Asylum!” to my soul. My soul pleaded back “I’m sorry! I’m SO SORRY!”
It couldn’t get any worse for this fish. It can’t breathe, it’s bleeding from its mouth, and it’s being manhandled by She-Goliath. Now it’s time for it to visit the unknown, and for me to visit a blocked memory. Instead of tossing the fish into the cooler where it may suffocate and die within minutes (I’m totally guessing here and won’t pretend I know anything about the biology of a Kokanee), we attach it like a key chain to a line that runs behind our trolling boat. This is done by pushing a prong of metal into the fish through its gill and out its mouth, and then hooking it so it can’t get away. This drags the fish behind us while we murder others so it stays alive and fresh. So I’m not just murdering fish, I’m torturing and prolonging their suffering so we can enjoy tastier meat.
The limit number of fish a single person can catch in a day at Wallow Lake is ten. So naturally my dad and I caught twenty. There were some “dinks” that we threw back (I had one belly-up incident that almost made me break out in tears), and others that got away, of course. There was one that even escaped our “fish key chain” but I’m pretty sure it was already murdered by that time and was just ripped off by its jaw somehow.
I am unsure how I continued through the act of baiting and hooking that many fish in one day and feel a bit of shame as I remember eventually feeling numb about the whole process of killing a living creature with my own two hands (and fishing pole). I started thinking how easy it can be for the mind to switch to the “going through the motions so it gets easier” mode. My first reaction was over-dramatic, of course: This is how people start feeling comfortable murdering other people! Am I going to develop into a crazy lady serial killer?! And then: Is this how soldiers feel when they start murdering children?! And then I calmed down and got all logical and stopped my brain from thinking ridiculous thoughts so I could have this thoughtful one instead:
It’s astounding how we make ourselves “grin and bear it” through these situations just to please others. I never said a word to my dad about my struggles while fishing that day, and even bragged and joked about how I caught more fish than he did, simply because I love him and this is something that’s important for us to do together as a loving father and a daughter that is about to move 600 miles away from him. However, I’m glad I felt (and still feel) guilty for killing a living creature, and it shows how much I have changed from that six year old fish-gutting girl. I’m happy I can look back at my childhood and see how much I have changed for the better, even if this time it meant murdering some animals in the process.