House of sand and biting flies

I wandered over to the Herring River marsh this morning to find the place infested with no-see-ems, and some guy with a surfcasting rig in MY SPOT on the bridge. Inauspicious beginning to the day, especially in light of the hard rain all night and thickening storm clouds on the horizon.  I found myself grumbling under my breath and turning down a path that led me towards curmudgeonly solitude. As I stopped to step over the railing I happened to look up and was struck by the quiet beauty of the saltmarsh.  Little terns were diving into a ball of baitfish and an egret stood on one leg pondering the water flowing past him. Fishing.   

I felt the cranky lines in my face dissolve into a smile as I remembered that this wasn't really about catching fish anyway.  My spirit was at peace again and I slowly turned back up the path towards the bridge, amenable to a little gam with my fellow human fisherman.

Meat Fisherman

The proper beginning for this story occurred many years ago when I was a young surfer making extended forays deep into Baja California in search of good waves and deeper meaning. I had a spotted dog named Joshua as a companion and we'd go feral for a month at a time camping on the beach and making our supplies last as long as possible. Part of the daily routine was scavenging the coastline to add a little fresh protein to our diet.  Happily we were surrounded by a bountiful sea.  Back then most of Baja was still truly a wilderness, unspoiled by the economic and social disasters that a corrupt federal government has since unloaded on that fragile land.  At low tide we'd often find abalone on the rocks and free diving usually resulted in some large spiny lobsters for dinner.  On the eastern side of the peninsula we'd feast on jumbo prawns and rock scallops, fresh from the Sea of Cortez.  

Diving was my preferred food gathering technique, but I'd fish, ineffectively, when the conditions were right.  My fishing equipment consisted of a simple hand line on a spool that I learned to toss beyond the surf line from the rocks. We did all right, savoring the bounty of the sea, but never really developing any profound feelings for the act of fishing.  I'm more of a garden guy really and the weight of my ignorance about all things fishing could have sunk a panga.  

Josh and I stopped for the night one time at a fish camp with a little old fisherman, as wrinkled as a piece of beef jerky.  Mopán was originally from Quintana Roo, in the Yucatan Peninsula. Basically a Mayan Indian who was a long way from home.  His family was one of the first of many people forcibly relocated by the Mexican government in their misguided  attempts to create an economy in the desert.  Luckily for this guy, he was already a fisherman by trade, so he did all right until his wife died and the kids left home. After that, he just sort of migrated up and down the coast following the fish and moving from camp to camp.  Mopán liked Joshua and he taught me how to fish.

For a Mayan subsistence fisherman like Mopán to tackle the task of teaching a clueless Southern Californian surfer how to fish was an act of almost transcendent generosity.  Fishing was as natural as breathing for Mopán and I think my level of childlike ignorance was a source of great amusement.  He had a squeaky little high pitched giggle that I'd often hear in the background as I unsuccessfully attempted to learn to throw the cast net for the hundredth time.  

As he came to understand that my fishing aptitude was limited and my instincts tragically deficient, he scaled back the curriculum to the two most essential subjects: 1) Catch a little bait, and 2) Use the bait to catch dinner.  In essence, Mopán sized me up carefully and concluded, "this kid is never going to amount to much, but at least I can try and teach him to feed himself."  In essence, he taught me to be a Meat Fisherman.

And that's pretty much where my fishing skills languished until recently.  I could always bring home something for dinner, but I never really got the whole mania that seems to drive my hard core fisherman buddies.  Meat Fishermen, like me, are generally disdained by the true believers.  Real Fishermen are just plain fascinated with fish, fishing, and every other aspect of poles, rods, reel, hooks, lines, boats, water...  The idea that a Meat Fisherman could catch fish but not enjoy it is mildly repugnant. For a Real Fishermen, hunting fish is a religion, and Meat Fishermen are apostates.  

That has all changed for me in the last month or so.  A belated introduction to Fly Fishing has resulted in my exit from the ranks of Meat Fisherman forever.  I've had a fishing epiphany, glimpsed the cosmic unity of the fish and the fisherman.  I have communed with the Naugual via the tip of the Long Wand as my Clouser minnow fly whipped across the sky to drop into the lips of a hungry bluefish. I finally get the whole Zen of Fly Fishing thing! 

Back on the Bridge

I wandered back up to the bridge and settled a polite distance from the interloper with his surfcasting rig. After a bit we began one of those monosyllabic meandering conversations that guys have about guy things when they're out doing guy stuff. He was from out of town. He worked construction. His brother caught a 40 inch striper yesterday casting from the beach with plastic eels and a drop of Smelly Jelly menhaden scent. Short on personal, long on fish. 

As we were talking, a couple of schoolies came drifting under the bridge along with clouds of bait. Schoolies are small striped bass, the adolescent sons of a mighty local gamefish.  Big stripers run up to five feet long and weigh over 50 pounds.  Large striped bass are the fish that Real Fishermen dream about. These were little guys, fun to catch and release.  Most fish are actually candidates for catch and release because Real fishermen are all about the chase, not the prize.  The usual instinct is to let them go in the hope that maybe you'll catch them again later, when they're bigger.

My chatty companion was getting ready to leave when suddenly the sandy bottom erupted and this giant fluke started following his plastic eel along the bottom. To grasp the moment you need to have a clear mental picture of what a fluke looks like because they are arguably one of the weirdest fish on the planet. Imagine a extra jumbo large pizza, only greenish brown (like that fuzzy mold on cheese) but with rippling fins along its edges and two beady little eyes on one side staring straight up at you. Actually, they do sort of have a head and a tail, but fluke are a flatfish, like flounder and sole and they almost always glide along on their side, inches off the bottom.  Oh yeah, fluke can also change color at will to match whatever bottom is beneath them, so they're sand colored, or rock colored, or fuzzy mold color, depending on the bottom.  Camouflage artists.

This fluke was a monster, well over twenty inches long and almost as wide. And it literally erupted right under our noses.  It kind of lazily followed the lure for a while before settling down on the bottom and going invisible again. He called it a doormat, a trophy fish! 

I about had a heart attack!  I'd never heard anyone mention that there were fluke around the marsh, and this one was the size that are normally found a hundred feet deep around shipwrecks. In fact I was so flustered trying to get my fly in the water that I let that damned curly old fly line get all spiled up into a big rat's nest. Arrrgh: "F*** the F***ing F***ed up F***er!!!" I was yanking at the knots, and trying to watch that magnificent fish all at the same time, too amazed to even be pissed off. I finally just put my fly rod down and watched my partner work his plastic eel around the Doormat.

The water was as clear as an aquarium and you could see every tiny flicker of motion. The fluke could literally disappear whenever he wanted to. As you were watching, his outline would begin to fade, then a spot or two would appear, mimicking the rocks and shadows. And suddenly he was just, gone. Trippy.

The eel lure was a beauty, about a foot long, soft plastic and fantastically real looking. It undulated through the water exactly like a real eel. He was dangling it right in front of the Doormat's mouth, but that damned fluke just wasn't in the mood for breakfast. 

He finally gave up and went back to the beach as I slowly untangled the bird's nest and got my fly rod back in operation. I tied on the little white sand eel fly, figuring that it was the complete opposite of the rejected big plastic eel. Maybe the doormat was interested in a lighter snack?

Zen in the Art of...

There is already an eponymously named Zen in the Art of book on fly fishing, written by Henry S. Butler and it sounds pretty good. Another arrow in the quiver of the original masterpiece, Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel.  That is the book generally credited with introducing the western world to Zen when it was first published in 1948.  Still a best seller after more than 50 years, Zen in the Art of Archery highlights many of the fundamental concepts of Zen while also being responsible for many of the misconceptions held about Zen by westerners.  It was my introduction to Zen and, despite the fact that it has been harshly criticized by purists for inaccuracies regarding both Zen philosophy and traditional Japanese archery (Kyūdō), I think Herrigel got it mostly right.  If there is an essence to the book it might be encapsulated in this characteristic quote:

"The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull's-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art..."

I'm going to way out on a limb here and say that's a pretty pithy summation of Zen Action.  And, whether it is strictly correct or not, it reflects the way Zen has come to be understood by millions of people. Wikipedia reports that there are now hundreds of Zen in the Art books, including Robert Pirsig's cult classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  The notion that sublime insights can be distilled from the most mundane tasks is an attractive one.  If you are lucky enough to have experienced the feeling of oneness that comes with complete passionate absorption you'll likely agree that it felt a lot like enlightenment.  

I get that feeling of Zen Action, when I'm surfing, when I'm deeply engaged in debugging a computer program and, more recently, when I'm fly fishing.

The Herring River at Dawn

I live near a small but vibrantly healthy saltmarsh.  It is called the Herring River, though it really is barely a stream.   The cranberry bogs and Wings Pond form its headwaters along with a pretty little spring issuing from a shady glen. The Herring River is open to the sea at its western end where it empties into Buzzards Bay.  It's not much of a River, but it has total street cred when it comes to the herring part.  River herring is a term that is loosely used for Alewife and Blueback herring of the family Alosa pseudoharengus. Herring are found along the Atlantic coast from Labrador to South Carolina.  They are an anadromous fish, meaning that they migrate upriver to spawn during the spring then back to the sea.  They can live up to ten years and grow as large as 13 inches, though the ones I've seen are about half that size. 

The river herring fishery is one of the oldest in America and like most fisheries it has problems with over-fishing and poor management.  As a result, river herring are yet another species under pressure here.  Massachusetts is currently under a moratorium prohibiting their harvest, possession, and sale.  This is bad news for local fishermen because herring are the longstanding preferred bait.  The nickname for herring around here is "Striper Candy."

I've heard fishermen grousing about the ban on herring for years now.  By and large, they respect the moratorium and there are very few incidences of poaching, but they really miss their Striper Candy.  My little Herring River happens to be one of the most healthy herring runs in the area.  Back in the day, fishermen and their families used to congregate around the cranberry bogs in the spring to watch the herring runs and collect a bounty of bait.  Since the moratorium of course the spawning fish are off limits and the herring run picnic is a thing of the past.  In one of those eureka moments a few months ago I realized that the only legal way to fish with river herring these days was to fish where the free, live herring already are.  If you could position yourself right at the place where the herring return to the sea, you could toss your non-herring bait right into the middle of the same roiling ball of fish candy that the big stripers were happily feasting on.  Herring fishing, without the herring.  Zen fishing: the sound of one herring swimming.  Whatever.

So it came to pass that my surfing buddy Elwood, who is and always has been a true Alpha Fisherman, equipped me with one of his old fly rods, a box of hand-tied flies and thirty seconds of casting instructions.  I supplemented his rather terse commentary with a few YouTube videos and found myself one clear and humid dawn traipsing towards the marsh in my newly purchased hip waders.

I was bummed when I first got there and saw a rolly polly guy and his son working the jetty with spinning rigs. I just hung out on the bridge and watched them for awhile, noticing that the tide was pretty low and they weren't doing any good.  They finally gave up and wandered up to the bridge where the kid started tossing a topwater plug over and over, like a little fishing machine. He was totally working every bit of the water like a pro!

The dad was just watching, so I finally went over for a gam. Turns out his name is Jimmy, and his father Lester owns a really nice house down the road that I've admired for years. Neighbors.  Jimmy has been fishing the Herring River his entire life and his son Joey is taking on the legacy.  In fact watching Joey methodically troll his lure across every square inch of the channel, twitching with preternatural anticipation at every boil in the outgoing tide, made me realize that I was witnessing the creation of a Real Fisherman.  I copped a contact high off the total in-the-zone vibe that little Joey was radiating.

While I was absorbing the Zen of Joey, his dad pretty much confirmed everything I'd been thinking about the Herring River:

- It's best just past the high tide; 

- Most years they get some really big striped bass; 

- The bigger fish don't generally go too far up beyond the bridge; 

- There are eels and lots of crabs up on the mud ledges in addition to the adult herring and their spawn. 

- The place can get pretty amazing during a herring run in Spring. Discovery Channel snapping jaws crazy.

- In early Spring he said they get runs of very feisty small bluefish, "Snapper Blues" that are a blast to catch and tasty to eat.

Local knowledge like this is a treasure trove to the aspiring fisherman.  My new pal Jimmy was unloading a Vulcan Mind Meld data dump on me, forty years worth of hard won knowledge delivered to a hungry mind.  And he was doing it like a mission from Gawd, passing the torch, handing over the Holy Grail. Zen Generosity.

My head was spinning as I walked up into the marsh, too much info to assimilate in one gulp.  This was something that I was willing to get to the bottom of. I found a nice rock by the water and, without much conscious thought,  started practicing casting with Elwood's fly rod while the sun rose in the sky and a Blue Heron stalked the shallows upstream.  

Where is the Zen in fly fishing?

I thought that I'd wrapped this little Chautauqua up and was giving it a final proof read when I realized that something important was missing. I have danced all around the subjects of Zen, and fly fishing, but never really connected the dots.  So here goes.

Zen isn't really even a word anymore, much less a coherent philosophy or a religion. Through its use and misuse, Zen has become a meme, a basket of universally understood and replicated connections rather than the thing itself. So when we talk about Zen, let's consider the Zen-meme rather than anyone's colloquial vision of it. Let's sidestep the critics and controversy and shoot our arrow for the bulls-eye.

I'm going to say that Robert Pirsig and Gautama Buddha were all talking about the same thing when they described the sensation of losing oneself in the moment. I'm going to speculate that even the religious ecstasies described in the Bible, Qur'an, and other holy books all acknowledge the same type of universal human experience.

Here's what I mean.

I'm on the bridge again, the sun is beating nicely against my back and there's a sweet salty smell is in the air. There's a big fish looking at my lure, a stripped bass, about 30 inches long. He thinks that my fly is a sand eel and he's considering killing and eating it. Right now. 

Be the sand eel. That striper has sharp teeth, loads of them, and he's a few milliseconds away from biting me. He rolls slowly through the water, so that his white belly flashes bright silver in the low sunlight. Blinding light. He's giving me the hairyeyeball look, I'm really scared, terrified the water feels electrified with impending drama. With a flick of his tail, he slides past on the right, I might be alright after all. As the last of his tail glides by he suddenly convulses in a lunging body kick, the tail end of which is focused entirely on me. 

Turmoil, chaos, tunnel vision, looming death. He whacked me on the head to stun me and now the monster is going to eat me alive...

Back up on the bridge, I suddenly reentered my body and twitched a tiny bit in anticipation of the strike....which didn't ever come. My dumb ass wiggle apparently alerted the big bully predator and he veered off under the bridge beneath me.

Here's an experiment: Close your eyes and replay that paragraph again in your imagination, only this time, be the Big Fish. Put on your war face and get that sand eel. Why didn't you strike the bait?

Did you feel it, even for a tiny instant? That, my dearly beloveds is Zen in the art of fly fishing.  I was in both places at once, or maybe neither place. I was tapped into the universal spiritual cosmos, one with the fishy, one with life, one with god.  Honestly.

Whatever you want to call it. That moment is one of the core values of the Zen meme. It's accessible to anyone, doing almost any task. Robert Pirsig calls it the 'Leading edge of Quality,' the raw flow of events as they rush through you without the cognitive filtering and processing of normal life. Zen Action.

A final visit to the Bridge

By the time I had finally gotten my line untangled, I had no idea if the fluke was even around anymore, so I just started casting around the bridge and keeping my eyes open. I was dragging my line in a bit to get ready for another cast when the sand blurped again and the Doormat was tracking about three inches behind my fly! Holy Moly.

I just stopped and let the fly dangle in the outgoing tide, damned near putting it in the Doormat's mouth. For a second I thought he nailed it, a little twitch of speed, but then he sailed right under it and hooked a right turn into the shallows. I was able to follow him by just walking along the bridge and I amended the cast so it drifted by the fluke on one side, and then hopped up in front and drifted past again. When he went invisible, I let the fly just drift off behind him, then suddenly he was on the chase again. He didn't exactly want it, but he didn't want it getting away either.

So we did that little dance two or three times, then it started to rain and I couldn't see him except when he did the big chase. Then it *really* started to rain and I completely lost sight of him. As deluge began to soak me right through I finally noticed  it and I started laughing like a maniac as I continued casting into the pebbled-up surface of the Herring River.

Zen fishing.


1 Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery 1948, ISBN 0-679-72297-1.
2 Picture of a "Doormat" fluke: 
3 Fly Casting tutorial:


Woody and I ended up spotting three different fluke the next day, all smaller than the Doormat, but still respectable. The big guy himself reappeared and, after teasing him for half an hour, Woody finally tempted him into snapping up a sand eel and we both took home a succulent fish fillet for dinner. So, maybe it is a little bit about catching after all.


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