I love fishing. You put that line in the water and you don’t know what’s on the other end. Your imagination is under there.
~ Robert Altman
Muskellunge, the largest member of the Pike family, “Muskie,” are said to be the fish of 10,000 casts; meaning, they are not just difficult to catch, but might cause severe cramping in the wrist and elbow joints in the process. While I’ve never targeted the species in my angling life, I will take the word of many a Muskie maven writing in the deep-water of online fishing forums, who warn that anyone who wants to conquer this foe must bring with them a mental tackle box full of ESP – not clairvoyance, but another type of ESP: Experience, Sophistication and Patience.
I don’t deny that ESP, as I have defined above, is useful if one is to rise above sheer luck in the pursuit and capture of a Muskie or any other apex predator with gills. But I feel there is one more barb on the hook, a teaser at the end of the line, an emotional enzyme which acts as a catalyst to propel the angler to his or her greatest heights: the ability to not just be comfortable with failure, but to find comfort in failure.
Sounds absurd? Give me a moment to make my case. First, to be clear, I’m not saying that most anglers take to the water with a burning desire to come home empty, to make 10,000 casts without seeing a bend in the rod. But facts are facts, and the fact is we who bait hooks and tie flies fail a great deal more often than we succeed, reinforcing yet another old saying, “It’s called fishing, not catching.” And so if we can agree that failure is a consistent part of the experience of fishing, then I think it’s worth a few casts into the psychological pool to find out if failure is, pardon the pun, part of the lure drawing us toward the water.
I can’t speak for others, but I feel something best described as “heroic” when I fail at fishing, when my day’s toil on the water produces not a bite, not a rise, not even a ripple. Of course, the intrinsic goodness of being on or near the water, the primal piercing of the soul that results whenever one matches wits with a wild creature, and the meditative pull of the cast and retrieve, all are reasons enough to enjoy the sport no matter if your creel is empty or your live well dry. But while I value these very positive outcomes from fishing, it is from failure that I have truly benefited. The barren days have not just tested my resolve, but shaped it, helping me learn the important lesson that there are things in life that you can’t control, that there are ups and downs, and finding merit in the downs is the key to enjoying the ups. Moreover, not catching fish while fishing gives me opportunities to show pluck, to be optimistic (just one more cast!), and to lose with graciousness.
But I am a writer, and as such am inclined to search for deeper meanings in shallow pools. And perhaps, as a writer, an endeavor where rejection is part and parcel to the craft, I have developed a fixation with failure, or what the definition of failure is. Which is why I asked Burt Weissbourd, a novelist and an avid fly fisherman, to weigh in on this topic. Here’s his take:
“I would suggest that both fishing and writing require long hours of trial and error, leading to success that—when it comes, as it often does—is all the sweeter for having worked so hard to get there.
If it were easy, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun, nor as satisfying. And everyone would be doing it. The thrill of fooling a big brown trout is especially exciting when you know how many times you’ve tried to lure that monster out from under the dead tree hanging over the bank at the bend in the river. How you added more weight, snagged and broke off twice, slipped and fell in the river when you waded out too far. But damnit, you knew he was there and after days of trying, you caught him.
How about when someone you respect loves your novel. They have no idea how many drafts you had to rethink, start to finish, how many sequences you wrote, rewrote and finally discarded, the sentence that took an entire day to get right, that you cut a week later, and so on.
I fish at least 25 days a year on the Madison River in Montana. We walk and wade the stretch between Slide Inn and the West Fork. It’s familiar water, though every day is different. Water levels, insect hatches, flows, clarity, run-off, cloud cover, water temperature, etc. all contribute to changing conditions, which leads to fish holding in different water, and that in turn, creates new challenges to fooling the fish. But fool the fish, I do, through a learned pattern of trial and error. It took a long time to figure out that the biggest fish were usually lurking on the bottom in the hardest-to-get-to lies, often in the deepest holes. Their primary diet is caddis larvae that they inhale off the bottom of the river. It took years to actually use three triple A split shot and learn to bounce a tiny caddis larvae nymph along the bottom—drifting drag free through the most protected lies in the deepest holes in the river. But we did learn and even in the toughest conditions, we catch fish. And every fish hooked–not necessarily landed—is a thrilling moment. Every single time!
I try to write every day, taking occasional breaks to travel, clear my head, or promote my books. And, just like fishing, I use trial and error to string my sentences together, and like fishing, I’ve learned that if I keep at it, if I write then rewrite, then rewrite again, those sentences will eventually feel just right. After years of writing, I’ve developed an inner sense–something I write to—for when I have it right. It’s often maddening to know I’m not there yet, but there is nothing more satisfying to me then reading something I’ve written that finally works for me.
It’s always a great day for me when I write until 2:00 or 3:00 then fish until dusk.”
So maybe I’m a bit extreme in my thinking about failure, at least when it comes to fishing – that it is not a finite thing, but rather a springboard for success, the trial and error Burt speaks. But right or wrong, I do know that the next time I fish, if I experience a blitz or the blahs, I’ll have something to write about.