Editor’s Note: This article has been modified from its original version, which was published on the personal website of Jess Levens.
Sitting on my couch at 10:18 p.m., I am stressed out. My toddler son is in bed, and my wife is in a bubble bath. I am behind on my studies and behind at work. This very essay is overdue, but here I sit, blood pumping, eyes dry, head aching. I should be focused on the task at hand — the words flowing from my fingers, but my mind wanders. Between each thought, each exhausted blink, I picture a still lake at dusk. My ears hear silence save for the birds and frogs. My thumb feels a rough, sandpaper lip as I hoist a majestic fish from the mirror water. The pursuit, the waiting, the peace, the chaos — it all culminates as I stare into those cold, black eyes. Green on top, white on bottom, separated by a diamond band of black. Pure muscle, pulsing gills. Bucketmouth. Lunker. Larry. The largemouth bass. I just want to go fishing. I just want a short release to escape and recharge for a couple hours. That would make writing this essay easier. To me, fishing is a way to recharge the mind and body and help restore qualities that are becoming rarer, such as patience and resourcefulness.
I love freshwater fishing, but it seems to be a fleeting pastime. According independent research firm Responsive Management, fishing is on the decline in the United States for a few reasons. The firm noted that while fishing is a rural activity, more and more people are flocking to cities, where urbanization limits fishing opportunities. Newer infrastructure, including roads, bridges, housing and shopping centers blocks access to fishing spots. The firm also mentioned that family time is more structured than it once was with full schedules leaving little time to fish.
Additionally, young people just aren’t as interested anymore. Kids between the ages of eight and 18 years old are spending an average of 53 hours per week using entertainment media. That is more time than an adult spends working a full-time job. In a given week, only 6% of kids spend time playing outside on their own. With so much instant gratification available with smart phones and tablets, there is no allure to waiting patiently for anything to happen, and that includes catching fish. Waiting around and dedicating time and energy when there is no guaranteed payoff is not the preferred way to spend time anymore.
Discovery Channel contributor Susan Sherwood said, “Technology is reducing our wait, removing the need for patience. Sometimes, however, the results can range from embarrassing to devastating.” The reason we need patience is that we struggle with it from toddlerhood, so if we never develop the ability to wait, it can be quite negative. Fishing is a hobby that can cultivate patience. When I renewed my love for fishing, I became less dependent on my cell phone, less crabby if food at a restaurant took longer than expected, and I really started to appreciate the rewards of waiting.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Stanford University researcher Dr. Walter Mischel conducted experiments asking small children to abstain from eating an available cookie for 15 minutes. The reward for that patience was double the amount of sweets. To me, that funny cat video on YouTube is the available cookie, and an ornery largemouth bass is the double sweet reward. The expression, “good things come to those who wait,” rings to true to me, whether that good thing is a big bass or my wife’s hair looking just right before a rare date night away from our son.
Patience can lead to ingenuity, which is important. Even the most seasoned service member or survivalist is not guaranteed a bounty when fishing. The U.S. Army Field Survival Manual has a large section dedicated to the creativity and patience required to fish:
Of the animal life around or in fresh water, fish are probably the most difficult to catch; so don’t expect too much at one sitting. It may take hours or even days before you are successful. It can be done though, even with crude equipment, if you are patient, and know where, when, and how to fish.
Fishing has taught me so much more than just patience, though. The expression, “Give a man a fish, and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and feed him for a lifetime,” comes to mind. While not entirely applicable in today’s modern world, the principle still stands. I doubt I will find myself in a wilderness survival situation, but rest assured that if I did, I could fish for food. I keep line, hooks and a few different kinds of tackle in my backpack at all times. Learning the type of skills associated with catching fish — reading maps, baiting hooks, tying knots, patience, navigating water, etc. — translate into other parts of life, largely in the form of confidence and resourcefulness. I recently had to do some repair work on the roof of my house, and I made a safety harness out of a rope and two carabineers using two fishing knots I learned: the Palomar knot to fasten the rope to each carabineer and a blood knot to join two sections of rope together. It’s amazing what a person can figure out when fishing from a kayak up current and a lure gets stuck in an overhanging bush. Tighten the drag, secure the paddle and reel upstream to the bush. Grab the branch and free the lure. This is how fishing helps develop problem-solving skills, how to think on the fly, and an overall sense of pride and manliness.
That feeling of masculinity is a powerful, rejuvenating feeling. I recently experienced this feeling in a strong way when I took my family to a local pond to swim, and there was another family on the small beach. There in the shallows was a largemouth bass trolling for small bluegill to eat. Everyone seemed quite captivated by this fish, so I decided to do something about it. I quickly retrieved my fishing rod from my truck and selected a lure based on the water clarity and the size of the fish. I caught the fish relatively quickly and pulled it ashore. I let the other people get a close look and even touch its twitching, slimy body. My skills and know-how — my oneness with nature — came together so flawlessly. On the small beachhead of Kingsbury Pond, I felt like a calm, proud, masculine man.
I hope what my son saw that day will resonate in his little mind. The skills acquired from fishing are transferable from generation to generation or from friend to friend. Fishing is a tremendous way to bond, spin the yarn and pass off life lessons and specific skills. When I was a kid, my dad or grandfather would take me fishing on the white rocky shores of Lake Travis in Austin, Texas. That was 26 years ago. My father is long gone from this life. I can’t remember what he bought me for my sixteenth birthday or what he said when I joined the Marines, but I remember the way his straw hat flapped in the wind. I can remember the personal advice a father tells his young son. The scar on my left big toe reminds me of blood on a sharp rock, my dad’s too-short cutoff jeans and the first fish I ever caught: a little sunfish. I was only four, but it’s clear as day, vivid and cherished in my mind. I will never forget it. I want to bond with my son like that. He is about two years away, and I cannot wait. I only regret that I stopped fishing with my dad later in life.
I use fishing as the ultimate calming, stress-relieving mechanism. There is something therapeutic about sitting silently in a small boat at sunset in the middle of a lake alone with my thoughts. There is nothing beyond the wall of evergreens surrounding me. The lake water glimmers with the gold and pink of the summer sky, and as dusk sets in, the clouds become black, smoky billows against a navy night. I open up my flask and take a swig of bourbon. It burns real good. Suddenly, every bullfrog starts croaking at once. This triggers the ducks, cranes and other waterfowl. Topwater bass strikes sound like percussion to this serene serenade. I see splashes across the water and out of the corner of my eye. This ruckus causes my inner peace to turn into excitement and exhilarating anticipation. It’s go time. I cast my line near a clump of lily pads. My lure sinks. Sinks. Sinks. It’s still. Boom! A violent, vibrating jerk makes me rip my rod skyward to set the hook. I reel it in, let it swim. Reel a little more, let it swim. I fight that mighty son of a gun until I see it leap out of the water in desperation, wriggling to free itself, and finally, calm. The bass is exhausted as I pull it into my boat, victorious. Clutching it by the bottom lip, I feel its grooved lip rip the top layer of skin off my thumb. It doesn’t hurt. The rough thumb is a badge of honor. The bass is calm, gills rhythmically contracting. The green gradient of its scales glimmer in the waning sunset. Another rip in its lip confirms it’s not this bass’ first rodeo. Weigh and measure it. Maybe take a photo. This bass can go free or become dinner. It’s my call, and this bass knows it. I gently lower it back into the lake, cradling it until it is strong enough. The quick escape — the splash of freedom makes me jump every time. Patience, resourcefulness, exhilaration, machismo and calmness all combine leaving me feeling absolutely pristine. My trolling motor quietly whirrs as I putter my way back to shore, back to reality. My mind is clear, and my body is calm.
To reinforce the idea that fishing is a powerful stress reliever and a great relaxation tool, a nonprofit organization called Rivers of Recovery conducted a study in 2009 chronicling the effects fishing had on 69 combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Many of the participants also suffered from brain trauma, depression and other psychological problems. During the experiment, the veterans went on a two-day fly fishing retreat. The results of the study showed that after fishing, the veterans exhibited substantial decreases in negative feelings such as guilt, hostility, sadness, and fear. The findings also showed that fishing helped increase levels of jovialness, self-assuredness, and serenity. When I compare my workday stresses to those of a combat veteran with PTSD, they seem less significant. If fishing can help alleviate the mental wounds of war, imagine what it can do for the rest of us.
When broken down to its simplest form, fishing is a line, a hook, a lure, a fish and a man. But to those who adore it, me included, it is so much more. It is a patience-maker. It is a skill-builder and a confidence-creator. It’s a wrinkle in time between father and son. It’s an escape, a magic brain cleanser of sorts. Do you want to bond with your son? Go fishing. Do you want to become more patient? Go fishing. Do you want to reduce the stress in your life? Go fishing. Do you want to reignite a spark of primal masculinity? Catch a fish. You won’t regret it.
I am reminded of a quote by the great writer and outdoorsman, Henry David Thoreau: “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”
Luckily, I am enlightened.