Learning the hard way

Posted: Friday, June 26, 2009

Editor's note: Les is busy fishing, but he sent us this column, which first appeared in the Clarion on Oct. 21, 2005.

One person might fish for years before finally catching a king salmon. Another might catch a king the first time out. Which would you rather be?

I learned to fish the hard way. My first fishing outfit, bought with money earned by mowing lawns when I was 12, was a cane pole with guides fastened on with fabric-type electrician's tape. My first reel, an Ocean City baitcasting model, was purchased with the $5 prize I won by decorating my bicycle and riding it in a Fourth of July parade. The reel, too, was attached with electrician's tape.

No one showed me how to cast or tie proper knots. No one demonstrated how to cure bait, or how to fight a fish properly. Nearly everything I learned came from the "School of Hard Knocks."

Nobody in my family was very interested in fishing, so if I wanted to go, I usually went alone. The fishing urge invariably overcame whatever trepidations I may have had about being alone in unfamiliar, sometimes hazardous, places. In time, I found that I not only enjoyed fishing alone, but I liked being in those places alone, without distractions.

Doing it "my way" seemed to suit my nature. I did it often enough that it likely encouraged a maverick streak that persists to this day.

In retrospect, with more than half a century of fishing behind me, I wouldn't have wanted to learn any other way. Most of the pleasure I've found in fishing has been in the planning, anticipating and discovering, three elements without which fishing would be dull, indeed.

While learning to fish, I was also learning about life. Fishing helped teach me the value of patience, persistence and a good presentation, all of which came in handy when I started seeking employment and chasing girls.

Back to the king salmon question ... I didn't even fish for kings until I was in my late 30s, and it took two or three years of trying before I had any confidence that I could bring one home. Yet, I eagerly looked forward to every outing with high expectations. I feel very fortunate not to have caught a king on my first try.

I don't envy anyone to whom fishing comes too easily. On fishing charters, I've seen adults who had never fished before hook and land king salmon that Bob Penney would envy. I've watched while guides did all the actual fishing, even to the point of powering the boat forward to set the hook. I've seen these deprived "anglers" crank in king salmon with all the enthusiasm of a teenager taking out the garbage, after which the guide tells them, "Good job!"

In Alaska on vacation, fishing is just one of the holes such visitors punch in their Alaska card, like the requisite ride on "Titan" while visiting Six Flags Over Texas. Unless they have an exceptional host or guide, they gain no sense of the mystique of the fish or its environment.

We humans seem to be hard-wired to constantly make things easier. And if modern equipment and how-to books on every arcane aspect of fishing aren't enough, we hire guides to serve as our proxy fishermen, doing everything for us but reeling in the fish.

There's little pleasure or sense of accomplishment in things that come too easily. That's why my grandson, Doug Palmer, enjoyed his second trip to Alaska far more than his first. On his first visit, he fished long and hard, but never caught a fish. He did, however, catch the fever. Two years later, he returned -- on his own dime, that time -- and caught fish of several kinds, including a few Kenai River kings.

Doug had no way of knowing it, but that first trip was time well served in the School of Hard Knocks.

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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