a kaddish for trout … and mosquitos

Our most recent kaddish meditation was for fly fisherman Syl Nemes. The original article about him was in Erin’s dad’s blog, and his first paragraph caught my attention.  In there, he mentioned at one point encouraging people to share their experiences with fly fishing.  And so — I’m going to share mine.

I know, I know — how dare I have warm fuzzy feelings about fly fishing now that I’m trying so hard to be a vegetarian?

But the fact is, I used to have a thing for fly fishing.  While backpacking, that is.  Which means that we’re talking about a specialized (greatly shortened) rod and line for backpackers. Super lightweight.  I used to weigh absolutely everything when I’d pack my pack.  I had absolute contempt for the worm-people, as I called them.  There was just something so elegant about those flies.  The idea that you needed to know what the fish were eating before you tied your fly.  If you know what you’re doing, you can tell by just looking at what’s hovering over the water and what’s making the fish jump.  But to me they all just looked like little black spots.  It’s easier after you catch the first fish — because you gut it, and take a look at what it’s been eating and then hope (if you’re no expert, like I’m no expert) that you packed the right flies in your little backpacker’s fly kit. The assumption being that if you’re like me you haven’t a clue how to tie your own flies.

Maybe the most important thing I ever learned from fly fishing was respect for mosquitos.

Before fly fishing, I had this attitude about mosquitos. Kill ’em.  Slather stuff on yourself to keep them away.  Light citronella or a campfire to keep them away.  Hide in the tent at dawn and at dusk.

But after becoming entranced with fly fishing, those two times of the day became magical for me.  The mosquitos were out. There’d be great fly fishing!

We’d be way up in the High Sierra.  Hiking out of Tuolumne Meadows up the John Muir trail, heading south. On short trips we head off trail to some lakes we knew.  We’d go for weekends. Then three day weekends. Then whole weeks. And then … it took a lot of planning, but we backpacked the John Muir trail for a month, from Tuolumne Meadows to Bishop — about 120 miles, give or take, and well, on a long trip there’s only so much freeze-dried food you can stand. The entire trail is 211 miles, and for a chunk of it we were also on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Now, true — I’ve camped (on one of my trips) 7,000 miles diagonally through Africa. And sure, it took three months to do. I’ve camped completely across the Sahara Desert (although just from north to south), and across the Ituri rainforest of the Congo (which at the time was called Zaire) and in the breathtaking mountains of Rwanda.  On other trips, I’ve camped the mountains of Morocco.  Across at least half of Europe — from sleeping in sheep grazing fields in Bulgaria to the Bois de Boulogne just outside Paris. I’ve camped in Madrid and Toledo and the entire Costa Brava heading south. Camped in the former Yugoslavia in rainstorms. Oh. And across the USA too. The game parks of East Africa —the Serengeti, Ngoro Ngoro Crater, Lake Manyara, Amboseli and the Olduvai Gorge.  Sleeping (and stupidly, cooking) right out there with hyenas, giraffes, elephants, and  —

But nothing —nothing— compares to the stark, clean beauty of the High Sierra. Or nothing I’ve seen so far. Clean, is my word for it.  This sense of pristine beauty.  Okay, yes — the Sahara has that.  But—

So.  Fly fishing.

Mosquito respect.  Mosquitos weren’t useless, potentially disease ridden, ruiners of vacations.  No!  They were the harbingers of tasty trout to come.  Brook trout. Brown trout. Rainbows. Depending on where we were.

I remember being shocked the first time my trout were as red inside as salmon — and equally as yummy.  I don’t remember what they were eating that made them so, but there it was again — know what they’re eating so that you know what you’re eating. And you know which fly to use.  Not once did I ever catch a fish using a hook and a worm.  I think the worms were so freaked out that the trout just kept away.  The flies just didn’t have that problem.

The tastiest trout I remember on that month-long backpacking trip was when we hadn’t seen a human soul in about a week or two. We’d had nothing but freeze-dried everything for over a week. And here was this exquisite little lake.  I caught six browns and we had three for dinner, using the freeze-dried cornbread mix as batter. It was the most delicious thing I’d ever had in my life.  Or felt that way then, at least.  The other three we put in our cooking pot, tied the lid and put a leash on it, and left it in the river overnight to keep icy cold — and keep the bears away.  Tying freshly caught trout up on our bear-proof line between two trees didn’t seem like a very good idea. Breakfast was as yummy as the night before.

I’ve never done catch-and-release.  Don’t think I could.  If I’m catching — I’m eating.

When I think of fly fishing, I think of being what feels like a million miles away from villages, cities and most of humanity.  No anarchy and drums of insurrection. No starvation. No disease. No inequality. No corruption. When I think of fly fishing I think of those high elevation icy lakes along the John Muir trail. And pitching my little tent in exactly the right spot. And not saying a word for days at a time. And setting one foot in front of the other in the chill of the morning before it’s just too hot to walk. And saying thank you to the mountains.

And thank you to trout.

And thank you to mosquitos.

And thank you for the joy of being able to skip my flies across the surface of the water more convincingly than worms in a fishing hole, just hanging out.

And thank you, Erin and Paul, for transporting me to a lovely memory of all too many years ago. The beautiful High Sierra. Fly fishing.  And—

And why (for me) being a vegetarian is such a hard hard struggle.

Did I mention how hard it is?

About mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.
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4 Responses to a kaddish for trout … and mosquitos

  1. mira says:

    On second thought — of course there’s inequality in fly fishing … oh, and murder too. These days I’ve been trying really hard just to murder things like feta cheese, almonds, and of course those pesky eggplants that do so well on a meatless grill.

    For more on this, see today’s NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/magazine/bittman-throws-another-melon-on-the-barbie.html?_r=1&ref=global-home

  2. erin says:

    And what is catch-and-release but willful maiming for entertainment?

    …asks the carnivore, who commits her murder indirectly through a network of middlemen ending at her local grocery stores.

  3. pfvang says:

    FWIW, when trout fishing I normally release my fish. Not that eating fish is wrong. when I’m eating fish I’d just as soon be eating a pike rather than a trout. Erin will verify, however, that when I have an order for fresh fish I can turn predator in a hurry.

    On the other hand, I prefer to release trout so they can live to give another angler a thrill on another day, or fulfill their biological goal of spawning in the next season. One of the heroes of flyfishing was Lee Wulff, who famously wrote, “A game fish is too valuable to be caught only once.”

    This is a big change in angling ethics from not too many years ago when the accepted practice was to show off your stringers full of dead fish, a legal limit of fish whenever possible. The unfortunate part of that, however, was people would get tired of eating fish but would still come home with fish and either peddle them around to the neighbors or they’d end up buried in the garden or city landfill. Studies have shown that fish that have been handled with some care will normally survive and live happily ever after, or until they take another fly or lure and get mortally hurt or taken home for a fish dinner.

    I do feel that if a fish is injured in the process of being caught and isn’t going to make it, the ethical thing to do is to keep the fish and take it home for dinner, assuming, of course, that the fish is legal to keep.

  4. PokerShrink says:

    yet another facet of my gem of a friend

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