One summer, I tried fishing on Lac Catherine, a small lake in Quebec near the village of Entrelacs. Around this privately owned body of water is a deep band of forest and only three habitable structures, including the two-room cabin that my husband and I rent for a month each summer and the capacious log home of the owners, our friends Anne and Arne. They live there year-round and use some of the 121 hectares of forest to make maple syrup in the spring. Come summer, local fishermen sometimes pay them a fee to drop their lines in Lac Catherine. Usually, they leave a few hours later with one or two or three small trout. This alerted me to the fact that, technically, evidently, there were fish in the lake—fish that other people caught. So I was happy when a friend of our son, an experienced angler, showed up at our cabin one day. I would learn his secrets, I schemed, and catch a fish at last.
Listen to an audio version of this story
Roberto was in his early thirties, a lifelong fisherman from Brazil, where, he tells me, they sometimes fish with worms called minhocuçu that are three feet long. Now we’re talking! He arrived at our cabin with his partner, Madeleine, their three-month-old baby, Celeste, and a large, heavy tackle box that appeared to come a very close second to the baby in its significance for Roberto. First, he presented the baby to us, coaxing laughter out of her by flubbing his mouth against her belly. Then he brought his tackle box into the cabin and placed it reverently in the centre of the room. When he opened it, a three-tiered bleacher expanded into jewellery-box compartments packed with lead sinkers, bright feathery lures, and hooks that ranged in size from a comma on a page to a pirate’s prosthetic metal hand. “Those are for carp,” Roberto said, “which can get very big in Brazil.”
The sky was doing its usual Entrelacs fandango, scowling grey and then suddenly becoming sunny and fine. Roberto and our son, Casey, paddled the canoe into a stiff headwind to the far shore of our lake. The weather had been dynamic for days, with great piles of creamy cumulus clouds chased by angry dark thunderclouds. It rained often, and the rains came suddenly, tropically, as if a trap door had opened in the sky. Then the sun would reappear and shine down with single-minded intensity. Wild, preapocalypse weather. The boys were out on the lake, having only made a few casts, when another storm hit. The surface of the lake was instantly cratered with rainfall. They made a beeline for the dock and came back into the cabin drenched, then stripped down. Roberto held Celeste for a moment, until the rain stopped abruptly and the boys hurried back out on the lake.
“It’s good to see Roberto happy,” Madeleine said as we watched them paddle off. “It’s stressful, the baby. He loves fishing. This is good.”
Later that day, when the weather calmed down, I went out with Roberto in the canoe. He talked about growing up in Brazil and fishing with his father for dorado and peacock bass, called tucunaré in Portuguese.
“One of the things I like about fishing is how you don’t see the fish right away when you catch it.” Roberto said. “You never know what you have on the line.” As usual, everything one can say about fishing seems to be true about writing, too, among other things in life. For instance, it’s a mug’s game. You put your line in the water, your pen to paper, but there’s no guarantee anything will take the hook. The ratio of failure to success is staggering. And yet, people persist.
Roberto and I discussed bait. Or rather, I asked the question, “Why worms?” Worms are universal, he said, used around the world. “Fish that are carnivorous taste better than other fish,” Roberto explained. “Trout and salmon.”
The rain fell again, and the temperature dropped. The wind was whipping up a latte froth on the lake. When I cast, the wind rippled the line before it could drop into the water.
“You can’t be thinking about other things when you fish,” said Roberto. “But, at the same time, it’s relaxing. You have to be ready to catch the fish, but really, you might not. Once, I went fishing for salmon, and for two days we caught nothing. I think the average for these fishing trips is one fish per five days. So it is normal, not to catch a fish,” he emphasized. In other words, “Fishing is really closer to not fishing,” I ventured hopefully.
“It’s another world down there,” in the fish world, Roberto said. I agreed: you have to dream your way into it. Fishing is an imaginative act, a case of wishin’ and hopin’, as the song goes. You sit quietly on the surface of the water, imagining where the fish might be, visualizing their slim grey shapes below. Then, when a fish does jump, it’s an image that arrives complete, like a line in a poem. And the sensation of a fish on the line is like no other feeling—an ecstatic quickening, as of life suddenly kicking in the womb.
This is a sensation I have not yet experienced on Lac Catherine. Maybe the problem, I thought, was my rod, a generic, borrowed one. The next day, I went into town and bought a new one for $28 at Rona. I’m always shy in the local Rona because I don’t speak French, but Howard, my brother-in-law, had arrived with his daughter to visit for a few days, and he spoke serviceable French. He talked to the woman behind the counter about the best hooks, lures, etc. for our lake. She recommended a large elliptical silvery spoon. It looked makeshift and ridiculous to me, like a cheap bottle opener. But when I went to pay, a fisherman in the lineup reassured me that this silver spinning spoon is best for trout in a deep spring-fed lake like ours. This gave me hope.
Try trolling, the fisherman said. Let out lots of line.
The fishing rod had a cork handle, which I like, but the reel is a mechanism that stirs a slight anxiety in me, the kind I feel when I don’t know what’s going on under the hood. Like with the f-stops on an analog camera. I click the metal guard on the reel over, then hold the line taut with my index finger. This reminds me of running a sewing machine, of how you have to keep the correct tension on the thread and play the material under the needle at just the right pace. Sewing machines will run away on you in the same way a nylon fishing line can.
My Rona purchase reminded me of my first fishing rod, which my father bought for me when I was no more than four or five years old. I had asked my parents for a fishing rod, mysteriously, and one night, while shopping in Hamilton, we ended up in a menswear store, which featured, also mysteriously, a wishing well. My father gave me a penny, and I threw it into the well while ardently praying for a fishing rod of my own. Where did this desire spring from? Probably from a comic book, my main cultural resource at the time. Probably, Donald Duck had gone fishing, caught nothing, and had a hat-stomping tantrum. In any case, soon after the wishing-well moment, perhaps on my birthday, my father gave me a simple bamboo rod.
We lived a half a block from the shores of Lake Ontario at the time. I remember walking with him down the highway to a gap between the houses, a shady wild ravine, where we could drop our lines into the water. It is one of my earliest memories of precious time alone with my father. I can’t remember if we caught anything, and that wasn’t the point. As the Taoists might say, we were fishing with a straight hook.
Another wildly changeable day on Lac Catherine. I go out in the canoe with Howard’s daughter, Karen, a nineteen-year-old Norwegian who used to fish with her grandparents at home. She has that elegant lilt in her English that makes her sound like Ingrid Bergman, whom she slightly resembles with her broad-cheeked beauty. Karen is a rower, too, and paddles strongly and confidently in the bow of the canoe—completely at home on the water. I cast, swinging far back with my arm so the arc of the fishing line will avoid her; the spoon lands clumsily on the water, then sinks. I point the rod towards the surface and slowly reel in the line. The spoon lurches and tugs like a tiny fish as it spins through the water. I keep thinking I have caught something. Then the lure flashes to the surface, and disappointed, I cast again, in a different direction.
We drift opposite the cliffs, where the water is very deep. If I were a fish, I would hang out here. Every time I cast, I feel a youthful spurt of optimism, the kind you feel with the first sip of coffee in the morning. It’s a slightly sexy feeling, I realize—the sense of anticipation. Once the hook is in the water, you can’t help thinking that you might, in fact, catch a fish. Fishing puts hope in motion.
In the rest of life, we strive in the direction of many things at once: to be better people, to capture someone’s love, to succeed at a project. The striving is generalized and subliminally anxious. But, in a boat on the surface of a calm lake, all one’s striving channels like lightning down the length of the slim rod, down the nylon line and into the hook. The goal is simple: to catch a fish. And, for an hour or two, this patiently aggressive act releases you from the need to strive in any other way. One can simply sit, dream, and wait, with hands alert to any tug of life on the line, for luck to bite.
My husband doesn’t fish himself, but he communes deeply with the lake. He all but sleeps with the fishes. He undertakes hour-long meditative swims around the point to the end of the lake, which is out of everyone’s sight. As a student of the water and its inhabitants, Brian is at the postdoctoral level. The spring-fed lake is always cold, but that summer, he swam in the lake every day, wind or rain, grey or sun. A filmmaker as well as a writer, he swam a few times in a wet suit, with a tiny GoPro camera on his head, for some fish-POV footage. He swam with snorkel and mask, floating over the ruins of fallen birch trees and abandoned beaver lodges. He swam through schools of flashing minnows and filmed them.
After sitting watchfully on the dock for a month, he had naturally developed certain theories about where and how I might find the fish. He pointed out that the fish regularly jumped, tauntingly, just where the bay opens out into the body of the lake.
“And the canoe is better than the rowboat for fishing,” he opined to me one afternoon as we sat on the dock. “The rowboat is too noisy. And you need to cast far from the canoe, so the fish don’t see you coming.” Ideally, we agreed, I should go out at dusk, when the lake was calm, and if a thunderstorm were lurking in the wings, so much the better. We began to accumulate more and more of these elaborate theories, despite having not caught a single fish.
“What’s the biggest fish you’ve caught, Roberto?” We were giving it another try, on windier water this time.
“It was a kind of catfish, when we were fishing near the border of Paraguay and Brazil. It was eighty-five centimetres and weighed thirty-two and a half kilograms. Catfish are generally carnivorous, so it was good to eat too. But the most fun I ever had catching a fish was a dorado—they jump when they bite, and they’re so big you can’t see all of them.”
Something nibbled at Roberto’s line, then flirted away. He was sanguine.
“You seem to always catch fish when you fish,” I said. “What’s your secret?”
“I think if you put the worm where the fish wants to eat, and you’re lucky, you will catch a fish.”
We paddled into the wind down near the turn into the bay and let the canoe drift back as we cast. There was no sense at all of fish being there. It wasn’t hopeful fishing—it was desultory fishing. It was like going to an interview for a job you don’t really want. The spoon’s twirl on the line against the fast drift of the canoe meant that the line always felt engaged, weighed down, a little promising. But up would come the flash of silver—not fish silver but metallic silver—followed by the sad bunched chignon of the worm on the hook.
Roberto and I talked about fly fishing. “It’s the challenge of catching something that doesn’t want the bait,” he said. “Fly fishermen get so crazy about using red line or blue line, all the small details of the lures. They get obsessive. But I like to fly fish, because it is more active, you’re right in the water. It’s just the line, the rod, the water, and you.”
I was having increasing trouble with the worms, something I told myself I should get over. Sometimes, I resorted to thinly sliced ribbons of prosciutto, wrapped wormlike around the hook for bait. It has a certain wiggle factor, and the odour might do the trick, I thought. It also meant I didn’t have to impale a worm while trying to ignore its wretched writhing. I kept telling myself that robins kill worms all the time, stabbing them with their beaks and then swallowing their maimed bits. But the muscular mambo of the worm when the hook first enters it is a lesson in the clear existence of suffering, even in creatures without winsome eyes or fluffy tails.
I kept them in the fridge, in a Styrofoam container, and every time I took the lid off, the worms seemed fatter, longer, and thicker—almost mammalian. They slumbered in their Styrofoam container and sometimes on the floor of the canoe, if I thought to take them with me. Once you liberated them from their refrigerator cell, they seemed dull and without reflex. But, when you pierced one with a hook, it awoke, writhed, protested, all but screamed aloud, “I am a worm, but I feel things too!”
I knew that, in order to fish, I had to face the worm part—a rehearsal, after all, of the death of the fish, if we intended to eat it, which we did. But there was nothing I could tell myself (“It’s like killing a long thick mosquito”) that made me feel any better about it. Most of us thoughtlessly kill small things all the time in the wild, of course—ants, black flies, no-see-ums, sometimes spiders, if we’re callous. But worms are a rung up that ladder.
Eventually, I could not escape imagining a worm’s point of view:
“Thursday, August l. Tenth day, by my count, in this dark, loamy place crowded up against Luther and Samantha, who tend to take all the dirt for themselves at night. They keep us in the Cool Place, but sometimes a blinding light comes on, followed by shuffling and the smell of humans, then the light goes off, and suddenly, it’s dark again. The dish of olives is to our left. Capers to the right. It’s the unpredictability of the situation that really gets to me. Robins are nothing compared to this! Robins are fairly bright but heavy footed, and you can hear them coming from a mile away.
“Saturday, August 3. A strange day. We were taken out of the Cool Place and felt ourselves on the move, jostling. Luther began to hyperwrithe. Then bright light, fingers roughly fumbling among us, and Luther was taken, stretching out to us as he left. Samantha is inconsolable. We thought he might be spared, because he is very, well, bulbous, and rumour has it they prefer us slim. But Luther never came back. Hiding in our dirt, we could feel the heat of the sun above us, and it became airless and claustrophobic for hours. Then more jostling, the bright light, and the slamming as we were returned to the Cool Place. And darkness again.
“Sunday, August 4. I must write in haste and from a most precarious spot—I have been harpooned, lanced in three places. I found myself flying through the air only to sink into the sunless depths of cool water, where I am now typing this on my hand-held. A large round-eyed fish came close to me, and I froze in terror, shrinking to half my size. But he passed me by—I’m not sure why. What am I, chopped liver?
“I worry about Samantha—if you find this, please check on her. She’s in the door of the Cool Place, beside the capers. She’s too slim, they never choose her first—thank god.
“I must stop now, there are more fish moving in. I am dancing for them—why not? Thank you and goodbye.”
Eventually, I stopped using worms as bait. I continued to catch nothing but felt better.
On the south side of the lake are high cliffs, daubed with lichen and yellow streaks of sulphur. Every year, the rock face is more obscured by new cedars and birches clinging to narrow threads of soil. My husband claims the place has the weather patterns and mysterious energies of a former volcanic mountain, a place in the earth where geological forces are still alive, grinding and clashing. And it’s true that the lake is not a peaceful one. The wind funnels from the body of the lake into the narrowing bay; often, reading on the dock is more like standing at the prow of an ocean liner in a steady breeze. Brian finds this moody weather exhilarating, but sometimes I creep around the back of the cabin to escape the elements and set up a lounge chair in the long grass. I bat away the hovering black flies as I enjoy the suburban calm of the “lawn.” Brian’s spot on the dock is a wooden Adirondack chair—his captain’s chair at the wheel of the lake. I’m more often stationed up in the cabin casino, feeding coins into my laptop. Land fishing for click bait.
I love having wireless at the lake. The proportion of media to nature is correct here: nature is huge, dominant, inescapable. Almost a bully. The internet is a little brown mouse, easily managed, no harm to anyone, really. In the city, the wired world becomes an environment as enveloping as nature is in the wild. One feels surrounded by chat in the city. But when you’re sitting in a canoe in the middle of a lake, the silence of a calm day allows the senses to dilate and bloom. The defences you require to navigate life in the city fall away.
Casting a line also casts a spell on the lake—a mood of suspense or anticipation. These still moments feel sentient and alert, as if the lake and everything in it share a consciousness.
This is where fishing superstitions—fishful thinking—enter: the belief that if you tune in to the fish, they will find you. The belief that you have to fish with your thoughts and imagination, not just the rod and hook. The importance of courting luck in life.
The fact is that the capture of a fish might be nothing more than three minutes out of three or four hours spent on a body of water. As brief as brief but memorable sex. So fishing is mostly a matter of not fishing. At that, I excelled.
It was our last day on Lac Catherine, just the two of us. Everyone else had left. The summer’s zenith had passed, and small red leaves had begun to turn up on the path down to the lake. The prosciutto on my hook still wasn’t working. I had been patient with the lake and its rumoured fish, but we left for home having caught nothing. Packing up, cleaning out the fridge, I pondered the Styrofoam container of worms. Toss them, I ordered myself. Then I stowed them in the cooler for the trip to Toronto. The worms on death row received a reprieve in our urban garden, where only the robins fish for them now.