What's so good about fishing?

by Paul Thomas / 12 March, 2018

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Whether you’re into it for the catch or the thrill of the chase, fishing is never short of a good yarn.

Fishing is more recreation than sport, although the line between the two is increasingly blurred. (I’m looking at you, members of the International Olympic Committee.)

Fishing is also different things to different people: beyond the shared objective of rudely extracting a marine creature from its natural habitat, there’s a gulf between dangling a line off a jetty and game fishing out in the deep blue. But then, for some people who dangle a line off a jetty or over the side, catching fish is incidental, perhaps even a bit of a nuisance. The real object of the exercise is to chill out – relax in agreeable surroundings, recharge the batteries, nourish the soul.

Fishers are the angling equivalent of golfers who regard the vexatious and convoluted business of propelling a little white ball from tee to green and into the hole as detracting from an otherwise soothing ramble. There may be more of this sort of golfer than you’d think: John Feinstein’s A Good Walk Spoiled (1995), perhaps the best-known book about golf, as opposed to instructional manual, spent 36 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list, six of them in top spot.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe “fishing” means – or should mean – catching fish. They’re happy to spend hours with a rod in their hands if they’re reeling in fish at regular intervals; if not, there are plenty of other things they’d rather be doing.

My father succumbed to the fishing bug when I was a teenager. Father-teenage son joint activities can be problematic, if not fraught, at the best of times, let alone when there’s a significant enthusiasm gap, as there was in our case. My father was imbued with the zeal of the convert, and he could happily spend a fruitless afternoon surfcasting on a wind- and rain-lashed beach. He wasn’t even particularly bothered that the only other – invariably elderly – fisherfolk braving the elements were actually pulling in the odd catch.

When we were on holiday, I was often press-ganged into going with him, which I felt was entirely unreasonable: why should his solitary pleasure require my presence?

But when he acquired an entry-level boat, he came around, with new zeal, to the view that fishing meant catching fish. It wasn’t enough to sit in the boat dangling a line over the side: to maximise our fish-harvesting potential, we’d have more lines in the water than we could possibly handle in the event of the best-case scenario coming to pass. Thus, one afternoon off Cornwallis, on the Manukau Harbour, we were both running two rods as well as having a couple of handlines on the go.

When he got simultaneous bites, he told me to take charge of his other rod. But as I made my unsteady way from my end of the boat to his, one of my rods began to twitch. Caught betwixt and between, I dithered. And as I dithered, his untended rod disappeared over the bow.

A full and frank exchange ensued. He suggested that I could have reacted with more gumption and greater urgency, and I claimed to have predicted that exact outcome. Being an optimist and in no mood to heed my suggestion that the lost rod was probably halfway to Tasmania, he decided to trawl for it. After a couple of minutes he hooked a line. He pulled in the line and there was the rod. He reeled in and there was a decent snapper. My father never tired of telling this story and, with each retelling, I became more of a self-imposed handicap. It was undoubtedly the high point of our fishing relationship.

These days, I fish from a 12m launch belonging to an old – we met on our first day at secondary school – and dear friend. I’ve shifted 180 degrees on what fishing is or should be: catching fish is incidental, although it does mean we eat very well. The real pleasure is in the company and the surroundings, the magical water world of the Hauraki Gulf and beyond. We are a lucky people.

Postscript: the day I returned from an idyllic week on my friend’s boat, the NZ Herald website featured the damning conclusions of a report produced by the Hauraki Gulf Forum. Among other things, the report stated that snapper, trevally and shark numbers have declined by more than 80% from their “historic levels”. I don’t dispute the findings and I know Great Mercury Island isn’t in the gulf. But it’s in the vicinity, so I read the story with raised eyebrows: two days earlier, while towelling off after a dip in, appropriately, Whaler Cove, I observed that the particular patch of water in which I’d just blithely wallowed was now occupied by a 2m bronze whaler.

This article was first published in the March 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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