UNLUCKY fishermen are all alike: We don’t know how to see. My friend Jud has outfished me in all but one or two of the hundred times we’ve gone to the ocean and bay beaches and kettle ponds on Cape Cod. By both study and exercise, he knows the culture of striped bass better than I know my own nose. But to call him “lucky” would begrudge him a talent that I have never seen in anyone else and that lives underneath skill or knowledge.
One July night, on a falling tide that sifted through the granite jetty in the west end of Provincetown, we fished the same 10-foot sluice, with the same tackle and the same flies (he ties them for me), and I watched in outrage as he caught 20 stripers to my two.
Another night, on Long Point, the finger of sand that curls into Provincetown harbor at the far end of Cape Cod, the stripers were chasing alewife, peanut bunker and other baitfish through the current that rips the point on a rising tide. I caught the first fish of the night, a 32-inch bass, enormous for me and for the lightweight rods we were using.
It took 20 minutes to land. Jud yelped in amusement and then caught eight more just like it, while I stood cursing and changing flies by the light of the town, two miles across the dark harbor. What he can do and I can’t is face a piece of water and so absorb himself in the place that he seems to share the consciousness of the fish in it.
If you have seen a school of 10,000 sand eels swerving as one animal under a wharf, you have seen that individuals can integrate their senses into a collective mind. Without the benefit of language, they share all the most important news: where to find food, light, threat, rocks. Human beings usually experience this common mind only under thestress of love or panic.
My friend pulls his hat brim down to deflect the sun, as everybody does, and makes the double-haul cast — a move in which the non-dominant hand jerks down and up on the line, both on the forward and back casts. Think of a man doing the polka with his arms. It isn’t as hard as it sounds; it just helps him reach the fish, not find them.
For all I know, he may, more often than not, see only a confluence of light and current, and point his desire at that spot, so that he believes he sees the fish before his eyes detect the animal itself. But I can’t deny that wherever he puts the lure, the fish find it.
We’ve evolved a neocortex that presents us with an awareness of past and future at the cost of forgetting where we are right now. Jud seems to switch that faculty off in favor of an older, lower brain. Like a sand eel in the school, he sees with 10,000 pairs of eyes. Many times when he was catching fish and I wasn’t, I’ve asked, “How do you know where the fish are?” And he’s said, “I see them.”
I may have glimpsed for myself what he sees, but only once. On an early summer afternoon we were fishing for brook and rainbow trout in the mid-Cape, at Cliff Pond. In reality, except after heavy rains, it’s two ponds split by a narrow sand bar.
More than 300 of these kettle ponds perforate the Cape.
They formed around 10,000 years ago. As the Laurentide ice sheet retreated into Canada, it left behind chunks of ice as thick as 60 feet that the force of the glacier had plowed into the earth. The sediment outflow from the melting Laurentide sheet covered the blocks of ice, so they lay hidden and insulated for 1,000 years or more beneath the soil.
As the climate warmed further, the blocks melted, the sediment crusts collapsed, and the deep holes that the blocks had formed began to fill with ground water and rain. In general, streams neither feed nor drain the ponds, and in the absence of wind they lie as still as mirrors.
Oak and pine trees ring Cliff Pond so tightly that if a wading fisherman tries to cast much farther than 10 feet, he snags his fly in the heavy brush during the back cast.
I was having a miserable afternoon, yanking one errant fly after another from the pine boughs. Jud came around the corner, having caught half a dozen brook trout and let them go. He saw my irritation and suggested another spot.
We climbed around an oak grove and onto the sand bar that divides the water. Not much high vegetation grows on the bar, so if you face east you can back cast as far as you like without snagging a tree, and fish the smaller pond with ease. The sun was going down in the drizzle. A screeching racket erupted, from the nearby marsh it seemed, but also from everywhere at once.
“What are those?” I asked.
He said, “peepers,” a frog smaller than your thumbnail that can scream as loud as an air raid siren. They lived all over the marsh, he said; but wherever I looked, I couldn’t find them.
We knew the fish were roaming the inlet we faced; he’d seen them there, but he left me alone and fished from the other side of the marsh.
I cast long and short, played the surface with a caddis fly, switched to a nymph to fish the bottom, strategized to no end, but nothing doing. The sun behind me threw my long shadow on the water and shot through a billion droplets hovering over the pond. I kept on wading deeper, thinking harder, catching nothing.
Anyone who fishes is an animist, and anyone who is frustrated while fishing becomes an egoist. So when a rainbow appeared over the far woods, I believed the cornball god of the place was having a laugh at my expense. But who can look away from a rainbow?
I stopped awhile and took it in, backing out of the weeds into shallower water, shaking my sore arm. The bright arc rose from one flank of the distant forest and fell into another. Above the uppermost red band, a secondary arc emerged — thicker, the colors reversed, with red on the underside, purple on top — and disappeared. The low clouds rumbled.
And all at once, with no invitation, the place penetrated me. My mind coextended with the woods and the pond. All my senses sent their data not to the front office of the brain for analysis and criticism, but to a room far below, to the body’s mind. The squishy silt beneath my feet smelled of leaf rot, the wind of ozone. The hidden throng of peepers rang from all quarters. The cold sun struck me in the back of the neck.
My fly line lay coiled in the black water. I threw it behind me, threw it forward, letting a few yards out, then cast backward again.
I had no awareness of future or past. I had forgotten everything I knew. My pores were soaked with the place.
The fly shot out, settled on the pond, and sank beneath the stippled surface. Nothing emanated from me but one thing, a passion that rose from the bottom of my lungs and out my throat into the whistling air: it was the bottomless desire, in the bottomless present, to catch a fish. I stripped the line once between the fingers of my right hand.
The line jerked and went taut. And I yanked up on the rod. And the line dived. I stripped again and drew up the rod. The pond cracked.
And a trout pitched itself out of the water and screwed through the yellow air.
By SALVATORE SCIBONA;Provincetown, Mass. June 28, 2009
Salvatore Scibona is the author of “The End.”