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Fishing, Fathers, and Sons

We’re all mythical creatures created from stories that blend fact and fiction, myth and reality, into a magical whole, and no tale does this the better than the fish story.

According to the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), “One of every 7 people fished in 2006, making it more popular than jogging or golf,” and despite the trend that “Twenty-five percent of anglers are women,” angling remains a male-dominated sport. But why?

Although possible answers abound, none adequately explain the ubiquity of men’s metaphysical connection to fishing. More specifically, the camaraderie between fathers and sons while fishing, as popular today than ever before, are rarely explored. However, those bonds should be examined because they provide important insights into our traditions, values, and customs.

For fathers and sons, fishing offers many opportunities: to share experiences and pass traditions; to explore boats, tools, and other practical gadgets; to laugh and experience outdoor excitement; to exercise important personality traits such as patience, respect, and hope; or to teach and learn the natural world through biology, geology, ichthyology, geometry, ornithology, and meteorology. Additionally, for grandfathers, fathers, and their adult sons, fishing offers a chance to slow down, reflect, and appreciate the passage of Time; a moment to share expertise, success stories, and lessons learned; a platform to narrate dramatic tales of adventure and heroism; and an opportunity to communicate in unfettered waters, away from the cell phones, e-mails, computers, bills, junk mail, and other demands that mark the business of everyday life.

Is fishing an anthropological extension of our hunting and gathering past? Are men’s biochemicals predisposed toward the adrenaline-filled excursions that fishing offers? Does fishing fulfill primordial social needs that men fail to experience in the mundane drone of their daily lives? Since more women are joining the fishing camp, I doubt these questions will produce bountiful answers. But they’re a start. And certainly, generations of men sharing a common ancestry maintain the traditions alive in indigenous fishing villages throughout the globe; anything to the contrary would violate cultural mores.

But what about those father-and-son fishing excursions shared by citizens of industrialized nations, such as the people in modern America’s cities, suburbs, and countryside? Some argue that such intimate, subjective, and emotional experiences between fathers and sons are better left unexplained: analyzing them in detail tarnishes them. However, answers emerge more clearly after one examines the mythos of fishing in American popular culture. Tales and depictions of father-son fishing odysseys in television, film, and literature have flooded American consciousness for decades. Perhaps one of the most provocative reasons why fathers and sons celebrate the fishing experience so deeply is because American popular culture tells them they should.

Many have been enchanted by the nostalgic introduction to the Andy Griffith Show, where Andy and little Ron Howard walk along a trail with fishing poles in hand, on their way to making angling memories. Legendary sports journalist Curt Gowdy, who died in 2006, was an avid fisherman and hosted ABC’s The American Sportsman; in Curt’s latter years, Curt Jr. hosted that popular show, and watching the exchanges between father and son, and just knowing Curt Jr. was there to assume the reigns his father managed so astutely, was heartwarming.

And who can forget those popular Old Milwaukee beer commercials with men fishing and proclaiming, “It doesn’t get any better than this”? One can only imagine what those characters would have told their sons if they returned home. We’ve seen Tony Soprano and his son A.J. fishing along the New Jersey shore on their yacht, the Stugotz. And we’ve seen photographs of President Bush and his father fishing for striped bass along Maine’s coast. One need only remember a recent Father’s Day and the fishing-related paraphernalia available as gifts to understand how pervasive this phenomenon is.

Classic Old Milwaukee commercial -- YouTube

At the heart of these valuable experiences is the way fishing allows relationships among male relatives to develop. Fathers can watch sons mature by learning to cast a fly rod and catching a large trout, and sons can watch fathers age gracefully while catching trout 30 years later. The constancy of the fishing act endures while the actors performing those acts change physically, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually. No film captures this odyssey better than Robert Redford’s classic A River Runs Through It . Narrated by Redford depicting author Norman McLean, whose book the film is based on, River opens and concludes with Norman’s elderly hands tying a fly along the Big Blackfoot River in Montana, and in between is the enchanting tale of two brothers, a father, and the role fly fishing played in helping each understand the other.

From the start, Norman tells us, it was difficult in his household to tell the difference between religion and fly fishing. Since his father was a minister, the two vocations walked hand-in-hand, holding reverent and sacred places within the McLean home, and Norman and his brother Paul were taught both through their father’s fundamentalist eyes. In this sense, fishing defines the brothers’ relationship not only to each other, but also to their fathers, one their biological father, the other their spiritual father.

Throughout the film, fly-fishing marks the passage of time unlike any other activity, including religious worship. As boys, the brothers learned from their father how to cast on their front lawn; as adolescents, they fished and roamed the Montana prairies and valleys after their father’s home-schooled lessons; and as teenagers, they rushed to the river after work. They conquered Montana’s rivers through fly-fishing, and in one memorable scene, by whitewater rafting, alone, down a treacherous section of a local river. After their first fistfight as young men, they fished to resolve their differences. Norman first recognized his little brother’s growth when he witnesses Paul’s remarkable casting abilities: “Paul broke free of father’s instruction into a rhythm all his own,” and thus, the catalyst for his own liberation had begun.

Norman’s seven-year hiatus at Dartmouth complicated these relationships, and nowhere is that more evident than on the river, when he appears rusty casting his fly line and finding and landing fish. His disdain for his girlfriend Jesse’s brother, Neil, is obvious because Neil is a “peckerwood” who has no respect for angling’s art; he disgraces the sport by arriving late for a fishing trip with a prostitute. When Paul and Norman celebrate his declaration of love for Jesse, they visit a gambling hall, which symbolizes Paul’s dark side, and Norman is disappointed and leaves. The dissonance is calmed when Paul demands that they go fishing the next day with their father. During each of these scenes, fishing defines relationships between men, and during this final fishing trip, the relationships among the two sons and their father blend together into a montage as beautiful as Montana’s panoramic mountains.

While fishing, Norman immediately starts hooking them, and soon thereafter, Paul asks, reluctantly, what they’re biting. This is Paul’s hard-boiled way of finally reaching out to Norman, on the river, and acknowledging his expertise as a fly-fisherman. When Paul hooks, fights downstream, and finally lands an impressive rainbow trout, Norman says, “My brother stood before us, not on a bank on the Big Blackfoot River, but suspended, above the Earth, free from all its laws, like a work of art.” On this magical day, Norman has not only announced to his family his intentions to accept a professorship teaching literature at the University of Chicago and plans to marry Jesse, but also, has announced to himself an understanding of Paul that had eluded him for decades. As a literature professor and humanities scholar, Norman has come of age: studying his mysterious brother for decades, he has finally gained insight into Paul’s complex character.

Norman knows, however, that “life is not a work of art” and that “the moment could not last”. After he learns of Paul’s tragic death, he realizes during one of his father’s final sermons that “We can love completely without complete understanding.” Fishing, too, represented this fundamental truth. Paul’s rebellious personality, symbolized by his eccentric “shadowcasting” technique, produced tension and respect. Norman described that technique as follows: “My brother had become an artist, keeping his line above water long enough and low enough to make a rainbow rise”. Paul was an artist, but only because he broke many rules. His gambling addiction and alcoholism were a dark secret that Norman suspected, but never understood. However, when on the water, these tensions floated away into the river; in society, Paul the renegade was an outsider, but on the river, he was at home and in harmony with all that mattered, a recognition Norman finally learned and accepted.

The film concludes with these exquisite lines, which for fishermen across the globe, beautifully encapsulate the poetry that resonates through the relationships they’ve formed while fishing: “Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” Amen.

Also at the heart of these fishing experiences is the fishing tale and its power in sustaining meaningful relationships between fathers and sons. More recently, Tim Burton’s Big Fish, originally scheduled for Steven Spielberg to direct, has done wonders for the allure of fish tales. Interestingly, screenwriter John August’s father died in 1999, Burton’s father died in 2000, and his mother died in 2002; August started the Big Fish project shortly after his father’s death, and Burton accepted the project in spring 2002. Thus, Big Fish pulses with an intense emotional chord to the filmmakers’ parents.

More importantly, Big Fish’s essence, based on Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, is about stories and the roles they serve in our lives, particularly between fathers and sons. No other story looms larger than the one Ed Bloom, played by Albert Finney, spins about his son’s birthday. On that day, father-to-be Bloom was fishing for the elusive giant fish known as The Beast. No traditional baits or lures had ever enticed this behemoth, so finally, Bloom used his gold wedding ring as bait, since the fish was so special, deserving nothing less.

He catches the fish, releases it, and years later catches it again, forcing The Beast to spit out the ring. Later, as Bloom lies dying in a hospital room, his son, Will, played by Billy Crudup, learns from the family doctor that the story of his birth, which Will suspected was another of his father’s tall tales. However, this tale about The Beast magically becomes Bloom’s most truthful because it finally reveals to Will why stories, myths, and legends told by fathers are so important. Conversely, through the tale Will weaves to his father in the hospital, and later, at his father’s funeral, Will discovers, through Burton’s mastery of magical realism, that his father’s tales were truthful.

The brilliance of Big Fish is that it spotlights the complexity of fishing tales and their importance in family traditions. The central “big fish” tale serves many purposes: rich with meaning, it is a tale of persistence, one of Ed’s most vital characteristics; and it reveals Ed’s pursuit of his angel, which fueled the romance between him and his wife, Sandra, played by Jessica Lange --- that this tale is told, with a romantic spin, on Will’s wedding day annoys Will and triggers an estrangement between father and son that is resolved by Will’s epiphany along his father’s deathbed. The tale also represents the inevitable tension between father and son, because Will feels, once again, that his father has upstaged him during this narration; since Will is angry that he is only a footnote in that story, he secretly wants to be in it, to learn more about its details, and by default, learn more about his father, who too often seemed distanced.

As Will states, “Telling stories of my father’s life…it’s impossible to separate fact from fiction, the man from the myth.” But that’s exactly the point of Big Fish: we’re all mythical creatures created from stories that blend fact and fiction, myth and reality, into a magical whole, and no tale does this the better than the fish story. Edward Bloom is the big fish, and Will realizes this: “You’ve become what you always were…a big fish” and proceeds to narrate at his deathbed the story of his father, full of exaggerations and truths, legends and facts. Reality and fiction cannot survive without the other, Big Fish reveals, and each complements the other; in the fish tale, fact and fiction are magically woven together, with the “big fish” serving as the perfect symbol for this narrative tapestry.

If the fish tale and angling’s unique ability to punctuate Time and foster relationships among family members are three of the sport’s greatest gifts, they are not gender-specific. Angling’s growing popularity crosses gender boundaries, a reality many women understand. Mothers, daughters, and grandmothers can also enjoy the wonders of fishing, weave their own dramatic tales of adventure, and watch their relationships mature with their male or female relatives. I can think of no better way to bond with my loved ones than to place a rod in hand and go fishing.

Big fish are out there, waiting to be caught, like tales waiting to be told. Nobody knows this better than fishermen. Not surprisingly, the ASA, through its research and conservation foundation, the FishAmerica Foundation, has released two volumes of fish tales: Take Me Fishing and The Gigantic Book of Fishing Stories, and the Chicken Soup for the Soul series is actively seeking articles for Chicken Soup for the Fisherman’s Soul II. These tales are told because they have to be told: our lives are incomplete without them. And who better than to share these stories with than a father or son, or a mother or sister, with a rod in hand? Ed says on his deathbed, “It’s unbelievable…the story of my life…how do we make it believable?” That answer is easy Ed . . . by telling and sharing it . . . to a loved one.

Photo from Visit

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