Hook, Line, and Whimper: My Angle on Angling

I recently found myself staring into the display cases at the Makah Tribal Museum in Neah Bay, Washington. Most fascinating to me was the “fishing” display: creels of intricately woven cedar bark, weights of chiseled stone. And the hooks — aboriginal fish hooks! Astonishing, well crafted, the hooks used by this tribe of indigenous Americans were fashioned of two pieces of sharpened bone tied together at a 40-ish degree angle. The result was an elegant — and no doubt effective — little snagger.

(Incidentally, in case this “Makah” thing is distracting you, in case you’re wondering if this is the same Makah tribe who raises all the ruckus wanting to hunt gray whales — yes, it is. I’m not even going to touch that topic. I’m conflicted enough about the fact that I’m a longtime vegetarian and still like to fish. How can a person of such flexible convictions begin to pass judgment on an animal rights versus human rights conundrum? Let’s just go with, “yes, these are the same Makah,” and now you can focus, unencumbered, perhaps even rapt, on my every word.)

Here is the thing about these fish hooks: the Makah did not have GuideOutdoors.com to buy their hooks. In fact — and this may be the central truth that has led to the demise of indigenous tribes worldwide — they didn’t even have a sporting goods store to buy fishing tackle. These braves weren’t tying flies for fun, baby –they were sharpening bone, fitting the angles, and wrapping the shanks out of necessity. You may have intuited that without my pointing it out, but standing in front of that display case really brought it home to me. Looking at that row of four miniature works of art titled simply, “fishing hooks,” I was struck with the impact of it, the process of it, the patientart that is fishing.

Maybe you hardcore fly fishers are already hip to this. Maybe that’s the whole fly-tying, hip-wading, catch-and-release groove you’ve got going on. Here I show my ignorance of your world. The sum total of my fly-fishing knowledge comes from watching Brad Pitt twist his comely shoulders inA River Runs Through It.

For me, on the other hand, fishing is largely about complaining. The complaints are largely about my crappy gear. (No, I did not say “crappie gear.” In my case, the crappy gear is used primarily in pursuit of trout. But while we’re on the subject, who the hell thought “crappie” was an acceptable name for a fish? Are these the same guys that named a computer company “Wang?”)

So, my gear, purchased sometime during the Nixon administration, is the bane of my fishing existence. It’s a pink, two-piece rod and reel combo and a lime-green plastic tackle box. The former never comes apart when you want it to; the latter comes apart every time you pick it up. My husband says I should pitch this junk and replace it with new stuff, but:

(A) I believe youearn your way to better equipment, and I’m still a rank amateur trout hunter;

(B) My husband believes you should have new EVERYthing for EVERY sport, EVERY time you try it, which leaves little money in the coffers for me to replace ANYthing EVER; and

(C) If I had new gear, what would I have to complain about?

A wise philosopher (or was it my therapist?) once said, “A whine is anger coming out of a small hole.”

I must have a whale of a lot of anger about my fishing gear.

Or perhaps I’m just Makah at heart, in search of that perfect piece of sinew or bark to truss up the perfect shards of bone into the ultimate artistic hook. Perhaps I’m unwilling to settle for less. In the meantime, I’ll continue to spend 90 percent of my so-called “fishing” time restringing line, coaxing a balky reel, and sorting out a spilled tackle box.

And the rainbows, brookies, and dolly varden of southeastern Washington won’t have much to fear from this angler. Which is, perhaps, how I reconcile my animal rights activism and vegetarianism with my occasional inclination to sit on a riverbank with a line in the water.

Sally O’Neal Coates is a conflicted angler and the author of four Pacific Northwest travel guidebooks.

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