In my former life I was a fly fisherman.
For nearly two decades I tromped around in wading boots, waved my fisher-stick in the air, gently placed teeny flies on the surface of streams and lakes in British Columbia, Montana, Alaska, Washington and Oregon, trying to induce creatures with brains the size of a pea into biting a hook disguised with feathers.
Don’t get me wrong: I loved it. At times I was obsessed by it. What I enjoyed most, in retrospect, was traveling to remote, rugged places, soaking in the beautiful landscapes and relaxing in the comradeship of my fellow fisher folk. It was fun flying into remote, woody areas. It was fun complaining about the crappy food back at the lodge and about the stupid, mostly unresponsive fish. It was even more fun when you caught one.
But here’s the thing. It was not an inexpensive hobby. Hell, a single fly alone cost a couple of bucks; then there were the rods, the lines (floating and sinking and floating-sinking). the leaders (of absurdly varied lengths and strengths), the waders and other accessories, all essential to one’s efforts in trapping a 14-inch rainbow trout. Plus there’s this: On the vast majority of rivers and lakes, catch-and-release ordinances mandate that you toss back the little fuckers!
In short, most of the time you’re paying for the experience of not catching fish.
As a (REDUNDANCY ALERT!) struggling actor, then as a (DITTO!) struggling writer, these summertime fishing journeys were way too costly for me to foot any part of the bill outside of the gear.
My benefactor was Robert Unger, DDS, my (at the time) father-in-law. Bob was a unique character: whip smart, generous, funny, insanely left-wing and dangerously fast with a barbed comment. He’d learned to fish during WWII, when he was stationed in Canada, and it became a life-long passion for him. As he became more and more successful in his dual careers of dentistry and real estate, apparently the price-per-fish became less and less of a factor. Then, once it became clear that I was going to become part of his family and that there’d be no escaping the utter klutziness of me, I guess he thought, “What the hell. Take the goy fishing.”
The goy liked it. And in our particular crucible of traveling to remote fishing destinations – fighting off mosquitos the size of squirrels, riding horses that farted, losing fishing leaders in trees (me), hooking a dry fly into your scalp because foolishly you didn’t wear a hat (brother-in-law Alan), nearly drowning because you made a false step and your waders filled with water (again, me), sharing platform tents in Alaska with yahoos drunk on schnapps, losing an actual king salmon because you just couldn’t get leverage on the deceptively muscular little guy (yet again, me), then finally losing a trout on your forever-final cast when the pea-brained-size fish in a moment of survival-motivated clarity scooted under a rock and snapped your line (Bob) – over the course of fifteen summers, fish were barbecued, family stories were shared, drinks were imbibed, drugs were ingested, secrets were shared and not shared, bonds (you know, the male kind) were formed.
So what changed? Why did I hang up my neoprene waders for good?
Looking back it’s clear that I, in effect, traded away the healthy pastime of fly fishing for the morally questionable one of gambling; traded away bucolic scenery and lungfuls of healthy air for casino smoke and rooms with no windows. I simply swapped one out for the other. It was not a conscious decision. In fact, for the longest while the notion of casino gambling had zero appeal to me. Casinos, after all, were for degenerates and those with money to burn. But my attitude shifted in the spring of 2000 when I came under the influence of an unlikely exacta: Cirque du Soleil and Evil George Taylor.