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How Fishing Can Make Us Into Better People


A lot of songs praise the fishing lifestyle. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s’ “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” includes the line: “I said don’t ask no stupid questions and I won’t send you away. If you want to talk fishin, well I guess that’ll be OK.”

In the 1951 classic, “Gone Fishin’,” Bing Crosby croons, “Every time I go out to your place, you gone fishin’.” Louis Armstrong replies: “I’m real gone man.” Brad Paisley in “I’m Gonna Miss Her,” laments with a smile, “Today she met me at the door, said I would have to choose; if I hit that fishin’ hole today, she’d be packin’ all her things and she’d be gone by noon. Well I’m gonna miss her.”

As a corollary to my friend Mark Earley’s recent article on the merits of hunting, I think fishing is likewise beloved because of its cultivation of virtue and character formation, as well as its ability to help us connect with ourselves, others, and nature. It’s also a lot easier and cheaper, too.

The Virtues of Fishing

The first thing one learns from fishing is that patience is required. There’s of course the patience of waiting for a bite. But there’s also the *#$@ of untangling that &*%$ line. Sometimes the hook gets stuck in the brush, in water undergrowth, or even in your clothes. Sometimes what one had expected to be a nice day on the water turns out to be rainy, or windy, or just cold.

Whatever the problem, one has to learn to take it in stride, calmly address the problem, or, oftentimes, just accept the inconvenience. The true fisherman is a longsuffering fisherman, well-acquainted with defeat, who sometimes comes home empty-handed.

Yet the fisherman is also a person, like the hunter, who is engaging with and enjoying nature, typically seeking to disconnect from the overbearing technology of the twenty-first century. The fisherman (or, I suppose, fisherwoman) learns and appreciates the great outdoors — indeed, he or she must take proper account of it in order to succeed.

To fish well means to know where the fish go, and at what hours. To fish well means to become well-acquainted with dawn, with the sunrise, its rays bouncing colors over the water. To fish means to become acquainted with the woods, with wildlife, and with oneself. It’s not just about the fish, but about the entire ecosystem that surrounds you, that has graciously welcomed you in.

Recently, during a photo montage at my grandfather’s wake, the family noticed a picture of him wading in the water, fishing. One uncle, from Alabama, claimed it was a certain lake in Virginia, near my grandfather’s home.

Another uncle, and myself, both Virginians, immediately corrected him — no, that lake doesn’t have those kinds of rocks, we declared. Those kinds of rocks are on the Shenandoah River, south of Front Royal, we asserted. We knew it, almost intuitively, because we had fished both the lake and that river.

None of this is to disagree with Earley about hunting. I love hunting, as proved by previous writing at The Federalist. Some of my fondest memories of my childhood are the times my father and I went to the outdoor range to zero in our rifles prior to the first week of hunting season, or spending fall weekends out in Shenandoah National Park or my uncle’s farm, hunting deer or small game.

We rarely shot anything (my father was a far better fisherman than he was a hunter), but those times will be forever etched in my memory. When I finally did shoot my first deer, only a few months after my father’s death, the meat fed my wife and I for more than four months. But fishing does have some advantages over hunting that are worth exploring.

The Unique Advantages of Fishing

I loved hunting with my father, but we didn’t talk much on those trips. In a sense, that was good. I learned to appreciate nature and reflect on everything around me, silently, in a way quite contrary to our eternally “plugged in” culture.

But hunting, which usually involves splitting up for many hours and remaining dead silent, offers few opportunities for conversation. Fishing, on the other hand, presenting opportunities for both quiet reflection and easy conversation. Not too loud, of course, lest you scare away the fish.

I had plenty of important conversations with my father over the years, about girls, baseball, and religion, while sitting on a boat, in the middle of a lake, fishing. There’s something about the tedium of waiting for the fish to bite that is inherently disarming, even for a quiet teenager who doesn’t typically talk to his or her parents.

And if you’re of the right age, you can even drink alcohol while fishing, something I would definitely not recommend while holding and operating a hunting rifle! I vividly remember when my father, the grandson of Polish immigrants, introduced me to the “Polish breakfast,” which, for the uninitiated, is a raw egg followed by a can of beer.

Fishing has far less restrictions. Hunting season, whether it is for deer, wild boar, turkey, or small game, goes for a few months. Fishing, too, can have seasons (trout, for example), but they are usually much longer. And in many states, many species can be fished year round.

Also, unless you’re willing to be like one of my uncles, who bow-hunts (illegally) out of his second-floor suburban townhouse in northern Virginia, hunting is permitted in far fewer places. One has to have enough property, or know someone who does, or go to some large piece of public land. Fishing, alternatively, is permitted in far more places — many ponds, streams, and lakes, unless otherwise noted, are usually free to be fished. The same can be said more or less for the ocean.

It’s Easy to Get Started

Hunting can be an affordable as a means of acquiring meat. But fishing is even cheaper. While the requisite gear to hunt and butcher a deer (or pay someone else to butcher it) will cost several hundred dollars, one can fish well for less than $100.

Of course, one can go for broke with the expensive spincast, spinning, or baitcast reels and all the other accompanying gear. But one can just as easily get a decent rod, a simple reel, line, bait, small tackle box, and a few important tools (e.g., pliers or hook removers, a net) at Walmart, Target, Dick’s, Bass Pro Shop, or smaller, locally owned fishing stores.

I’ve been blessed to see the excitement that follows seeing my kid’s fishing line straighten, and the awe and wonder as we pull the creature out of the water.

This website provides state-by-state regulations on how to get various kinds of fishing licenses, which, depending on what you want, can be less than $30. There are even websites and apps to help you find fishing locations near you.

Fishing aficionados will deride those who use the simplest and cheapest kind of reel, the push-and-release. As my hardscrabble father used to say, “Push-and-release are for women, children, and the elderly.” Well, that’s exactly the kind of reel I can introduce to my three small children.

That brings me to another advantage to fishing — it’s a family activity at a much younger age than hunting. The first time I hunted with my father I was ten years old, and I know some parents will take kids a few years younger than that.

But my five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son are, in my judgment, not ready to operate a firearm, nor do they have the stamina for a day of quiet in the woods. But they’ve both caught bluegill — with some assistance from dad — in the pond near our house. They’re learning how to cast, to hold onto a squirming fish, and perhaps this year, how to gut and scale it.

I’ve been blessed to see the excitement that follows seeing my kid’s fishing line straighten, the pull on the line as I help her reel the fish in, and the awe and wonder as we pull the creature out of the water. It’s something, I suspect, they’ll always remember, just as I remember the same experiences with my late father.

So cut yours or your kids’ screen times, grab your pole, and find the closest fishing hole. You’ll make memories far more valuable than anything on your iPhone.

In honor of Joseph Bernard Chalk and Daniel Francis Chalk, true fishermen.