Fish This!

Getting Wise


There is a road that connects Skagway to the Yukon. This highway acts as a link through wilds only tamed along its margins. It is a means by which worlds are connected along its length. One world a tourism hub where human hoards gather daily from floating cities, the other world little changed throughout the millennia since melting ice first revealed a ragged landscape.
This highway is also a divider. The ancient creatures that cross this man-made path may well be shocked by its very existence. Their life is one of unfenced horizons, so the sudden appearance of a thin slice of asphalt painted with yellow lines may come as a surprise. A tour bus full of flashing cameras might be downright startling. Still, all the photos in the world cannot define the subtle makings of their shape, color, or nature – this remains as mysterious as the untamed and unpaved lands that sustain them.
With any road there is a past and a future, it is a marker of transition. Traveling upon it does not change the past, but one could argue it does help define it. For a wild beast there is little to ponder –- there is only the now. For those of us who walk on two legs the past is more real, it shapes us at our core, the experience of it will influence our future. Within this concept is the notion of time, or the lack of it.
The Yukon is filled with remnants of the past. Aging pylons ascend the mountainsides where there once was a mining operation. Lopsided cabins lay among the rustle of quivering aspen leaves, soon to be lost within their ever-growing ranks. Artifacts litter the shoreline when the water is low at springtime – manmade relics which once were important, but the purpose for which has been lost, much like the men who at one time held them.
The imagination runs wild in this place – there are stories behind every rusted piece of tin and shard of broken hand painted dinnerware. Still, those stories are conjured within our own experience and have little to do with reality. There is only one fact, a man lived and died. And while his story may be lost it is one we all share.
The glacial waters that frame these lands are perfect for reflection in both a literal way and a figurative one. There is wisdom on this path, and the lessons of the past are perfectly suited material for wandering thoughts on a day patrolling these shorelines in search of fish.
For any fish that makes its first transition into the world of thin oxygen, the experience must be a memorable one – if he lives to tell the tale. There are many places along these clear lakes where a line may never have been cast. These fish are little prepared for the pointed surprise that might lie within a soaked chunk of bait.
With time comes knowledge, the application of which is wisdom, and there is a point when the fish in any given area get wise. This phenomenon can only be attributed to experience, and when it happens the fish get a lot harder to catch.
There is a spot along the highway I discovered many years ago. It is a place where springtime trout are common, their teeming numbers often revealed at the surface where they feed. It is a place laid out among towering peaks speckled with Dall sheep and mountain goats, where yellow and purple flowers find life along the rocky shore and birdsong from the woods above lingers in the air.

When I first began to fish this hole, the trout would bite with abandon. Every cast produced another fish with golden, mottled flanks and orange tipped fins. The design of their markings perfectly suited to the fine gravel bottom of the lake – a mystery of form and function predating any man, individual or species.
Over the years the fish have learned about metal spoons and spinners. Or maybe they have taken notice of their brethren pulled unwillingly toward that shore where their ultimate fate awaits. Maybe the ones who have gotten away have somehow managed to communicate their peril – but something has definitely changed over the passing of time.
The fish got wise.
Today these fish are wary. They have learned something from their collective experience, and what once couldn’t fail to work now finds little success. Something has changed, and for the trout it’s probably a good thing.
There have been other times fishing for grayling, on other shores, where fish by the hundreds school in shallow waters. The first cast will catch a fish. Subsequent casts will not. There are times you can change the lure and catch another, but then the whole school somehow knows not to bite that same lure again.
Trout are a little wiser than grayling, or maybe they have a greater capacity to learn. Whatever mechanism within their making that provides them with such a capacity to adapt is ultimately more elusive than any imagination can conceive. It is their own experience that shapes their actions. It is wisdom in the face of an ever-changing world, one where a road did not exist in the not-too-distant past.
There is constant change everywhere, and as humans we are not too fond of it when it comes. In another hundred years the buildings we call our homes and businesses may well lie rotting among shafts of sunlight permeating the open spaces among leaves and branches.
In the meantime, a day will not go by where some lesson of the past is not revisited in the present. It may be a fleeting memory or a passing dream, but it’s always there and it is a part of us.
Whether we sport fins or limbs there is one certainty for which there is no escape – nothing will ever be as it was, and nothing we are at this moment will ever be the same again.