From the Archive — From the December 2016 issue

Cast Away

The illicit attraction of the lowly carp

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Deep within each mortal lie lonely and remote provinces no other human being may share. My wife holds no inquest on my annual fishing mania. She merely endures it as one of her husband’s more harmless eccentricities. She never even asks, anymore, how a person who fishes so much can possibly manage to catch so little.

It was a barren question when she used to utter it. I never was able to tell her; I never have completely understood myself what it is that sends me out hopefully to the most difficultly attainable trout water and brings me home at last in despair even darker than the surrounding gloom.

“Going again?” Althea asks when she surprises me at the stowage of inordinate impedimenta in the car’s rear compartment.

“For a little while,” I answer brazenly, forgetting all my renunciations of the night before; “but I’ll be back early.”

I don’t think Althea believes me, yet I know that my promise is honestly made. I know too that it almost never is kept. One of the many local theories about trout conduct is that they rise most eagerly after sunset. Vermont is more richly blest with fishing theories than with fish.

The long twilight fades from blue to gray and I should have started home an hour ago. Instead, I stand in the stream and cast and cast again until I no longer can see the pale spark of my white miller on the Stygian water. The afterglow grows pale beyond the tree tops. Shadows thicken and the first faint stars shake with derisive mirth as they look down upon me — a desolate and destitute figure, knee-deep in a brook, quaking with the inner struggle between unfulfilled desire and common sense. I am fit object for cosmic merriment.

I said I should be home early and here I still am and it’s getting darker by the second. I cast again and think of my car, parked three miles away. I consider too the hideous time I shall have, floundering through black woods back to the road. I ought to quit. But there are supposed to be big brown trout in this pool — another Vermont theory — and you never can tell.

I light my pipe again to daunt all but the hungrier midges and mosquitoes and, with a tongue that feels like a wad of felt, due to excessive protective smoking, I tell myself: “Five casts — not a single more than that. Five casts and then I’ll go home.”

I cast five times and a couple more in case I have miscounted. I reel in and grope my way to shore. It is so dark now that I shall have to unrig entirely by the touch system. I stand waist-deep in stream-side brush from which I have flushed fresh flocks of bloodthirsty insects. The profound darkness of the woods makes the gloom about the brook seem brighter. My fingers are puckered with wet and slippery with fly oil. They fumble with the leader while bitterly I disparage myself.

I have walked five miles, sloshing through water and leaping like a giddy goat over boulders. I am leg-weary, clammy, hungry, and fishless. I’ll probably break my neck trying to get back to my car. That disaster will be no great loss to anyone, particularly to me at this bleak moment. I’m through with so-called trout fishing. I’m —

Out in the darkling pool, something goes “Plop!” So does my heart. That was a fish! That’s probably the one Bob said he saw in this very pool last May. If I’m careful, if I ease my way back to where I was, maybe I can raise him. Yes, of course it’s late, but it can’t get any darker. And I won’t stay long. Just a few more casts. You never can tell. Five casts and I’ll go on home.

From “Fishing Is a Vice,” which appeared in the October 1938 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 166-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.

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