Hook, Line and Thinker — The Good Men Project

One of my best friends and housemates from my college days was, like me, an avid hoopster. He loved to play basketball, was a free spirit, and had a motto that one should never go anywhere without bringing along your sneaks in case you come upon a court and a game.

I’m sort of the same way these days about fishing. And so it is that come May I usually have in the back of my jeep a reel and rod and a tackle box….just in case I happen to happen upon open water and see men and women with reels and rods and tackle boxes doing what I like to do.

Which is what happened last week. I was driving back from a short visit to my family’s home in Wainscott, a tiny, ocean-side hamlet on the Eastern End of Long Island, when I spied people fishing along the Shinnecock Canal.

As provided by the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, which among other charitable ventures is committed to supporting the celebration and preservation of community history, “The canal was constructed from 1884–1892.” The site adds that it was the first New York State saltwater canal and site used by Native Americans to carry canoes over land. The Canal connects Shinnecock Bay with the Great Peconic Bay, two bays lying on opposite sides of the eastern part of Long Island. The Great Peconic, the bay on the north, itself part of the Long Island Sound, and the Shinnecock, the bay on the south, an indentation of the Atlantic, had become landlocked over time. The project was also executed by New York State with the strategy of reclaiming what was then a waning fishing industry.

So, like the angling lemming I am, I exited the highway I was on and found my way to the side of the canal where between 10 to 20 people were spread out casting lures or bottom-fishing bait. I grabbed my gear and joined them.

It was late afternoon, I was tired from doing many yard chores earlier, and it was nice to stand and cast and relax. But it was also exciting, as the folks around me were catching at a good rate fluke and sea robbins. I wasn’t having the same luck, but I didn’t mind. I was enjoying watching the action and feeling part of the salt-water fishing community again after a long and isolating winter.

I was about to head home when an older gentleman near me caught a very large fluke. If you don’t know this fish, it looks like an elongated and much wider flounder, flat as a pancake, with a white underbelly and a brown spot top. Its eyes, which migrate once it matures, are close together on one side and looking up. Its design is evolutionary perfection — camouflaged against predators looking down into the bottom darkness, and stealth for predation on the squid and minnows and sand eels and other meals it hunts along the bottom.

I watched as the old man reeled the fish in. But halfway up toward where he waited on the shore, it dropped off the hook and scurried back to its home. The old man looked at me, dismayed, but also a bit amused.

“Should have brought a net,” he said, shaking his head. Still, I could see he was happy to have connected with the fish (it was quite big), and not at all dismayed by its winning this round, so to speak. Then, I saw him look at the lure he was using.

“No wonder,” he said. “My hook is rusted off. I never checked. The fish was just holding on to the lure, nothing else.”

And here is where our story leaves the water. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, what happened with the fish, but now, thinking about writing a column, it hit me that many of us hold onto things, particularly painful emotions, thinking we are “hooked,” when actually it’s not the case.

Now there are many varied reasons why this is so, but I think it’s a worthwhile image to ponder for our own lives, especially when we feel stuck in stress and sadness and other difficult feelings — the fish-holding onto the bait until, for some reason, it realized it could just let go and be free.

It reminds me of a story I read in one of George Orwell’s earliest books, Burmese Days, about an elephant trainer. Not to be self-serving, but I used Orwell’s words as inspiration for a short passage in a novel I recently completed. Here’s the dialogue between my two characters — Mert and Bobby:

“I was young and wandering through Burma, looking for adventure, or perhaps myself, and one day I came up on an old man who worked with elephants. He must have had four or five in his stable, and he showed them to me and talked about their training. I was impressed because they were as docile as mice, tethered in place by their trunks by a piece of rope no thicker than my pinky. I asked the old man if he worried the elephants would run away, just snap the thread and be off. He told me they would if they thought they could. He said that when they were little, he tied them up with a more suitable coil, and they learned they couldn’t break free. Once they learned that, they never challenged the idea again, no matter what held them down.”

Mert looked across at Bobby, who was listening with intent.

“So the idea is to find out what tethers you to the ground. Then get on with the business of breaking free.”

It is never easy to just let go when we are struggling, when nothing seems right, when hope seems lost. But if we can take a moment to consider what might really be holding us, if there is an actual hook or something we are doing by choice, perhaps that is a start toward freedom. It’s worth a thought, don’t you think?

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Originally published at https://goodmenproject.com on May 16, 2021.

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John McCaffrey

John McCaffrey is a writer and a director at a nonprofit mental health treatment and training center in NYC. jamccaffrey.com