Only people who don't fish are surprised to learn that dedicated fishermen are more apt to lay their rods aside when there is a surfeit of fish than when there are no fish at all. This is not a common occurrence, but it's not altogether rare either. In Florida at the moment there is a growing cult of fish watchers, ex-anglers who simply have grown tired of hauling fish out of the water but who like to observe them. Philip Wylie, the author, is a fish watcher. He maintains that it is much more exhilarating to observe and learn about the submarine world than to catch samples of it with a hook (SI, Aug. 1, 1955). Wylie, of course, is almost as skilled at fishing as he is at writing, and I don't pretend to know more than he or his fellow fish watchers when I point out that they probably really would not rather watch fish than catch them. More likely, Florida's teeming waters just simply don't challenge them any more. They probably will recover and go back to fishing when they encounter a place where fish are more difficult to catch.
Fishermen frequently also grow too skilled for their environment. At the present time I am watching with much sympathy the plight of a friend of mine, a writer, who consistently over a 10-year period killed more trout in Connecticut water than anyone I knew. Suddenly, two seasons ago, my friend changed his tactics completely. If trout showed a tendency to rise to the fly he offered, he would change to one which seemed deliberately calculated to drive them away. He managed to get through last season landing only three trout, obviously myopic ones. He hasn't caught any this year, and I don't think he will, for he is tying his own flies and making them in such outlandish sizes that I doubt if they would tempt a starving barracuda. He probably could be restored to normal health by a spot of fishing in Canada or one of the western states, though of course I wouldn't dare suggest this. But I do know he loves fishing too much to abandon it altogether, and since Connecticut's streams aren't conducive to fish watching, the worst that can happen is that he will become an Intellectual Fisherman.
An Intellectual Fisherman, as most people know, is a fisherman who doesn't necessarily associate fishing with catching fish. He is usually a dreamy, oftentimes poetic gentleman, but the keenness of his memory is astonishing and he can recall every last detail of the fight he has had with even the smallest fish. Those gentlemen have enriched literature with whole shelves of slim volumes proving that it is gauche to think that success in fishing comes from catching fish. Intellectual Fishermen prefer to catch fish the hard way when they catch them at all, using anything for a lure which might be normally expected to frighten an ordinary fish away. It is a harmless fancy and does no one any damage, least of all fish, so it is unkind not to bear with them. The only real disservice of which Intellectual Fishermen are guilty is promoting the canard that fish are man's mental equal. For an Intellectual Fisherman must always pretend that he outwits the fish he catches, usually after months, and sometimes years, of devising a clever campaign. Since fish are among the most stupid of all vertebrates, operating almost wholly on instinct and reflexes, and since any chuckle-headed farm boy knows that they strike only when they are hungry, curious or annoyed, it is difficult to understand how Intellectual Fishermen can perpetuate the myth that they must be outwitted. But they do.
An Intellectual Fisherman should not be confused with a Philosophical Fisherman. They are different types altogether. The Philosophical Fisherman has almost disappeared from the American scene, probably because we have grown accustomed to leisure in this country. If a man feels like lying on a creek bank and pulling his hat over his eyes and going to sleep, or simply lying there thinking his own long thoughts, he doesn't need an excuse. Thoreau described a Philosophical Fisherman perfectly when he wrote of an old man he remembered from his childhood: "His fishing was not a sport, nor solely a means of subsistence, but a sort of solemn sacrament and withdrawal from the world, just as the aged read their Bibles."
My own grandfather, bless him, was a Philosophical Fisherman and was well on the way to brainwashing me into becoming one until a three-pound black bass, obviously bent on suicide, impaled itself on my hook when I was 6 years old. My grandfather probably became a Philosophical Fisherman because he had nine children and his stern and dutiful Methodist conscience wouldn't allow him simply to leave the house to seek some peace and quiet when they became noisy. Instead he equipped himself with a couple of cane poles and started fishing. The poles were warped and brittle and cracked at the joints by the time I came along. Grandfather never took his own children fishing, but he didn't seem to mind having me along, probably because I was an impressionable child and believed him implicitly when he warned that if I didn't sit stone-still, not talking, not even breathing too hard, there was not the slightest chance of a fish coming near.
I had from the beginning a vague feeling something was peculiar about my grandfather's fishing. Other people who went to the same little lake sometimes caught sun perch or even a bass or two. We never caught a fish and one day I thought I spotted the cause. My grandfather used enormous hooks, big enough to gag a tarpon, and for some reason he used biscuit dough for bait.
"I believe our hooks are too big, Grandfather," I said.
Grandfather looked at me reproachfully. "If a fish isn't big enough to swallow them," he said, "then it's not big enough to bother with."
My grandfather fished for 50 years, established a firm reputation as an enthusiastic fisherman with his family, neighbors and co-workers, but as far as I can determine, caught only two fish.
Although they are not going to like the classification, most fishermen are Meat Fishermen. I am a Meat Fisherman and proud of it. For being a Meat Fisherman does not mean that a man wantonly destroys fish, fishes for profit, or even necessarily eats his fish or confines his angling to those that are good to eat. It simply means that his primary purpose in fishing is to catch fish, which has always seemed to me to be as pleasurable a goal as it is a sensible one. No one can deny that there is a certain pleasure to be derived even from attempting to catch fish but, learned commentaries notwithstanding, the greatest thrill in fishing comes when a man succeeds. It is a mistake to assume that Meat Fishermen do not like to catch fish the hard way. Most fishing records are held by Meat Fishermen, because landing a fish is the only goal they consider worthwhile. Meat Fishermen usually are the best fishermen, for they are not taken in by the nonsense that fish have to be outwitted, although they realize that fish have to be catered to.