The humbling spirituality of (bad) fishing

Photo by Alan Bishop on Unsplash

My physical therapist during college, a fly fisherman from Shamokin Dam, Pa., introduced me to the Purple D. “They say it’s been hitting at sunset near the dam,” he claimed while stretching my arm behind my back. My range of motion was still limited. Shoulder surgery had sidelined me from the Susquehanna University basketball team, so I had a lot of time to fish. Recovery made my cast a bit unconventional—my line flopped like a sigh onto the Susquehanna River—but I couldn’t stay away from the water for long.

I have always been an ardent fisherman but never a particularly skilled one. My father was patient with me, spending afternoons at calm New Jersey ponds tucked into the woods. My older brothers tried to teach me the precise ways of fly fishing on Vermont streams, but I ended up a tangled fool. Those failures did nothing to dissuade my interest. In fact, I thought struggle was endemic to fishing.


I appreciated Norman Maclean’s flowing sentences in A River Runs Through It, but found its Presbyterian mythos rooted in a different type of lyricism than I was used to. From Maclean to Thomas McGuane to Ernest Hemingway, writers have looked to the metronomic rhythms of fly and rod fishing for metaphors of calm. They often describe idyllic moments of victory. My own fishing life has been a series of snapped and snagged lines and broken dreams.

My fishing life has been a series of snapped and snagged lines and broken dreams.

That’s why I was so happy to learn about the Purple D. My therapist said it was a topwater lure. Two sets of hooks. Purple head, bright red eyes. “Big bass love the thing,” he promised. “They jump up and grab it.” He said they sold the lure only at the South Side Bait Shop—over the Sunbury bridge, before the boat launch. The next day, I went there with Anwar and Matt, two of my roommates. We fished each morning before class and were hungry for some good luck out on the river.

Outside the store, an old vending machine held live bait: minnows and nightcrawlers for a few quarters. Inside were shelves of homemade rubber fish and worms: yellow, red, black and watermelon-colored. I maneuvered through the collection and asked the owner for the Purple D. He looked surprised, as if we had no business knowing a local secret, but sold us the last few he had left.

It was the ugliest lure I had ever seen. Prune-purple. Eyes askew. Five bucks each didn’t seem too bad, and we shuffled out of that shop confident and ready. The dam was only a few hundred feet down the road. We parked, climbed down the rocks and tied the Purple D to our lines. We were silent. This was serious.

Fishing is an act of faith. We believe that we will catch that which we seek—if only we hold on to hope.

Matt and Anwar would go on to catch six bass in one hour at the dam. I fished there for two weeks with the Purple D and did not get a single bite. My friends would switch spots with me, taking mercy on this poor soul. Nothing. I tried different methods of reeling in the lure. Two quick pops after it dropped on the water, and then pop it all the way back. I even reeled it in slowly, mouthing little prayers during its journey. No luck.

Undaunted, I drove to Shady Nook, a boat launch further down the river, and then to Hoover’s Landing and Penns Creek. I cast from the shore; I trudged into the current in my waders and aimed below overhanging branches. I was a mess, but I was not about to give up. Fishing is an act of faith. We believe that we will catch that which we seek—if only we hold on to hope.


The practice of fishing is certainly biblical: Peter, Andrew, James and John were preparing and casting nets into the Sea of Galilee when Jesus called them to become “fishers of men.” In the Gospel of John, after the resurrection of Christ, Simon Peter is with those fishermen on the same waters. They spend all night on their boat but do not catch a single fish. At dawn, Jesus is on the shore. At first, they do not recognize him. He tells them where to cast their net from the boat, and their net soon overflows with fish.

Fishing is an exercise in faith; the recognition that the goals we seek might not be the realities we reach.

I have never returned with a bounty, but that does not stop me from going back to the water. My wife and I have always lived near ponds. When we first got married, we pulled our boat from under our deck, across a stream, through a trail that we had cleared in the woods, up and down a brush-thick hill and into a murky pond. Jen would catch fish, but I can remember more than a dozen times that catfish have snapped my line, mocking me as they return to the bottom. I would catch an errant bass, or two if I was lucky, and those little gifts were enough to make me believe.

Now we live near another pond, and we are ready to bring our twin daughters there. Amelia and Olivia will turn 5 in the spring, and that is about when I got started fishing. My father was a carpenter, and I would sit in his workroom in our basement and watch him plan his next job. When he was done working, we would go behind the furnace, where my brothers stored their rods and tackle boxes. I took a few worms from Mark’s box and a few hooks from Mike’s, and when we went upstairs, I could barely sleep in anticipation of the next morning. We would stand at the edge of the silent water together. We would share that space.

Fishing is an exercise in faith; the recognition that the goals we seek might not be the realities we reach. I have learned there is real worth in the escape of fishing. In the quiet ritual of preparation and patience. But maybe most important, there is real wisdom in participating in an activity that I will never master—the kind of humbling reminder that only failure can offer us.

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Lauren Nevanen
1 year ago

Now I want to go out and fish instead of working today! Spot on.


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