Fishmail: The 39th Step

December 8th, 2002

One thing that becomes horribly clear if you make your living as a freelance writer is how fragile your existence is. Disappear for a few weeks on a fishing trip and suddenly, you might as well not exist at all; "Sean who?" has already become a common refrain in the newsrooms and publishers offices of the northern hemisphere. Miss a deadline in these harsh economic conditions and suddenly ones carefully-maintained list of people who pay your bills gets one entry shorter. Before you know it, youre actually not really a writer any more. You are, instead, some bloke who threw away a promising career in favour of running around in muddy streams waving a stick.

Im not quite at that stage yet. But I am at the sort of age when I think that sounds like a pretty good way to end a career. Tomorrow, I will enter the last year of my thirties, a year in which men all over the world have for decades acquired themselves new red sports cars and 23-year-old girlfriends in an attempt to convince the world and themselves that its really not all over for them, that theres life in this rapidly ageing dog yet. Fortunately, mythology tells us that fishermen dont really have to do either of these things. If you make it to 39 without drowning in a flash flood, or being murdered by your wife or girlfriend for leaving a dead trout in the boot of the car for a week, you have already passed some sort of Darwinian test. You are, in the eyes of the universe, a survivor someone for whom the normal rules of mediocre existence no longer apply, someone who really doesnt need to visit any more to add a little cheer to a cold winters day.

Nice theory, I think youll agree. In practise, of course, none of it is true. I may not have any sort of desire for a red sports car, but I am certainly feeling a sort of creeping unease with life in general, a sense of doom that hovers annoyingly in the background like a drunk at a bus stop. And I can easily see myself indulging in a little retail therapy to help brush aside the anguish and uncertainty of early middle age; maybe not a Porsche, but a matching set of Loomis rods, perhaps, or a boxful of Ari Hart reels. This desire has been savagely, exponentially increased by the fact that nearly everyone I know is away doing interesting fishy things while I am slaving over another book; as I spend my winter struggling for words to explain the complex cultural phenomena underlying chat rooms and instant messaging programs, Paul and Tom and Jim are spending theirs struggling with mighty browns and rainbows in New Zealand, generally living a life of Riley.

So you find me in a somewhat wistful and unapologetically self-indulgent mood today. True, I have already spent well over two months of this year out of the country, happily and gratefully indulging myself in ways that many people never get a chance to. None of that stops me from thinking that if I dont do some more of this stuff now, it might never happen again. In my minds eye, the knees will shortly cease to function well enough to carry me safely across that river, the eyesight diminish to the point where I can no longer distinguish a trout from a train. This is the really insidious thing about this time of ones life (I still refuse to acknowledge it as a full-blown mid-life crisis, but Im sure someone will be along to break the horrible news to me soon enough); I may be a Darwinian graduate with an Honours degree in Not Being Eaten By Crocodiles, but I cannot quite convince myself that I will ever get to sit my Masters.

All the evidence suggests quite the opposite, of course. Fisherfolk of both sexes become if anything spritelier and more determined as get they older, rather than less; Marryat and Skues and Walker and Hills were all doing great things well into their 70s and 80s, their lifetimes experience and knowledge matched only by their love of the water, and the fish, and the air. I bumped into a formidable woman in a tackle shop recently who told me that she was into her sixth decade of salmon fishing, and had never enjoyed it more than she does now; something I had already discerned from the glee with which she savaged the hapless sales assistant for trying to sell her an American reel instead of the Hardys she has been using all her life. The steely glint in her eye as she inevitably got her way would make every salmon in the Tweed stay at sea for another year or two.

So, onwards and upwards. I may not yet be able to match that steely glint, and I hope I never have that sports car but I have at least bought myself a days grayling fishing as a small present to myself, a reminder that there will always be things in life to embrace and relish. Ill be back next week with a spring in my step, at least a twinkle in my eye and some big plans for the last year before life really begins.

Sean Geer ( is a writer, Zen origamist and scoundrel. He currently holds the world record for the longest journey in search of fish without actually catching one, at 12,242 miles. He is still writing a novel about sex, bagels and silicon flyline lubricants

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