I never considered myself much of a fisherman, so when my dad said, “Take a gaff,” I asked what that was. He held up a massive hook. “In case you get a big one,” he insisted. And I answered, “We’ve been fishing all summer and never needed a gaff.” But I took it anyways, because he said so.
My brother, Andrew, and I packed the rest of the rods into the doorless Jeep and off-roaded past the cul-de-sac into the woods, where deep in the trees a river runs. I plopped on the bank where my feet could dangle above the water, and as Andrew set up a catfish line, I sorted through his tackle box for bass lures. Most of my brother’s lures are jinxed, except the worm-shaped ones, which the bass totally go for. I tied a nice pink one to the line and cast it out, whizzing, across the water. It dropped. I flipped the bail, tightened the line, let the lure sink. Now the waiting. Ten seconds. Reel it in, and cast again.
The thing about fishing is that I really can’t control it. Even the best fisherman can’t. Some days the fish just don’t bite. Countless days have passed when we’ve packed up the Jeep with all the right rods and lures and bottles and bug sprays and nothing comes. And it’s far less about stubbornly waiting for a bite and far more about surrendering to the fact that my will alone can’t wrangle in a slimy, delicious bass.
Now that I could no longer manipulate my circumstances, I just had to enjoy them. The groaning river, the setting summer. I was out in nature, and I felt like Walt Whitman. In Leaves of Grass, he writes about the promise of the unexpected.
Shut not your doors to me, proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill’d shelves, yet needed most, I bring,
Forth from the war emerging, a book I have made.
Whitman’s talking about himself here. He’s trying to say that he’s this great book yet undiscovered by the best shelves. (Sure, Walt.) But I also think he’s talking about fishing. And maybe God. In a similar way, a delicious fish waits to be caught, emerging from the water, perhaps even to satisfy my well-filled refrigerator.
That day, as much as I wanted to find Whitman’s metaphorical book or my metaphorical fish, I couldn’t. The results were out of my hands. And so, as the day cooled off, as the mosquitoes came out, as our stomachs rumbled for summertime burgers, we packed it up and went home.
That’s how it usually went. But not tonight. Tonight, I sent the lure sailing across the water one last time, and when it dropped, I felt a tremble, then a yank. Something was pulling from the other side of the river. I began reeling, and Andrew called, “Did you set the hook?” and I’m like, I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m just reeling. And it’s a yellow kind of excitement, like a drug, like something from a completely different world. And the fish is fighting. He’s pulling my line back out and I’m shouting and cussing and still reeling and my arm is tired, but I’m so excited I can’t see any other outcome except conquest and mounting this bastard on the wall! And as it draws near, I see how big it is. How big and beautiful and
powerful. “GET THE GAFF!” Andrew retrieves it from the trunk and takes my line while I swoop in and jab the fish. I haul it, flipping, out of the water. Comin home to papa.
I hold it high, posing for a Facebook picture. It’s a glorious feeling, a glorious moment, and that’s when I see my dad back in the trees, watching the whole affair. He snuck down to see how we were doing, and I didn’t even see him.
Jesus says he will make his disciples fishers of men. A dang perfect analogy. It’s so improbable, and wholly undeserved, that in such a big, muddy river, a fish would choose my hook to get stuck on. As John Zahl says in The Mockingbird Devotional, “You do not know much of what the day will hold.”