Trading in Desire

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Lauren Holt

“If this were a normal version of The Tarpon Story, I’d probably tell you I took that refusal like a champ”

“Okay. See that dark spot? About 200 feet out. 2 o’clock.”

I squint that direction, worry my lower lip with my teeth, cup my cheekbones and the bill of my cap to help cut the glare of the mid-afternoon sun sneaking past the edge of my sunglasses, willing my eyes and my brain to separate the slivers of dark I thought I could see from the shadows of waves and the coral a few feet below. Slowly, giant shadowy shapes emerge from the confusion.

“Look for movement. See them? There are four – no – five in this string.”

It’s a perfect day in the Keys, all three criteria for prime tarpon fishing in my favor. Bright sun; no clouds. Good water. Just enough of a breeze to encourage row after row of little waves to rise and sink in concert, more short fat silver little pyramids than “waves” proper. And we had fish. Hundreds and hundreds of fish.

I spot them and nod. If tarpon can amble, these were, and on the same path toward the skiff others had taken all day.

“Okay now. I’m gonna spin the boat. Hold tight.”

It was my first day fishing on this trip and already I had shots at more tarpon than I had seen the whole year before. Strings like this one of just a few, others in much larger groups. Giant tarpon, smaller tarpon, “normal” tarpon. In lines and circles, veering toward us and away, guided by seams and edges and currents too subtle for my eyes to reliably pick out.

“You’ve got your fly ready? Your line cleared?”

I nod.

“Okay then. Just hang tight kiddo. You’re gonna get one of these.”

A thought breaks my focus, unbidden, certainly unwelcome: this is it – no one gets a whole trip’s worth of these conditions – if you’re gonna do this, you’ve gotta make it happen today.

“See that dark spot that isn’t moving? When they get there, I want you to make no more than two false casts and then drop your fly right on the lead fish’s back.”

I realize as they get closer that these fish are bigger than most we’ve seen. These were the fish I’d wanted to catch on a fly for half my life, since I traded the conventional tackle I grew up on in the ponds and streams and rivers and lakes that dot northwest Arkansas for a fly rod, a handful of feathers, and the salt.

Around that time, I saw my first picture of a giant tarpon, dwarfing the guy who caught it, its hinged trapdoor of a mouth open so wide it looked like the angler could’ve stepped inside it, and hanging from a corner, a fly. A fly! It reminded me of a scene from The Pink Panther that featured a man hopping around while standing in a giant fish, holding its jaws like he was using it in a sack race. So the whole scene in the picture struck me as a little bit absurd. I was bemused, incredulous, fascinated. And I knew I wanted to catch one someday. It didn’t have to be soon – there’s a shortage of salt water in Arkansas and my summers and winters at the local bakery weren’t going to magically transport this high school student to any coast – but I knew then I wanted to and would eventually catch a behemoth of my own. Every time I take a shot at a tarpon, I remember the moment I knew I wanted to catch one, and this shot was no different.

Though it feels like an eternity has passed, they’re finally 50 feet from the spot. 25. I let my fly go, see it suspended in the breeze as I look past it at the lead fish. One false cast, then another, and not for the first time it occurs to me how cool physics is, how when I double haul, I’m really just the human part of a catapult that hopes to launch a bunch of fur and feathers lashed to a hook where I want it to go. And this time it does, landing more or less where I’d hoped.

Strip – strip – strip.

The second fish turns ever so slightly toward my fly. I’m sure instructions were coming from the back of the boat, but I couldn’t tell you exactly what they were. I was focused, willing that second fish to do more than glance, to follow, to ignore whatever instinct was making it hesitate.

Strip. Strip.

But no. Refused again.

“Nope. She didn’t like that.”

No. She did not. And neither did I.

If this were a normal version of The Tarpon Story, I’d probably tell you I took that refusal like a champ – never mind that I’d have lost count of my refusals that day hours earlier if I’d actually been counting – replayed what just happened in my head, talked a little bit about it with my guide, learned from it, applied the new knowledge and skill that refusal taught me, and ended the day catching my big fish and not wasting what did turn out to be the only day of the trip with perfect conditions.

Instead, I – well, I wasn’t a champ. I stood on the bow, doing nothing but feeling. Blood rushing to my skin, hot under my cheeks. My chest and throat tight, like they were being squeezed from the inside. I couldn’t speak. This wasn’t simple disappointment or shame or embarrassment or frustration or anger or pressure. No, this was all of those things with plenty of sweat and adrenaline and sun exhaustion and expectation thrown in for good measure. All of that over a fish that probably just wanted to make little tarpon more than it wanted to eat, over a goal hastily and naively set years ago that didn’t then carry any baggage so far as I could tell, over a fish, something utterly insignificant.

I’ve read enough Tarpon Stories to know mine isn’t the only brain that goes haywire. But I’m a teacher, an analyzer, whose first word was “why.” Or it may as well have been. So after I came back to my senses, after my brain began to work like it should, after the world outside of my skin started to exist again, that’s exactly where my mind went.

Why? Why did this fish refuse – again – like all the others before? But also why did the accumulation of refusals, the missed shots, the moments my brain and body stopped cooperating and my cast looked more like a cormorant taking off from the water than a pelican send me down that path? Fishing’s fun! Or it’s supposed to be, right?

As a teacher and a scholar, I’m interested in narrative, in stories. How people tell them, who they tell, what stories do. Because they certainly act on us, move us, shape our expectations and structure our reactions to events as complex and momentous as birth and death and love or as insignificant in the scheme of things as Braves baseball this September or, well, fly fishing for giant tarpon.

Narrative is powerful because it trades in desire. And desire’s a funny thing. To last, its goal must be deferred. Achievement spells desire’s annihilation. Since the thing we’re after, the thing we want is something we haven’t yet achieved or acquired, we use narrative to make plans. We imagine the story of our success before we set out after it, tracing a variety of paths to one finish line. The kicker? The chances that we imagine the precise scenario that unfolds are practically nil. There’s essentially no way to not be disappointed. Desire and narrative are both invested in their continuation, and their continuation rests on our not getting where we want to go, not acquiring what we want, not catching whatever we’re chasing. In other words, narrative sets us up for failure.

As a group, anglers seem particularly susceptible to the allure of narrative. Fishing is a hobby, something most of us do in whatever time is left after work and life and responsibilities. So desire’s embedded in our relationship to fishing: the scarcity heuristic hard at work. The folks responsible for the supreme proliferation of discussion boards, e-zines, blogs, and sites like this one are responding to – and perpetuating – our desire both for the thing itself and for stories about it.

So. Almost certain failure. While that’s not a great outlook for anyone susceptible to stories, it’s especially problematic for me, because my narrative is set by folks who can measure in decades the time they’ve spent casting a fly rod; in their company, I am the perpetual novice. So if I have a fly rod in my hand, even if I’m alone, I’m surrounded by experts and by their stories. Season after season, in salt water and fresh, on blue water or out blue lining, chasing striper or tarpon or trout, friends generously offer their guidance, passing along habits they’ve made or seen, tips they’ve picked up along the way, almost willing me to not struggle, to find success on the first go at whatever species I’m after, making that seem not only possible but probable, weaving together a tidy – and compelling – narrative.

“You mean I could catch a giant tarpon on my first trip?”

“Sure! Tarpon are easy!”

“It’s mostly a game of conditions, anyway, and tarpon are dumb – just put the fly where it needs to be, and you’ll be all set!”

To hear them tell it, my only responsibility was to go and do and enjoy myself and take in the experience.

So I went. And did. And – between conversations about how much better poetry is than prose at capturing the feeling of a thing and which camera and lens is best for this situation or that one – was guided into a tarpon during my first trip to the Keys by Captain Joel Dickey. Then we kicked back while Joel drank even more Mt. Dew than we did beer and watched the sun sink into the Gulf.

See? An irresistible narrative. And Joel would’ve told it better – and longer, definitely longer – and punctuated it with Zen master ichthyo-philosophical gems. “The wind means nothing to you. It’s always going to be there. You have to shut your mind off to the wind.” Because storytelling’s in his blood, storytelling and poetry and philosophy.

Never mind that that wasn’t at all what my first trip to the Keys was actually like.

Joel did guide me into leadering a baby tarpon. And we did talk about poetry and photography and fishing philosophy. And he consumed as much Mt. Dew as we consumed beer. And the sun sank into the Gulf every night of my trip like it always has and always will. But that’s about where the similarities end. In fact, I’ve never seen all the conditions of the tarpon narrative I inherited actually met. If the sun and wind and water were right, the fish weren’t there. If the fish were there and moving, clouds or wind would conspire to hide them. The closest I’ve seen was The Day of Perpetual Refusals: sun and a friendly breeze and good tides and fish…that wouldn’t eat.

So I continue to go and do. And each season, I understand a little better; I remember lessons seared into my mind and body by a special kind of discomfort that, I see in retrospect, punctuates and regulates each trip, hoping to build on past experience so those moments will have been worth it. But I still – inevitably? – find myself on the front of a boat, heart pounding in my ears, chest so tight I can’t speak, reduced to nods or head shakes, toes seeking purchase on a skiff deck so I’m not pitched headlong into the ocean, fighting wind and waves and worry and time as line after line of tarpon come into and then out of the reach of my fly.

Here’s the thing about narratives and their power, though. Sure: we are almost bound to be proven wrong, to fail to recreate the stories we imagine should guide us to achieving the thing we want. But those moments of failure, the moments that flip the script, that frustrate expectation, that surprise? Those moments transform an abstract borrowed or imagined narrative into a concrete story, your story, my story.

The porches surrounding the Lorelei start to fill up with the regular cast of characters and their day’s clients around four o’clock most afternoons, cold drinks and commiseration calling the frustrated angler in. We were there too, watching the sun set on the last day of my latest trip. Swapping fishing – not catching – stories and talking baseball, the old timers, pretending to have gained the perspective I lack, offering their own stories and advice.

A couple of beers in, after talking about The Day of Perpetual Refusals, someone asked “What do you want when you fish for tarpon?”

I thought a minute. The quick and dirty answer was easy: to achieve this absurd thing I decided I wanted on a whim as pictures of the Pink Panther hopping a sack race in a human-sized fish flashed through my mind.

“To catch a giant tarpon.”

But the quick and dirty answer is rarely the fullest or richest or truest one. A better answer is more complicated.

So I corrected myself. “To not feel like that,” to not experience the feelings that go along with the inevitable off-script moments of the story I’d planned. That’s what I wanted when I fished for tarpon.

Someone ordered another round, and the conversation turned to the next tournament coming up, the plans for scouting, pre-fishing, who was working whom, the beverages of choice if the rains that were predicted actually came. And eventually folks headed home, an early wake-up call and another day of fishing waiting for them in the morning.

But that conversation stuck with me. It got me thinking. If desire’s at the center of all of this, to answer my “why?”, that’s what I’ve got to understand. And that led me to another question.

What’s it really like to want?

What’s it like to feel? To breathe? To be?

So rather than to hope to catch a giant tarpon or to not feel all the feelings, I should have told the old timer at the Lorelei that what I want is to keep wanting to catch tarpon, no matter how many shots I blow or how many fish I catch. Because yes – inevitably emphatically gloriously – I’ll fail to follow the shortest narrative path that ends with a framed picture of me and my tarpon sporting matching back-tooth-baring grins. I’ll fail to balance expectation and desire. I’ll end up standing on the front of a boat unable to swallow or take a deep breath or utter one word. But to keep going back to the deck of a skiff, scanning the water, looking for the fish: that’s what I want.

Or that’s the perspective I have now, sitting in my loft in Marietta. If you see me on the deck of a flats skiff, though, don’t remind me of it. And don’t be upset if I communicate in nods rather than words.

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3 thoughts on “Trading in Desire

  1. Thanks for this insightful piece. I have been fishing more since I retired a few years ago, and have had more time to reflect during and in between trips about what makes me continue to pursue steelhead during the dreary Oregon winters, or travel to find bonefish or just sit and tie flies. For me, it comes down to the desire to be fully present in the beautiful places where these fish live and to continue to grow relationships with great friends. You have shed light on the uneasiness I am beginning to feel that as I get older I will stop “wanting to want” to fish because it is physically difficult or just too hard to get where I need to go. Understanding that fear motivates me to push forward and to share the joy I feel on the river with friends who will help me fish until it is no longer possible. By then there will be enough stories to sustain me for the rest of the journey.

  2. What a piece. Just fantastic. That’s truly what we all want, I think, is to keep wanting beyond the refusals and the skunks.

  3. Lovely, Lauren. Love this so much: “Here’s the thing about narratives and their power, though. Sure: we are almost bound to be proven wrong, to fail to recreate the stories we imagine should guide us to achieving the thing we want. But those moments of failure, the moments that flip the script, that frustrate expectation, that surprise? Those moments transform an abstract borrowed or imagined narrative into a concrete story, your story, my story.”

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