By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter
I converted to The Great American Hunting Tradition at the ripe age of 27. My calling came upon firing at — and missing — a widgeon after a miserable 400-yard crawl through swamp muck and polar grass. If I had killed that particular duck, the craze that followed would not have ensued. I may have adopted a “been there, done that” mentality toward waterfowling. Instead, the hunter I followed into the fold picked up the spent shotshell from the grass and held it up to my nose.
“This is what fall smells like to me,” he said.
I was hooked.
My attachment to the doctrine and conventions of the outdoors came after my conversion, which was near instantaneous. I was in a gun store the weekend after my first duck-hunting trip looking at shotguns. It was with a blind ambition that I spent day after day in the field. It wasn’t the quarry I was after, as there weren’t many ducks around that season, a fire had started inside and I was running on its fumes.
Years later I find myself as a member of various outdoor-affiliated organizations, and I rabidly read literature on this year’s migration numbers. Stories about the purchase or demise of fine hunting dogs bring tears to my eyes. The house is littered in outfitter catalogs. I own more gun-cleaning kits than sewing kits.
I have no children or excuses for my behavior. I am a devout follower of all things outdoors. I live with some chocolate Labs and an English setter who thinks life is about athleticism and breakfast, and I agree. A new puppy is like a new lease on life.
On the way from a spruce grouse hunt, my hunting partner, who also is an excellent fisherman, brought up the decline of fish on a certain lake. He was up on his current events and discussed the issues articulately and in the same vocabulary as the officials.
“It is the only fishery of its kind,” my hunting partner pointed out. He was speaking as a conservationist of a lake that was being overfished.
“Since when did a ‘lake’ become a ‘fishery?’” I asked.
It was the same regulatory vocabulary that called fish and game “the resource” and hunters and fishermen a “user group.” The lake of which my hunting partner spoke was not a fish factory — a place where fish are bred or caught — and those who “used” the lake were not occupational or industrial-minded individuals. So the term “fishery” didn’t fit my experience of the outdoors.
“When did a ‘fisherman’ become a ‘fishery man?’” I asked.
Would I next be led to believe that there was such a thing as “hunteries”?
An Alaska history of the term “fishery” attaches itself to an association with another term: “Personal-use fishery,” which was invented to clarify what was seen by the Board of Fisheries as a more confusing term — “subsistence.” The regulatory definition of personal-use fishing is the “taking, or attempting to take or possession of fish, for consumption as food or bait by an individual or his immediate family.”
For me, “the one that got away” is not a matter of accrual-basis accounting. Fishing for me fits more in line with the simplest definition of a “myth” — at first, the story seems simple and possibly a lie but, upon deeper investigation, the story reveals that the extraordinary events, sometimes supernatural, are not about the facts as they must be recorded on harvest tickets, but about meaning. Maybe that’s why fishermen are known for their imaginations — a great imagination engenders a great life. I can’t think of a better life than one that focuses around fishing.
Fishermen have told me things about fishing that make no sense whatsoever — about lures, scent, casts and even the way I hold my mouth. The world of fishing is so spectacularly sensitive that the minutest inattention causes catastrophic failure. A fisherman must be so attuned to the task at hand that only divine grace will grant him any success whatsoever. In that way, fishing is the most profound self-realization possible. Its meaning is a luxury that cannot be purchased for the price of a fishing license.
Fishing can be protected or permitted. The parts that play into it can be termed the way the parts of the body are laid out on the table as in Figure 1 of the textbook. Certain fishing stories may become illegal to tell. But somewhere, always, someone will be standing on the edge of a river fishing.
That may become a myth and children someday may not believe that it was possible to eat a fish that you caught yourself, or reach down and pick up a spent shotshell and hold it to your nose and know what is meant by, “This is what fall smells like to me.”
This future generation may not be able to imagine what the sound of a perfect cast is, how it whirrs into the air and how there is an actual change in the sound as it arcs over the water, and that a fisherman could be blind and know exactly where his line dropped.
Do I care what regulatory agencies decide about the future of fish and game? Yes. It’s the vocabulary that is so objectionable.
Christine Cunningham was born in Alaska and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for the last 20 years, where she enjoys fishing, hunting and outdoors recreation. She is writing a book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” scheduled to be printed by Northern Publishing in January 2013. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.