By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter
There’s a fine line when it comes to technology and the outdoors. When someone first told me about an electric reel for fishing, my first thought was a scoff. My mental scoffing makes a “sha” sound that was learned from either being a Generation X outdoors woman or watching “Wayne’s World” too many times (or both).
I would never use an electric fishing reel, I mentally postured. Real men, like me, want to exercise their manly strength. Even though I’m not a man and my strength is not too manly, besides. But it’s strength, gall darnit. As long as it’s possible for me to seriously injure my shoulders, I want to do so. Because it honors the fish. They want to die knowing someone seriously injured her shoulders to eat flakey white meat.
Then came the day I saw my first electric reel on a halibut trip. A friend pulled this already dinosaur-looking contraption out of the cabin along with a battery pack powerful enough to start a Bush plane. “Sha,” I thought. “He’s not a man like me.” For some reason, when I’m feeling manly, my shoulders come up and my chest puffs out. My voice deepens and I imagine that I sound like John Wayne when I say, “Well that’s some reel you got there, partner.”
Back in my day we rode horses and, well, I don’t know how John Wayne would have caught a halibut, but he would never use an electric reel. And if the Duke wouldn’t, than neither would I.
“It’s great,” my friend said. “You just push this button and it reels up the fish.”
“Hmm,” I said. Then I waited for someone else on the boat to ridicule the reel. Ridicule likes company. “Those are great,” my other friend said. “I want one.”
I looked around. Where had all the cowboys gone? Certainly someone would join me in some form of machismo. Certainly I wasn’t fishing with a bunch of button pushers. We needed to really exhaust ourselves to feel alive. We needed to feel like we spent 10 rounds in the boxing ring to bring in a fish. We needed some gut-wrenching back pain and exchange some punches to the groin. Instead, we were one step away from ordering our halibut from a catalog while seated on the toilet. “I don’t know,” I said. I couldn’t go so far as to say I enjoyed reeling in a big halibut, but I had so much fake testosterone pumping through my veins that my thoughts were not exactly lucid.
After about 20 minutes, a cod took my bait. The electric reel man next to me also had a cod on his line. He pushed the button and I started to reel. We were 260 feet on the bottom with 3 pounds of weight. “One hundred feet,” he said. “See? The little screen tells me how many feet.”
He was leaned back on a giant fish cooler watching me stab the end of the rod into my hip bone. “That’s nice,” I said. I was running out of breath. “But it doesn’t tell you what kind of fish it is.” When you can’t think up a good ridicule, the next best thing is to find flaws. “It’s not like it has a screen that shows you what the fish is doing.”
His cod popped up on the surface while I struggled to reel mine. His line was back down on the bottom before mine was an estimated — and by no means certain — 75 feet down. After we got into some dogfish and had to reel up two each, I had to wipe a bead of sweat off my brow to see him drinking tea from his Thermos. He looked positively relaxed.
“I guess an electric reel makes sense for bait checks and reeling up small fish,” I said. Then, not being able to suppress myself, I thought, “If you’re not strong like me.” Then I laughed to myself. Possibly, I was going insane with envy.
The dogfish had descended upon us like a pack of hungry wolves. Their jeweled eyes seemed to mock me. The commercial fisherman seated next to me was still sipping tea and enjoying the views. I was the underpaid servant rowing a hundred miles at sea with slavish thoughts of freedom. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford an electric reel. If a robot descended from the sky with one in a pretty little box, I might have fallen on my knees and yelled “thank you” to the cameras in the sky. But I couldn’t buy one. Not 40 miles out of the harbor. Not with a “sha” lodged in my chest that was once puffed.
I took a break from reeling to become seasick after eating third-party sausage. I probably would have gotten seasick anyway, but the next time I’m offered sausage from a friend of a friend, I will want a proper chain of custody. Eating meat that was part of a freezer burn exchange is a possibility that must be duly considered. The fact that everyone else was eating it and not objecting to electric reels made me wonder about my manliness. Would John Wayne be laying in the bow of the boat? No, because he was in big fake movies. In the real world of real reeling, being on a seasick break was kind of nice.
My fishing partner reeled in two skates while I came to terms with my spiritual and moral loneliness. There were now four halibut in the box, and I had to fish. I grabbed my lowly hand reel and took position at the gunnel. Within moments, a halibut was on my bait. I reeled — expertly, I imagined. I reeled like John Wayne would have a body double ride a horse trained to do tricks in a rodeo across a Western movie set. My technologically advanced friend was getting a bite, and I watched him out of one eye. He wasn’t reeling.
“Button!” my friend called out as a reminder. “Button!” He was saying “button” instead of “reel.” “What,” I thought, “has the world come to?” The button was pushed and the halibut came off the bait.
“Ha ha,” I thought, as I also lost my halibut. “Ha ha,” indeed. No matter what, fishing is not always about catching fish. It’s about good company, great scenery and time in the outdoors. It’s about puffing out your chest and then having it deflated. As John Wayne would say, “Man ought to do what he thinks is best.”
Sometimes I’m glad I’m not a man.
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. Her book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” was released by Northern Publishing. She can be reached at email@example.com. For up-to-date information on the “Women Hunting Alaska” book, visit Northern Publishing online or Women Hunting Alaska on Facebook.