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THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY

“I was already obsessed with the possibility of success”

Words by David Coggins Photograph by the Weaver House

FOR SOME, GOING FISHING IS ABOUT BRINGING HOME THE SALMON. FOR OTHERS, IT’S SIMPLY ABOUT THE POSSIBILITY OF A CATCH. LIFE IS ABOUT CASTING A WIDE NET, AND SOMETIMES THE IMPORTANT PART ISN’T WHAT ENDS UP IN IT.

Fishing is a curious pursuit. You set yourself up for failure again and again, though the embarrassment comes in different forms and still manages to surprise you. Of course there’s always a remote chance of success, but take a photo when that happens or nobody will believe you. All of which is to say that anglers remain improbable optimists at heart.

We hope against hope that this time it will be different. We try our luck against the odds, but we also have to deal with the metaphors: There’s the one that got away, of course. But don’t worry, there’s always another fish in the sea. Or maybe it goes back to obsession and Moby Dick. But the metaphors are often too much: Sometimes a fish is just a fish.

My first saltwater quarry was not fish at all, but crab. As young kids we visited my grandparents’ house on a canal in south Texas. My sister and I would run downstairs first thing each morning to haul out the crab trap that hung off the dock. It was a big chicken-wire cube with openings at each end and a cylinder in the center full of some gnarly chicken meat my grandmom stuck in it.

The crabs entered through the openings, fell down to the bottom and couldn’t climb out. We never understood the physics of the thing (or why crabs like chicken), but we loved to see their blue shells when we pulled the trap out of the water, even though we were frightened of their claws and the strange way their color shifted in the sun like gasoline. When crabs were served at dinner, my sister and I abstained: We didn’t even like crabs—we held out for fried shrimp. But the catch was the thing. The anticipation gives you a high, kind of like scratching off a lottery ticket.

That may not qualify as fishing; the trap does all the work and you just show up to check on it. But I was already obsessed with the possibility of success. When I got older, I’d hang a lure over the edge of the dock, and then catch an ugly gray catfish if I was lucky. They have sharp barbels that look like whiskers, and I’d stare at these prehistoric faces before I made my Uncle Bill unhook them and throw them back in the water.

Just fishing was enough. But as you learn more you expect more, and you rarely get the results you feel you deserve. The remarkable thing about fishing is its incredible capacity, despite your experience, to make you feel like a novice. The more you know, the more you realize you have to learn. Wait, is that another metaphor?

When you’re young, you’re happy for any action and every fish looks big. These days I don’t troll for catfish in Texas—I fly-fish for trout in Montana—but the impulse is the same. You like the mystery of what’s happening beneath the surface and the first sight of the fish when it comes out of the water. It’s enough to make you comfortable with failure, because you know your luck can change with the next cast.

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