Coming to terms with a new reality

This past December, I received an unwelcome holiday surprise. Our corporate overlords rounded up the staff at the magazine where I've worked since its inception, twenty-three and a half years prior, to announce our new direction. The upshot: We could still pursue exciting careers in magazine journalism, a vocation now rivaling that of lamplighters or bowling-alley pinsetters for growth potential. Just not at our magazine. They were shutting it down. We were all sacked. As Christmas bonuses go, I'd have preferred a Cabela's gift card.


The reaction was ugly. There was open weeping, defiant cursing, days of pickled denial. And that was just me. I was too out of it to clock colleagues' responses. But once gathering myself, I decided to look at the glass as being half-full. We hadn't done anything wrong, besides going into journalism instead of finance. And this wasn't termination, the end of a way of life I'd known my entire adult life. It was an extended Christmas vacation from which I'd never return. Plus, it would give me more time to fish.

If I sound glib about unemployment, I don't mean to. I've reviewed the medical literature, and it's no joke. Experts say unemployment can lead to everything from weight gain to weight loss. (I've taken up binging-and-purging, covering both bases.) It can increase blood pressure, high cholesterol, and insomnia. It can diminish self-confidence, self-worth, and concentration. It elevates levels of anxiety and depression. It can cause poverty and marital woes. It might trigger skin rashes, respiratory problems, and gastrointestinal distress. It greatly increases your chances of becoming an alcoholic or committing suicide.

Unemployment can do downright strange things to a man. One National Institutes of Health study has it diminishing sperm quality and motility, which is probably for the best. Who wants strong swimmers while you're unemployed? Kids are expensive—I know, I have two of them. And the savings that result from not procreating can be plowed back into much-needed alcohol or tungsten-head winter nymphs. My accountant holds both could be deductible as "medical expenses” under the circumstances.

How bad is unemployment? A Time magazine headline a few years back put it this way: "Unemployment: A Fate Worse Than Death." If you weren’t on the seppuku track from losing your job, you would be after reading Time magazine. Perhaps this is why people now prefer reading cat memes to alarmist newsweeklies.

All of this could drive an unemployed soul to therapy. But fishing has always been my therapy. A lucky thing, too, since it doesn’t require insurance. When I lost my job, my health insurance disappeared along with it, smack in the middle of post-surgical ACL rehabilitation (I’d ruptured mine in a boating mishap). As a capper, my front cap was knocked loose by a breathing tube during the surgery. It eventually dislodged entirely. My tooth is restored now, at great personal expense. But when not watching my blood pressure rise or sperm motility decrease, I’ve been reading plenty of Job, just to see how the pros handle it when life turns the screws. 

Job didn’t fish, it turns out. He mainly sat around nursing his lesions, counting his dead livestock, and arguing with God. I suspect he’d have been better off armed with a 6-weight, dropped in a river full of spawning hickory shad. Though I’m not sure the shad run made it to his land of Uz. And with his luck, the river probably would’ve turned red with blood anyway. His cautionary tale, however, wouldn’t keep me from fishing away the pain, or trying to. 

Fishing is perhaps not the most responsible way to tackle unemployment. Even though at least five of J.C.’s disciples were fishermen, including his two favorites (Peter and John), so a case could be made that it’s a divinely-sanctioned coping mechanism. But I’ve not been completely derelict in my duties. I’ve taken meetings or fielded calls from editors at fine establishments, offering chances for me to take up my rightful place in the gig economy (which 36 percent of Americans now belong to—we are all Uber drivers now, or becoming them). I thank them profusely, generally telling them I’ll be with them right after shad season.

Sitting on a little nest egg—growing littler by the day—I decided that in order to put my life back together, I’d need to put my head back together first. And in my experience, the water is the best place, maybe the only place, to do so. This, admittedly, is a luxury many in similar situations don’t have. A little financial cushion can be the difference between reluctantly facing life’s new reality, or having your nose held in it.

As writing jobs go, I had a fairly unique one, both because of what I was allowed to do, and what I didn’t have to do. There was no middle-manager quant standing over my shoulder, counting clicks, making me crank out five pieces of rage-bait per day, as has become custom at too many shops. And I was permitted, even encouraged, to write 9,000-word stories on esoteric characters that may or may not intersect with the news, as is custom at almost no shops. The subtitle of my 2010 book, Fly Fishing with Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys gives the flavor of my former beat. The book is a collection of some of my stories, and it was named after a day on Wyoming’s Snake River that I once had with Dick Cheney when he was vice president. Many was the night I’d find myself in some far-flung American outpost, pouring the best kind of whiskey into a subject—the kind covered by an expense account—while turning on my recorder so that they could reveal their character (or lack of), in order to illuminate the world. Afterwards, I’d write up the findings. It often felt like we’d discovered something together. It was a gift that even as a cub reporter, I didn’t take for granted.

Hickory Shad
photo by DAVE SKOK

But there’s another kind of gift that suffering and deprivation impart. It is not one that makes you feel special, but yields the discovery of just how un-special you are. Just a month or so after my magazine’s Yuletide massacre, came word that—between layoffs at places like Buzzfeed, Huffpost, Vice Media, and Gannett—2,100 more journalists were getting the axe in the space of two weeks. Neither does employment itself inoculate one from suffering. If you believe the survey data, 85 percent of workers worldwide hate their jobs. And 40 percent of Americans can’t cover a $400 emergency expense. 

All of which made me feel more decadent for self-medicating by driving five hours, round-trip, to catch brookies on dry flies in a small mountain stream near Camp David, MD. A $40 tank of gas is half a week’s worth of groceries. (Or a day’s worth at Whole Foods.) But sometimes you have to answer the call. When I catch those wild, bejeweled brookies, with their shimmering yellows and blues, I feel closer to my maker (God, not my mom), and see life’s possibilities once more. So much of not foreclosing on life depends on allowing what it brings to flow freely. Anything that restores hope becomes worth the exercise. 

Though during this unemployed fishing season, there have been less-than-hopeful days. Lately, I fish with a sort of listless distraction that I don’t recall plaguing me before. When non-fisherfolk ask me what I think about while fishing, “fishing” is my standard answer. That’s the beauty of it. It’s good about crowding out all other thought. Whatever we escape by fishing, our own heads are usually at the top of the list.

Work often comes in a close second. The term “fishing bum,” which Orvis-outfitted workadaddies on their twice-a-year-fishing trips like to brandish as a badge of honor (Hey look! I have a life outside the office!) starts to take on more literal and sinister connotations in my case. With no work to dodge, the sanctuary I’m usually afforded by fishing comes to feel more like a hibernation den. Fishing often helps us forget the world. But it’s an easier place to want to forget when you’re not worried that the world’s forgotten you. 

Our (former) corporate masters had the indecency to leave us at loose ends in the bleak midwinter, a time that always puts a crimp in my fishing totals. Unfortunately, I am one of those dreaded fish-counters. It’s ugly, but I can’t help myself. Counting and logging fish is important—quantifiable evidence of a life well wasted. I make myself catch more than 1,000 fish on a fly rod every year, which I’ve had no trouble doing for the past twelve years. But the first quarter is always a bear, even when you have all kinds of time.

In January and February, wintering stripers are nowhere in sight of the jetties of the Chesapeake Bay. The largemouth ponds that litter my southern Maryland landscape are dead, if not frozen over. A nearby poop plant, (a wastewater treatment facility with a warmwater outflow that attracts fish, which I count on for winter action), seems to be pumping out fish repellant. 

I have caught 20 largemouth in the snow there on occasion. But after a mid-January day in which I pull out 27 crappie, the place shuts off. For a solid month, I draw skunks, as though the fish gods are in collusion with the print-journalism gods. By the time I finally pull a lonely, winter-ashen bluegill in late February, I kiss him—a just-shy-of-bestiality gesture I usually reserve for less slutty fish, like harder-to-get brown trout. 

Thank God that by early April, the shad run saves my sanity, and not for the first time. Every spring, these saltwater bullets—muscles with scales, really—run our rivers to make future generations of hickories and Americans who will also eat our brightly-colored darts, never learning from mom and dad’s mistakes, as the parents shoot back out to sea before wisdom gets imparted. 

Even for flyfishers who have jobs in our region, it’s almost impossible to concentrate on them when you know that the shad are running. But I don’t have the problem of a job for the first time ever. So I fish like I’m avenging a death, covering the local map. I hit the wilds of Prince George’s County, forgotten fishing trails with jungle undergrowth and hand-liner litter where catfish-seeking Central Americans seem to have constructed altars of beer-can empties to the Lords of Modelo. 

I hit a productive spot well north of Baltimore, a place bombed in MS-13 graffiti with welcome-to-the-river admonitions sprayed on the train trestles, such as “Only dead fish follow the stream.” Which is not enough to keep me away from good, clean anadromous fun. But when I spy a bunch of gangbangers camping out on my favorite rock above the falls, I don’t argue to cut in. As my general rule of urban fishing stipulates: pole position goes to the guy with the most face tattoos. 

My most bountiful run takes place at Fletcher’s Cove, perhaps the finest shad fishery in America. There, on a pretty stretch of Potomac tucked away from Washington D.C., a few miles upstream from Georgetown, you can rent a rowboat and pitch a rock anchor over the side, holding your place in the current in a craft stable enough to stand in and cast. You strap some lead-eyed flies or dart doubles onto your heaviest sink-tips, then flip a 20- or 30-foot cast into the seam (so as to avoid becoming a cyclops or getting an ear-piercing throwing all that lead on heavy line). Then you pay out the rest of your running line downriver as your flies swing. It is not unthinkable to enjoy 100-shad days, as you experience the Labrador retrievers of fish. They leap and bound and tend to fetch much of what you throw at them, while exerting more pullage per square inch than the rest of the river’s inhabitants.

I catch steadily, if not crazily—32 hickories in all. But my mind’s not at stimulated-rest the way it usually is while shad fishing. I see the parkway hundreds of yards above the river on the Virginia side, lousy with commuters. In my old life, when I’d steal a day out here, I pitied, rather than envied them. Poor schlubs were on their way to face their cubicles and power-point presentations and the dead glow of their computer screens. Whereas I was catching God’s vibrant creatures, holding them for a second, then letting them go. Better them than me, I’d think. But now I wasn’t so sure they weren’t looking down from their Priuses thinking the reverse, with their direct-deposit paychecks every two weeks, their 401-K contributions matched, them not worrying that their job will head out to sea like my fish will in just a few short weeks.    

As I stand in my boat, doing the thing I like to do least while catching fish—thinking—three young, African-American gents row by, sort of. They appear to be woefully inexperienced, lucky if one of them knows how to thread a nightcrawler, let alone row the boat, which the oarsman is rowing while facing the wrong way. I never give advice on the river unless someone asks—people fish to get away from know-it-alls. But I feel sorry for them, watching them labor mightily against the current, losing the fight. We nod greetings to each other, then I tell the three wise men, “It usually goes easier if you turn around and row while facing the stern—the back.” They thank me for my advice, then ignore it. They wrong-way row a little longer, until the current blows them downstream a hundred yards or so before they sink their rock anchor. 

I’m feeling pretty satisfied with myself, landing shad in front of them, until a 12-knot wind whips up from behind me and blows my lucky hat off into the drink. I can’t lose it. It’s an ugly hat, turd-brown with lots of fish slime, like something a trucker would wear if he were trying to stay faithful to his wife by repelling lot lizards at the Flying J. But it came from Montana Troutfitters, a fly shop in Bozeman. I was out there for a week once, for a story, fishing with PTSD-afflicted Marines who were using fishing to forget happenings like getting shot up or blown up or losing friends to enemy fire, things a lot hairier than losing a cushy magazine job. 

Still, I’ve lost a lot lately, so I’m not about to lose my lucky fishing hat as well. I throw my rod to the bottom of the boat, trying not to crunch it, then whip around to the bow, pulling the heavy rock anchor off the bottom of the Potomac—an ordeal even when you’re not in a hurry. By the time I get the oars locked and the boat turned around, my hat’s disappeared from sight. I row in the direction I saw it traveling, a good 70 yards downstream. By the time I spot it and catch up, it is submerged below the water line, but has not yet sunk. I hyperextend my arm, reaching into the water and clasping the hat by my fingertips. I pull it to safety, snatch up to my feet in triumph, and put it sopping-wet back on my head where it belongs, tripping over the boat bench, while falling into the hull as I nearly snap my 9-weight.

The three wise men look upstream at me, bemused. They applaud. I doff my wet hat from a prone position. Ridiculousness-wise, we’re all in the same boat now. 

Back at the poop plant, which I rename the perch plant for about a month each spring on account of a plentiful run of white perch that appear, I am fishing with one of my only regular fishing companions. I generally prefer fishing alone, aside from my two sons, who I sometimes wish would take up golf when they start ringing the bell too often in my honey holes.

But my current fishing buddy is Gorto, a great blue heron. I named him after the Gorton’s fisherman—the fish-stick company mascot—because, unlike me, Gorto is no catch-and-releaser. He’s a stone-cold killer. When we first started showing up together, he’d fly away. But now, he’s so accustomed to me, we often fish the poop plant chute at the same time—I could bank flies off his chest, and it wouldn’t break his concentration, as he stands still as a statue, at the ready to stab fish with his beak.


Today, however, I am having all the luck, and he is having none. I catch perch after perch in front of him; it feels like I’m running up the score. When I hit 40, a nice round biblical number (for 40 years, Moses led the Israelites around in circles in the wilderness), I decide to do something I haven’t done on purpose in decades, as an act of graciousness. I kill a fish. Or I don’t kill it, exactly, I just pitch a perch at Gorto’s webbed feet, as if to say, “this one’s on me.” 

I can’t know the mind of a heron. On some days, I don’t even know my own. But I get the feeling that Gorto resents my presence, and if possible, would say to me, “I don’t come to your house during dinner and play with your food, then not even eat it. Don’t you have anywhere else to be? The office, or something?” Gorto looks at the fish writhing on the ground in front of him, then turns on his heron heels, and flies downstream, uninterested in my charity. 

I hobble over to the fish, trying not to re-rupture my ACL while navigating rocks. I am thankful he is still with us, and feel badly for offering him up to Gorto. I lower him into the river, and gently rock him back and forth, letting his gills and the circulating water work their resuscitative voodoo. Instead of darting out of my hand, as fish usually do, he sort of stumbles out of it. As with herons, I can’t know the mind of a perch. 

But I watch him swim away, dazed and slightly disoriented, grateful for his freedom, but not quite sure of what to do with it. Perhaps no longer trusting that the world he’s always known won’t be the end of him. Watching him stagger off into the deep, I whisper an apology after him. “I’m sorry, brother. I know exactly how you feel.”

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