We wanted fish to bite our hooks. Only the fish. We did not want mammals, amphibians, marsupials, reptiles, or poultry of any sort to latch onto our fishing lines. If you had asked us why, we might have said, ‘Well, that’s why it’s called fishing.’ and we would have been right— it was called fishing, and the fish were the goal. We would, of course, pry out the hook, wash the blood from our hands, and throw them right back in after. Then we would, of course, press cheap white bread over the hook between our index fingers and thumbs, make sure the shiny silver was all covered up and throw the line right back in.
The fish’s eyes did not look like ours. We would hold them in our hands as their tails thrashed madly. They would gaze unblinkingly in a way that was foreign to us. “This one is so pretty, look at it.” The fish calmed, and we tilted it back and forth in the sunlight. “Look.” My brother and my sister would smile. There was the opening and closing of the mouth, as if it were afraid to speak. We would wipe away its blood, as if lovingly, as if we had not ourselves obscured that silver hook in a more agreeable whiteness.
To be more explicit than is probably necessary, we did not hate the fish. We’d have said that we liked them. Yes, of course, we sent the hooks down to catch them, pulled them up as they flailed, wiped their blood on our beach towels, and looked fondly in their eyes. “That’s why it’s called fishing,” we might have said, had you asked us. Fishing, we would have tried to articulate, was an appropriate interaction between fish and humans. There was the riding of horses, the milking of cows, the eating of pigs, the petting of dogs, the teaching of children, the planting of seeds, the mowing of grass, the picking of flowers, and, yes, of course, the fishing of fish. What we did involved flailing bodies and blood, but we did not call it violence, because this was called fishing.
We liked watching the ducks. The fish, from our perspective, were like shadows underwater, but the ducks were floating, sunlit, and very real. When one of the ducks dipped its head into the water and bit my hook, I screamed— there is no such thing as ducking. No one ducks for ducks. Ducking equipment is not sold in any store. Nobody goes ducking with friends on the weekend. People do not hang ironic ‘gone ducking’ signs on doors. No bumper sticker on any car has ever told me that its driver would rather be ducking. This does not happen in books or movies. You could not find this in a dictionary. It goes unmentioned in the lyrics of country songs.
My parents and grandparents came yelling. The duck’s wings went around in passionate circles. Feathers came loose, fell, and floated away on the water. My grandfather held the duck’s head steady and pulled the hook out. They said to me, “You need to be more careful. You could have really hurt that duck, you know. It could have died.”
Of course, if we’d been ducking, they would have smiled at the duck’s feathers flying all over. They’d have taken a picture of me, smiling, and my duck. They would say “All right, throw it back now,” but as it happened, we were not ducking. We were fishing, and when I asked if the duck would be okay they said, “You’d better hope it will,” and when they walked away I felt like something was missing. That night we ate dinner. We may have had fish. We may have eaten a duck, one that we did not see or hear dying. Do we care about ducks? We’d have told you we did. We did not cover our eyes, nor did we look further than we needed to.