Ed Note: This story was originally published in the November/December 2004 issue of Best Life.
We are sitting here a bit anxiously at the private sector of the Petropavlask Airport, waiting to fly 120 miles or so up Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula to a wondrous fish-filled section of the Zhupanova River, where every cast, it would seem from the stories of other fishermen, brings a strike. This last leg is the nervous-making one, taking place as it does in converted Soviet-era army helicopters. There are eight in our group, and to be honest, we are all more tense about the risk factor on this part than we’d like to admit, for the phrase Soviet chopper does not necessarily conjure up great confidence. In the weeks before we were to leave, a number of friends called in, a bit edgy on our behalf. And more poignantly our wives asked, “Do you really want to do this?” My daughter and her pal Ellie Berlin, the daughter of our group’s leader, Richard Berlin, have exchanged their own private anxieties.
Someone in our group—it is like being in the army, where the rumor is always king—says the Russians are good about this: They know our fears and need the hard currency and dare not have a crash, and they know the importance of upkeep and therefore make a mechanic fly on each trip, just to be sure the upkeep is first-rate. But then someone else says that is what they tell the Americans, and if the repairman goes at all, it’s probably once in every 10 trips.
After we spend about 2 hours in the waiting room, the helicopter is ready and we board, about 20 people, all of us with far too much gear. A lot of weight there, I’m thinking. I rode many choppers when I was reporting in Vietnam, and I know how important weight is, and the weight of this machine makes me nervous, as does the inside of the chopper; with a bit of duct tape slapped on here, and another bit patching something there, none of it comforting. Then liftoff comes and it is sensational: The power of the machine is awesome, and we gradually begin to relax.
I have been unusually eager to make this trip to eastern Russia, on their side of the Bering Strait, and now I am overwhelmed, staggered by the sheer beauty of what surrounds me. It is virgin territory, and I think of what it must have been like to explore Alaska 100 years ago. Although we are here to fish, in the end the experience of fishing will be transcended by the beauty of the spot-the lovely river, so primitively landscaped, with the volcanoes in the background. It is the most beautiful vista I think I’ve ever seen. It is made somehow sweeter by the knowledge that there is no one around for miles and miles.
I am taking this trip very seriously, determined that this will be a new me. As such I had been practicing my fly casting for weeks while staying in my summerhouse in Nantucket. I wanted to improve my stroke. Or, more accurately, develop a stroke. My next birthday will be my 70th, and this is something that I should have done long ago. Over the years, I have come to accept my strengths and my limitations, the things I do well and the things I do not do well; it is part of being a grown-up, I figure, learning your limitations, and thus a critical part of coming to accept yourself. But more than most things, my lack of skill with a fly rod grates on me. I am a serious fisherman, and I am nicely accomplished with a spinning rod and a casting rod, but for a variety of reasons, I handle a fly rod poorly.
One reason for this is that I did not touch one until I was well into my 50s; another is that I haven’t devoted much time to it; and finally, because of the winds on Nantucket, where I do most of my fishing, a spinning rod is generally a more viable instrument when I go after blues or stripers. If you’re a novice fly fisherman, the windy shores of Nantucket are not an ideal place to improve technique. In the past I’ve graded myself as a C+ fly fisherman. While I might have gained points in some quarters for this rare display of modesty, regrettably I have not gained points with myself.
In recent years I have begun taking trips of an uncommon quality with some very accomplished fly fishermen, and I am fed up not merely with my own limitations but with my own rationales, as well. I am tired of going on trips (three times to Patagonia for giant brown trout) made for a thoroughbred but, in my own mind, fishing like a donkey.
At stake here is something very important for me. It’s the question of whether as a certain age approaches, a number that had always marked you as old in this society, you can still feel young, act young, and perhaps most important, overcome some partially flawed part of your character that has governed you in the past. Improving my fly casting then has become something larger: a self-imposed character test, and quite possibly a way of trying to stay young. It is not going to be easy.
A good part of my problem has been that the only time I pick up a fly rod is when I am on location, and for a moment I get in a rhythm and raise my grade, only to slip back when the trip is over. Thus I never sustain improvement. But this time with the Kamchatka trip ahead, I did not want my first cast in 6 months to come when we finally hit the water. It seemed wrong to undertake such a privileged trip and not arrive better prepared; it’s as if I owe it to the quality of the fishing and the fish themselves to do better. So every morning I went out to practice. At the end of the day I called Richard Berlin, a first-rate fisherman whose immense energies and instinct for friendship drive these trips, and we went over how I had done.
This then is a test not really about fishing but about life, about staying young. I am not one of those self-help enthusiasts, buying a new book each year hoping for a new start on life; I do not think at this late date that I can create a new me, nor for that matter do I want to. But I do want to stay as young as I can, physically, intellectually, and emotionally. I’ve done well at this, it seems to me, in my professional life, always working, finding projects that late in my career still energize me, mixing longer, ostensibly more serious political books with shorter books on sports, which are more fun to do; my work still gives me pleasure, perhaps even more pleasure now than when I was young and my professional anxieties were greater. I have no thought of retiring-writers never retire anyway; they keep writing until one of two things happens: No one buys their books, or they die. The danger for someone like me, a nonfiction writer, is not about your legs giving out or your becoming tired after 4 hours of writing; instead it is about losing your curiosity and sense of excitement about life around you.
Finding purpose in the moments when I’m not working is harder than when I am working, as I’m sure it is for many American males of my generation. Working hard—a singular professional purpose—came easily to us; we were children of the meritocracy, raised to work hard, and lucky enough in many cases to find work we loved. Many of us came from economically limited backgrounds-in the generations that preceded ours no one sailed, traveled, played tennis or golf, or for that matter lived long enough to retire. We were not prepared for a life with leisure time, to deal with the other part of our lives.
From the start, fishing was one of my chosen ways to find that additional excitement to help in feeling young. I am not sure why I grew up loving to fish so much, why the pursuit of it has given me so much purpose and pleasure, but clearly it is part of who I am. There is no pure rational answer to the question of why any fisherman will travel thousands of miles to some distant place, spending a great deal of money on the trip to catch a few fish and, of course, immediately release them back into the waters from which they have just come. It is something I have pondered for much of my life. There was one day on the Zhupanova when it was raining and everyone was chilled, really chilled, and we all looked and felt more than a little miserable, and nothing seemed so delicious as one of those soup-in-a-packet fixes. We sat at lunch that day and laughed about it, how if this were anything but fishing we would never spend all that money, travel all that distance, get up so early in the morning, deal with awful weather like this, and somehow love it.
So it is a question that has long puzzled me. Why do I fish? Where does it come from? Why does it matter so much to me? Why will I get up at ungodly hours to go fishing? Why, when I was a boy, was I more eager than any other member of my family except my beloved Uncle Moe to fish? Why did I fish every single day of the summer, catching small panfish day after day, perhaps the same fish many times over? I fished in part because my father fished. He did it when he could and took considerable pleasure from it, but I do not think it was a passion for him as it was for his older brother.
Uncle Moe, back in my childhood, back when we were living in Northwest Connecticut, would sometimes show up mysteriously at our house in the early morning and drop off a large number of immense fish in our kitchen sink. They obviously had not come from Highland Lake, 50 feet from our home, because Highland was one of the great fished-out lakes in the entire country. Almost surely they came from the Winchester Reservoir, about 2 miles away, where fishing was illegal and where he had made an illegal nighttime sojourn. Is it in your gene pool, a mysterious, somewhat secret part of your DNA? Was there a distant ancestor back in the old country who would sneak out when he was supposed to be studying the Torah in order to go fishing? Why is the strike of a big fish or, perhaps more accurately, the possibility of the strike of a big fish so important?
Why is it so sweet a part of my life, and why is it less ego driven than so many other things I do? In the 30 years that I’ve lived on Nantucket and fished there for striped bass and bluefish, I’ve tended to understate the size of my fish. When I fished with my pals, I did not need to catch the biggest fish or the most fish, although I did not like being shut out. I was not trophy driven. I’ve never had a desire, as a boy or man, to mount a fish-not that my wife would let a mounted fish into the house, not even in my office.
The closest I’ve come to any ego moment was some 30 years ago when I was fishing off Great Point, the lovely outer arm of Nantucket. I was fishing by myself, which was rare, and I ran into a large school of giant bluefish, all of them, it seemed, in the 17- to 20-pound range and all of them in a voracious mood. I had two rods with me: a light Fenwick rigged with 10-pound-test line, which is quite light for this kind of fishing, and an even lighter Fenwick, a freshwater rod, rigged with 6-pound-test, which was almost too light for the region, especially on so light a rod. At that time, as I recall, the world record for a blue on 6-pound-test was around 18 pounds, and it was clear to me that I had a chance to break it.
I thought-it was not one of my finest moments-that I might be able to set the record for a blue on 6-pound-test, and even worse, I must admit, my thoughts jumped to an imagined minibio on the back of my next book. Besides stating that I won the Pulitzer Prize in Vietnam, it would say, “Mr. Halberstam is also the holder of the world record for a bluefish on 6-pound-test line. . . .” I saw myself boating the fish and rushing off to my friend Bill Pew’s tackle shop to weigh it before it lost any weight. But it didn’t work out that way, which is, I am sure, just as well. With that light a line, I needed a heavier rod to move the fish, and again and again they ended up muscling me and breaking off. I tell this story-a confessional, and not a particularly attractive one-now for the first time, more than a little embarrassed by it, my one great ego moment in fishing, one that came and went mercifully.
That was why, at this late date, I finally decided to make a commitment to upgrade myself and my casting. At first it was difficult, not so much hard work as it was frustrating, working at something that seemed just out of reach. The stroke came and went. Sometimes it went all too quickly. There were moments when I was in a terrific groove, when almost magically I seemed to have it down, and then just as quickly it departed, and I was, predictably, trying to muscle the whole thing. When that happened, the rhythm completely disappeared and my casts died on me. But gradually, day by day, I got better, and soon I had a genuine stroke. More, I came to like the endless repetition, the almost narcotic effect on me, as if the rhythm itself were the purpose, and I found that without realizing it, I was losing myself in the act of casting, even when there was no chance of catching a fish. I stayed in the rhythm for even longer periods, and whenever I slipped out, I did not try to muscle it. I was thrilled by the improvement. I was getting good distance on almost every cast; I was finally ready for the Zhupanova.
I’d been intrigued from the start by the idea of the trip, fly-fishing in the outer reach of what was for most of my life the Soviet Union, a place forbidden not just to Westerners (especially journalists like me, whom the Soviets always thought of as spies) but to the Russian people, as well. Kamchatka is not Russia any more than most of Alaska is really America; it is land so vast, so distant from the core of the rest of the nation, that it does not seem to belong to anyone. It is there for itself.
The uncharted quality of this expanse fascinates a man named Peter Soveril, who is on our trip. Soveril has negotiated with the Russians for the rights for Americans to fish here and, perhaps more important, constantly lobbies for maximum conservation practices as the head of a group called the Wild Salmon Center. (“Czar Peter” is what Mike Michalak, of the Fly Shop, a California fly-fishing store, calls him. Mike handles fishing trips for Americans and is a member of our group.) The question, of course, is whether in the long run the Kamchatka can be protected. We are fishing under strict guidelines, not merely catch-and-release but also with barbless hooks that give the fish a far better chance of throwing the hook and make it infinitely easier to release them when caught.
The fishing here is very good. The brochures for it make it seem as if the fish have never encountered fishermen or artificial lures before and thus each cast will produce a strike, but of course it is never that easy. Even here we have to earn our fish; if it were easier, then in some way it would not be fishing. On the first day, my biggest fish is a good-size kundzha, or char, a strong-fighting fish similar in color to a pike. On the second day, I take two more respectable kundzha and a beautiful coho salmon, about 15 pounds. But it is the rainbows we seek, trout that run very big in these waters, and the ones I catch in the first few days are relatively small. As the week progresses, I continue to catch big kundzha and small rainbows, and I have taken to calling myself the King of the Kundzha. But it is late in the afternoon on the last day when I finally connect with the rainbows. I am using a mouse, which is like a popper, and it is on the surface, where I like it. When the lure is on the surface, the fisherman becomes more like a hunter, because he can see the strike as it happens.
I am casting to a niche along the shoreline, where a tree and its roots jut out. On my first cast, a fish, a rainbow I’m sure, starts trailing the mouse. There is for any fisherman an electric feeling when that happens. The previous 250 casts might not have moved anything, but when a fish follows, everything tends to quicken. There is a tendency then to retrieve too quickly (or too slowly), and I try to control myself and keep the rate constant. The fish follows but doesn’t strike. It is my sense, based on the size of the swirls, that this is a good-size fish. I cast again. This time there is no follow. I cast a third time-again no follow. Now I cast for the fourth time, and again there is a good-size swirl but no strike. And so I cast again, 3 feet farther down the shoreline, and I get another swirl and then a hit, and there is a fierce fight; these are strong fish. I don’t know how long the fight lasts, for it becomes that magical point when time seems to stop. In the end I bring in the rainbow, perhaps 22 inches, and the trip from New York seems very much worth it.
And with that I think I have the answer as well to the question of why I fish. Part of it is the sheer camaraderie, the friendship of men I like and have fished with before, the warmth and pleasure of doing this, the sense of support we have for one another, and even the god-awful stories we tell each other at night that are funny here but not funny anywhere else. But something more important drives it, and it goes back to the entire idea of purpose. I think it is the sheer optimism of fishing, for it is a sport, above all else, of anticipation. At the core is the belief that the next trip will be the best, that the next cast will bring the biggest fish of the day, and, of course most basic, that the last cast of the day will always bring a strike.
That was true for me when I was a boy, and it matters even more to me now. As I grow older, I find I have a far greater need for things to look forward to; I am also determined not to be one of those men who get lazy as they age because they have too little purpose in their lives. Often, as they slip emotionally, they slip physically, as well. And so it is here, on this trip, exhausting as it has been, that I have managed to feel younger as I get ready to return than I felt when I arrived.
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