For my birthday, Kevin gave me a new fishing rod. And not just any fishing rod – a seven-foot Shimano Teramar composite rod. If you’re a fishing geek, you probably know that a Shimano Teramar composite rod is an excellent fishing rod. If you’re not a fishing geek, you’ll have to take my word for it.
I’m very excited about my groovy new fishing rod, and I can’t wait for the stripers to arrive so I can try it out. But there is a little voice, deep inside, asking me whether I wouldn’t rather be the kind of fisherman who can catch anything – anything at all – with a willow branch and bakery string.
I am deeply ambivalent about good equipment. On the one hand, I understand the value of clothing, gear, machines, and firearms that are well-designed, of appropriate materials, and built to last. Not only do those kinds of items generally out-perform similar items of inferior quality, they’re often a pleasure to hold, to look at, to use.
On the other hand, I have profound respect for the willow-branch-and-bakery-string guy. One part of the appeal of good equipment is undoubtedly the lure of acquisition, the siren song of stuff.
Two years ago, on the first birthday I spent on Cape Cod, Kevin gave me a clam rake. It’s an A1 quality rake from Ribb Rakes, a small company here on Cape Cod. It has long, sharp, curved tines to dig under clams, and it has a stainless steel basket that won’t rust. It is a much more effective rake than the $10. job I got at a yard sale, and it has undoubtedly paid for itself in clams.
I only knew how much better the Ribb rake was because I’d spent many hours on the clam flats learning to clam with crappy equipment. In that particular case, I felt like I’d earned the right to a good rake with time served. I’d proven myself as a clammer.
But it’s relatively easy to prove yourself as a clammer. Not so with other activities.
Back when I was serious about my golf game, I didn’t want any clubs in my bag that were better than I was. When I consistently shot in the low 90s I splurged on a set of Cleveland fairway woods, but it was always in the back of my mind that Lee Trevino could hit a golf ball 120 yards with a Dr. Pepper bottle.
But to hit that 3-wood on the screws, and watch the ball fly up to a green, that was a beautiful thing.
My fishing skills aren’t what they might be. They’re certainly better than they were, but there’s a lot more I could learn with the equipment I have, which is several steps up from the willow branch. Still, I remember struggling to muscle in a ten-pound bluefish last year because my reel was flexing in my hand.
But, really, a fishing rod is just a bendy stick. Sure, the reel is important, but I already have a replacement for the flexing model: a Penn 550ss. (Which, like the clam rake, I picked up at a yard sale for $10. Unlike the clam rake, it was an amazing bargain; it’s a very good reel.) I could put the reel on the rod I have, which certainly qualifies as a bendy stick.
Was I hearing stuff’s siren song? How can a $200. bendy stick be so very different from a $20. bendy stick? Or even a willow branch?
Well, there’s how it bends, where it bends, and how much it bends. There’s how well it transmits the feel of a bite. There’s how far it casts, and how long it lasts. Will the little hoops the line runs through rust? Will the handle be slippery when wet?
My Shimano isn’t anywhere near the high end of the fishing-rod spectrum. We spent $110, and we could easily have spent twice that, or even three times. But we also could have spent half that, or even less. And, standing in the store, flicking it back and forth, I couldn’t know how the rod would feel once it had a line and a lure on it, let alone a fish.
When we got it home, Kevin rigged it with the Penn reel, and a line and a lure. I put my waders on and walked out into our pond. I took a cast, and watched the little Deadly Dick lure sail out over the water. I can’t tell you how far – it’s tough to judge distance over water – but I can tell you I couldn’t have done it with the old rig.
As much as I appreciate the idea of catching a fish with a willow branch, what I really want is to catch a fish.