Uncertainty is the mother of superstition, and getting food first-hand – farming or fishing, hunting or gathering – is maddeningly uncertain. Hunters, in the absence of a sure-fire way to find deer, swear by lucky hats or rabbit sightings. In the quest for consistent harvests, biodynamic gardeners harness cosmic-astral influences by burying chamomile-stuffed cow intestines.
And fishermen, fishermen are the worst. It starts with a world-wide prohibition against bananas on boats, and goes downhill from there.
I’m a fisherman, but I’m also a hard-assed empiricist. I’m not superstitious, but I see how it happens.
This past weekend, Kevin and I went out for bluefish. Our favorite bluefish spot is Horseshoe Shoal, 25 square miles of shallows in the middle of Nantucket Sound. We’ve been there many times, and there’s one particular spot on those 25 square miles that’s been very good to us.
We went there, like we always do. We put in the same lures we always use. We trolled in the same direction, at the same speed, that we always troll. We got nothing.
The shoal is crisscrossed by rips, abrupt changes in the flow of the water as it is forced up by a ridge or reef on the sea bed. Fish tend to congregate around rips, and trolling along a line where the surface changes from rough to smooth is a reasonable way to tackle a stretch of water.
That’s what we did. We went along the rips. We weaved around the rips. We crossed the rips on the perpendicular. We got nothing.
We saw no birds. We saw no fish, either in the water or on the fish finder. It was a calm, sunny, fishless day.
And then, without warning, Kevin took off his pants. I turned around and there he was, at the helm, in his underpants. It wasn’t risqué; the underpants were modest and substantial, no more revealing than 70’s-era gym shorts.
I was mystified. “Why did you take off your pants?”
Before he could answer, his rod bent 90 degrees and we heard the whizzzzzz of line running out against drag. Kevin put the boat in neutral, got the rod out of the holder, and fought the fish up to the boat. It was a beautiful, fat, seven-pound bluefish.
“I took them off because it was hot,” he told me after we’d gotten the fish on ice.
The key to catching fish is being where they are. Once we find them, we stay there, going over the same spot, in the same way, over and over. Kevin got a bite on each of the next three passes, and landed two more fish. I got nothing.
We were using the same lure, trolling on the same rip, from the same boat. The only difference was that I was wearing pants. It was maddening. But I am not superstitious and I was not going to fish in my underwear.
Finally, I was vindicated. A fish! As I was reeling it in, though, I realized it wasn’t a bluefish. It wasn’t fighting and twitching and taking line. It was just swimming in, docile. I saw it flash in the water. A striped bass, too small to keep.
Kevin shook his head ruefully and gestured to my pants.
Animals, up to and including humans, are wired for causality. When caged pigeons are fed pellets at random intervals, they start contorting themselves in strange ways, trying to replicate whatever it was that made the food come down the chute. We humans do rain dances and sacrifice animals and wear lucky hats.
I know the fish probably started to bite because the tide shifted and the water started moving faster. That Kevin got bites and I didn’t was either the luck of the draw or the motion of my rod, which is more flexible than his. I know all that, I do, and I’m a hard-assed empiricist to boot. And still I was tempted to take my pants off.
Even though I didn’t, I finally caught a fish, and then another. We had seven fish in the cooler when the water calmed and the bite died.
As we headed in, we passed a boat that had been trolling near us. They, too, were packing up to head in. They’d been within a couple hundred yards, but we hadn’t seen them hook up once.
As we got close, we could see why. In a tragic misunderstanding of fishing principles, they had taken off their shirts.