Big fish swims in metaphysical waters

Friday night, the clock will tick slowly toward midnight, and millions of Minnesota’s fishing enthusiasts will endure the final, tortuous moments before the opening of the state’s inland fishing season.
Sunday night, these millions will return home from journeys throughout the land of sky blue waters. The rest of the state’s population will encounter a new system of “truth,” rooted in the ideals of the world’s greatest philosophers. In fact, I’m told Descartes’ original formulation of “cogito ergo sum,” was really, “cogito ergo piscor,” “I think therefore I fish.”
At 12 sharp, plinks, plunks and plops will be heard in the Minnesota wilds as sinkers and rigs descend through the waters of 10,000 calm, steely black lakes. The dedicated brotherhood of fishermen braving the darkness at 12 bells will take part in ushering in another era of legendary tales about “the big one that got away.” And of course, they will be really, really true — we’d bet our reputation as fishermen on it.
The transformation in our understanding of truth won’t be the result of a paradigm shift. Nor will it have anything to do with an impending political or economic revolution. This new meaning of truth will come in even more fantastic, hyper-religious revelations from anglers in tales of fish “so big that we had to cut the line — otherwise, the fish would have pulled the entire boat under water.”
As all who truly know how to fish will testify, the stories which will be told will not exactly be lies — they will be beautiful shades of truth that must be shared in order to keep a sacred right of all Minnesotans alive.
Besides, even though everyone knows that the Ten Commandments say that no one should bear false witness against a neighbor, the Bible says nothing about fish tales.
Everyone who has ever cast a line to the wind and into the great unknown of the watery depths below should know that fishing isn’t just about creating nonsensical tales of gloriously failed human achievement. It’s about believing those tales.
From Jesus to Hemingway, great leaders, poets and thinkers have all had a fascination with the aesthetics, moralities and truths of the fisher’s sport.
And with good reason: Fishing isn’t just a sport, nor is it a mere “way of life.” Fishing, laced with quasi-mystical and philosophical forms of idealism, makes even the practices of the highest ranking Zen Buddhist look like child’s play.
Fishing, even more than golf, is “the thinking sport” — thinking, that is, of reasons why so few fish wind up in the boat and so many more go on to live a free life in the deep blue.
Nonbelievers can be assured that the profound philosophical quests taken by countless fishermen every year at this time are truly efforts to delve deep into the meaning of all human existence.
Fishermen around the world are the first to point out that our lives are riddled with complexities beyond the grasp of human understanding — riddles which, fishing enthusiasts wisely maintain, can only be solved by actually landing “the big one.”
Landing this mythical fish, after all, is that elusive feat which draws out millions of Minnesota’s fishermen for the year’s most intense week of angling, a quest tantamount to finding the Holy Grail.
But of course the cultural implications of fishing go beyond mere religious symbolism. We’re also dealing with the very fabric of our great Minnesotan cultural history, something that family members and friends of fishermen fail to understand.
The nonbelievers are apparently too comfortable with the delusion that the West’s oral tradition died out shortly after Homer wrote the Illiad. However, the soothsaying practice of fishermen is deeply rooted in a history so secretive that even Freemasons blush at the mere mention of the word “crappie.”
Our fishing legacies are based in the ongoing struggle between man and nature, the last true incarnations of human oral histories.
Rest assured, the oral tradition will be resurrected, as it is every year at this time. As if part of a Jungian ritual of the collective subconscious, fisherman find meaning in the symbolic quest for the granddaddy of all fish — a divine creature that millions will pay homage to in every waking moment of the coming weekend.
Few have actually claimed to see this fish, but true believers in the power of The Big One swear that those who have seen it are now dead, blind or at the bottom of Lake Mille Lacs.
At the same time, fishing is an activity in which science, nature, epistemology and ontology come together to form truths that — while rooted in the symbolic — have a foundation in idealist philosophy.
In fishing alone, we can suspend Berkeley’s axiom “esse est percipire,” “to be is to be perceived.” In the world of fishing, a fish need not even be to be perceived.
Even though the most ardent fishing enthusiast will never admit it, the fish that got away might have been just a tiny creature, hardly worth the effort of any weekend warrior. But given the right story — a combination of time, place and manner — the fish becomes a mean, raging, 18-pound walleye. It might have jumped out of the water, mouth opened wide, bitten my neck, and swum away, dragging my half drunk bottle of beer.
Therefore, by a logical synthesis of the laws of fishing and neo-Berkleyean idealism, the fish, truly was a 10-pound walleye. Faith, reason, and the perceived reality of at least one fisherman dictate no other interpretation.
Nature wins more often than the fisherman. The only way of dealing with his defeat is for the fisherman is to recount a battle, real or imagined, with those mighty, flesh eating, boat devouring beasts of our state’s unconquered lakes.
Even though Nietzsche didn’t have anything to say about fishing, I think he would embrace its aesthetic qualities. Where else, but on a boat, far away from all artificial, institutional constructions of truth, can one shrug off all absolutes and come to a greater, more meaningful understanding of the world. Not only is fishing a way to realize our insignificance in the grand scheme of things, but it is also an empowering, nihilistic realization that unless we create our own truths, no one will do it for us.
Fishermen of the world, cast away the guffaws and suspicious looks you will receive after this weekend. Know that, despite how many fish got away, you will have lost nothing. You will have gained much more than any of the infidel, nonbelievers, nonfishermen who stayed home. You will have learned that simply trying to catch the big one that got away was the whole point of the weekend anyway.
Gregory Borchard’s column appears every Thursday. He can be reached with comments via e-mail at [email protected]