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Keep It, Or Release It? Caroline Patterson And Elizabeth Bishop Reflect On Fishing

Spawning cutthroat trout, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, 2011

"I fish with my children, the paddle knocking the canoe in an easy rhythm," writes Caroline Patterson, writer, teacher, and director of the Missoula Writing Collaborative.  "Phoebe is five, her taffy hair in braids; Tobin three, his round face expectant as he scans the pocked water. I take up the spinning rod, for we are trolling, the dreamer's way of fishing. Phoebe and I let out line, and I show her how to reel it in. I lie back to wait, studying the tamaracks, capped by the Swan Mountains.
           "So what does it mean when the pole dips?" Phoebe asks. Quiet becomes chaos: Tobin grabs a net, Phoebe reels in the line until the struggling fish is dangling, mid-air. Then it wrenches off the line and disappears into green water, hook and all. With a new lure, we set out again, I stroke, glide, stroke, and this time when the pole arcs, Tobin catches the cutthroat. It is beautiful and vaguely nauseating: white-green freckled skin, a blood-red belly, translucent fins, and a grimacing mouth, in its notched lip, our lures and several others.
          "Kill it!" Phoebe shouts. "Put it back!" Tobin cries. These responses reflect their very essences--Phoebe's fierce and Tobin's gentle--and our divided human response to wild things. I whack the fish on the canoe and we eat it that night."

Patterson pairs her reflection with an excerpt from Elizabeth Bishop's poem, "The Fish." Bishop, who won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize and the 1970 National Book Award, is known for her precise descriptions of the natural world, fusing the domestic and the wild.

"The Fish"

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
—It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip—
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 6/29/16 and 1/4/17. Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)

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