Thursday, June 27, 2013

A fishing story: "the most beautiful moment of my life"

"Even if I will never be able to find places as good as those in America, 
the spirit of fishing and of outdoor sports has already permeated my heart." 
The other day a friend showed me on his phone a photo of a pristine lake and mountains in Montana where he and a buddy were going to spend two weeks in splendid isolation fly fishing. It reminded me of a story I wanted to share with you. A little background: my nephew Andrew lives in China and his wife is named Ma Li. Her cousin Ma Ke came to stay with my sister and her husband Rob, who is a naturalist and wildlife/habitat preservationist by profession, in Tampa. Rob took Ma Ke out for a mighty fine day of fishing, and when he got back to China Ma Ke wrote and published this very enthusiastic account of the experience for a publication called Lure China. I love the cross-cultural aspect, as well as the boost of gratitude one gets for the privileges we enjoy vis a vis our public parks. (You'll see what I mean when you read on.  For example: "This country is vast but sparsely populated. A large portion of the land is undeveloped. As for the already developed areas, the local governments have taken measures to protect and preserve the pre-development environment’s character." Yes, he's talking about the good old U.S. of A! Love the paean to Outdoor World as well.)

Returning to the Largemouth Bass’ Homeland 
by Liaoning, Ma Ke
In America I often see people in sailboats gliding across the water, or stopping their boats near the riverbank to listen to music and go fishing. It’s not uncommon to come across people walking their dogs on hiking trails through the forest. And if you ever come across the ashes from a bonfire, then you know that the outdoor sports have thoroughly embedded themselves into the culture. The fact that the world’s most developed country is still able to provide such wondrous outdoors experiences to its people should make any foreigner deeply envious.
Florida’s Sportfishing Management 
Compared to the crowded conditions in China, the fishing environment in Florida is far more relaxed. You are not confined to paying membership fees at a small variety of fishing ponds, nor do you need to pay a fee each and every time you go fishing. In Florida, if you believe a certain spot is good for fishing, you go there to fish! With respect to Florida’s legal requirements, it doesn’t matter if you are a local or a foreigner, you just need to apply with the local authorities. Once approved, you may fish freely throughout the state. The application process is quite simple: you apply to the local authorities with your personal information – primarily your name, birthday, place of residence, and height. It struck me as odd that they ask you to provide your height but not your weight; I’m still not sure why that is! (Andrew’s note – it appears that he is making this remark un-ironically, I don’t know if he realizes it is likely because most Americans are overweight and don’t want to talk about it or not) Once you’ve provided the necessary information you must pay a one-time management fee that will cover you for a year. The total cost is around $90. While this may seem like a lot at first, that is the only fee you will pay for the entire year. If you compare that to what a frequent Chinese fisherman would pay during a year of visiting fishing ponds, the savings are quite clear. Once you’ve provided your information and paid the free, the process is complete. It takes about a week for them to process your application and send you your license. If you don’t have a license you are not allowed to fish. Some of you are probably thinking that this is a real waste of time having to wait an entire week? Don’t worry, they’ve thought about that already. Once you’ve paid the fee a temporary license card is available via their website. You simply print it out and carry it with you until the real card arrives. In this way you can begin fishing immediately. I figured that a fishing license would very much resemble our hukou (housing permits, looks like a birth certificate), but upon receiving mine I was surprised to discover that it was just a rectangular bit of card with my personal information. It looks less like a license than it does a train ticket! Having received your license, for one year you are free to fish public waters wherever and whenever you please. However, please don’t forget to bring your license with you at all times. While the license application fee is rather modest, the fine for being caught without a license is quite high!
Outdoor World
Orlando is a rather small tourism-oriented city and due to the great numbers of visitors that flock here, it has a variety of interesting aspects that one would not normally encounter in other American cities, some of which even made this foreigner feel a bit more at home. On this visit to Orlando our target destination was Outdoor World. This is the largest outdoor sports equipment store in the southern U.S. For Chinese people outdoor sports is still an up-and-coming, fashionable activity. While it is already becoming a new lifestyle and attitude, its history in China is still rather short. It also suffers a bit from the perception that it is a rich man’s luxury, characterized by high-priced goods and activities beyond the means of normal Chinese. Things are different in America. This country is vast but sparsely populated. A large portion of the land is undeveloped. As for the already developed areas, the local governments have taken measures to protect and preserve the pre-development environment’s character. As a result, America is replete with places that are perfect for enjoying outdoor sports. In America outdoor sports are not an activity exclusively for the wealthy, it has already become an integral part of the American lifestyle at all levels. Therefore, the market supporting this activity is also correspondingly well-developed and extensive. Orlando’s Outdoor World is one such example. For an outdoor sports enthusiast, the most attractive part of Orlando is not Disney, but Outdoor World. When you visit Outdoor World, you are first struck by its immense size. This store is roughly 30 times the size of your average Chinese outdoor sports store. Upon entering you’re immediately greeted by the mounted head of a giant bear. Further on, the extensive wood flooring, rock gardens, and running water through the store create a truly special shopping atmosphere. If you took the most bitter and jaded outdoor sports fan on earth and dropped them down into the center of this store their heart would sing out – truly, this is what an outdoor sports store should look like! Outdoor World is similar to other “big box” retailers in the American South in that it only has one floor with clearly defined shopping zones. Outdoor World’s zones included boats, fishing equipment, clothing, hunting, children’s, gifts, and others. They even had a small restaurant inside the store. Each zone’s selection is truly extensive, and if I didn’t need to leave before 7PM in order to catch the Orlando Magic game (Andrew’s note – this is a world-class humblebrag by Ma Ke!) I could easily have spent an entire day just walking the aisles looking at all they had to offer. There’s no harm in dreaming for a moment that Outdoor World is your personal warehouse… you put on a t-shirt and pants and then walk in, first you stroll over to the boat selection and pick out your bass boat of choice, then you head to the fishing section and grab your rods, reels, line, lures, and bocagrip. They have everything you could possibly need. Now that you’re properly kitted up, you head to the clothing section and pull on a pair of quick-dry pants, goretex jacket, and fishing boots… if you’ve still got the energy you might as well head over to the hunting section and grab a few more toys. The hunting section has an impressive display of mounted animals, from Florida’s omnipresent wild hogs to a stunning white tiger, it feels a bit like walking through a natural history museum! Now, if you step in front of a mirror, you’ll discover that you’ve become a new man. At least from external appearance there will be no one more handsome than you. All of these wild dreams can come true for you at Outdoor World, provided – of course – that you bring enough cash.

A joyful place called “Hedonia”
The longest car ride I took while I was in America was from Tampa, Florida up to Mississippi. It was comparable in length to driving from Shenyang, Liaoning to Datong, Shanxi. After a great many hours in the car, we finally stopped at a place called Hedonia. Hedonia is a private countryside home, and became my temporary home while I stayed in Mississippi. This home’s name is derived from a psychological illness called “Inhedonia”. This illness is characterized by depression and general unhappiness. The founder of this country estate was a medical doctor, one day in a stroke of inspiration he thought to take this terribly unhappy word and drop the “in” prefix from the front, creating the new word “Hedonia”. To him this meant endless happiness. In time this country estate provided a great deal of happiness to its founder, as well as to his descendants. It also came to provide me with some great fishing memories. Most of my time spent fishing in America was here at Hedonia. The forest estate included a lake, and because it is a private residence, you can fish here without a license or anything else provided you have the owner’s permission. My most memorable experience occurred late one afternoon following the passage of a thunderstorm. My friend and I took a small path starting behind the cottage that wound down through the forest and reached the lake-side after only 5 minutes or so. That same morning we had already been down to the lake to fish from the bank and with the exception of one bass that was smaller than the lure we caught it on, it had been a total bust. Accordingly, this time we embarked on a small boat to fish towards the center of the lake in search of largemouth bass. We removed the motor from the boat before launching as on a lake this small it’s better to do one’s best to preserve the tranquility.
Safely seated, we grabbed our rods and lure and began fishing. Mississippi is slightly north of Florida and this influences the sizes to which the bass can grow. A big bass in Mississippi is typically only 50cm (Andrew’s note – in East Asia the bass are tiny so they differentiate catch by length whereas in North America we always differentiate bass by weight) so bass fishermen accustomed to Florida’s lunkers must acclimate themselves a bit to the slightly smaller fish here. After the storm the surface of the pond was perfectly calm and frogs could be faintly heard around the perimeter. In the boat we slowly drifted with the river’s current, each of us casting unceasingly. Many times I would feel the fish bite but would miss the hook-set. I prefer to chalk this up to hallucinations rather than my own incompetence. Suddenly the boat rocked, and I turned to see my friend had a fish on the line. It wasn’t very big so my friend wasn’t all that excited. Nevertheless, things were already looking better than the morning’s result. Fish or not, the entire process of fishing was very enjoyable. After the storm passed the air temperature was around 23C, there was a very gentle breeze, and the boat drifted slowly. We could hear the frogs and birds singing, and the sky turned a lovely shade of red as the sun set. Despite how accustomed I am to the hustle and bustle of city life, here I quickly felt a sense of tranquility that I had never before experienced. The stage was beautifully set for a big bass to be caught… now all one had to do was wait. As I paddled the boat away from shore and back towards the center of the lake, my friend hooked his big one. This fish struck with great force. My friend told me that fighting a fish is the most magical part of fishing. That being able to fool and catch a great fish is pleasure from Nature itself. After a minute of fighting with his pole doubled far over, my friend lifted his 50+cm bass from the water. Our good luck wasn’t finished. 5 minutes later I hooked up, though in the end it wasn’t as big as my friend’s bass. Even so, it still measured 47cm and that’s a respectable fish in Mississippi. Also, for this new hand, it was a pretty nice achievement! As is our custom, we released our fish back into the lake. However, if you’d like to take home a memento that’s also very easy. You just need to take photos of your fish from all sides, measure it carefully, and send that information to a taxidermy company. These days they can make a fish mount every bit as realistic as the real thing and much more durable, which you can then place proudly on your living room wall. These artificial mounts are a great compromise between sportfishing’s environmental protection credo and some people’s desire to commemorate great catches.
As we walked back up the hill the sun had already set, and through the trees I could see the glow of the cottage’s fireplace. At this moment, as I reflected upon the earlier excitement over our catches, I felt that this was perhaps the most beautiful moment of my life. Fishing, and outdoor sports in general, has already become a key part of my family’s lifestyle. After returning to China I am constantly on the lookout for places suitable for fishing or other outdoor sports. Even if I will never be able to find places as good as those in America, the spirit of fishing and of outdoor sports has already permeated my heart.
[For more heartwarming fishing experiences, check out our recent catch of related books, including How to Tempt a Fish: A Complete Guide to Fishing.]


  1. What an interesting perspective!! This was highly enjoyable and, while I've never been fishing, have always been envious of the solitude and appreciation of nature that seems so inherent in the sport. Perhaps I should just move to Montana and grab a pole:)

  2. I agree with Wilhelm; I've never been fishing but I really enjoyed this piece. It really illuminated what attracts people to outdoor activities. And reading about America from a foreign perspective is always fun.

  3. Lovely photos. It's funny how easily he's mastered the consumer dialect!
    Apparently this fishing mecca lacks one thing-- mosquitoes!

  4. A very nice essay. Catching a fish or two is always nice, though a large part of the draw of fishing is being outdoors. Hiking down from a mountain stream is mighty fine.

  5. A Fisher of FishJune 28, 2013 at 8:01 PM

    Catch-and-release sounds all so PC, but if I'm gonna spend 6 hours in the sun, I get kinda hungry! And to stop off for McDonald's Filet O'Fish doesn't make a lot of sense to me.
    I've fished out of Long Island, and had my whole day's catch measured by the Coast Guard and found short of the limit. They left me with one that was nearly 14", out of sympathy, I think.
    Please make longer fish, God, so a guy can catch a fish dinner!