That Time I Killed a Fish
I flatter myself that I've managed to pack quite a bit in to my brief trip to Newfoundland. I climbed a mountain in Gros Morne National Park. In Boyd's Cove, I visited the archaeological site of a community of Beothuk, an aboriginal people driven to extinction after being displaced from their traditional fishing grounds by European fishermen.
And in Twillingate, I ate roughly half my weight in toutons and baked beans. For those who don't know, a touton is a Newfoundland specialty, kind of a pancake-BeaverTail hybrid that is less sweet than a BeaverTail, but fried in substantially more fat than your average pancake. They are served with molasses and copious quantities of butter, and they are the type of food that leaves you feeling both moderately ill and very happy.
Still, none of these experiences quite measure up to the best day I spent in Newfoundland. The best day I spent in Newfoundland was the day I killed a fish with my bare hands.
But let me explain how this came about.
It all started with a campfire. I was cooking dinner over my little camp stove in Gros Morne one night. It was day 29 of pasta and non-descript tomato sauce. Just as I was slicing cheese into my sauce (to spice it up a bit), a couple wandered over from the only other occupied site and invited me to join them by their fire. I think they might have felt sorry for me, though I can't imagine why.
Their names were Lauralee and Mark, and they were from Cormack, a tiny community about 70 kilometres east of the park. They'd come down to Gros Morne for the night, and they were roasting sausages over a blazing fire. I don't even think they'd considered bringing pasta and sauce.
We got to talking, and somehow, it came up that I'd never really been fishing before. I remember sitting in a boat with my cousin once when I was about nine and holding a fishing rod, but I certainly didn't catch anything. This was probably for the best, because at age nine, I was going through a phase where I felt that swatting mosquitoes was akin to murder. I'm not sure what the chain of events that follows catching a fish looked like in my mind, but it definitely did not end with the fish on my dinner plate.
Anyway, before I knew it, Mark and Lauralee had invited me to accompany them to their cabin the next day. Mark was going to take me out on the pond and show me how to fish.
So we headed out in the morning, making a pit stop along the way for some bait. Mark dug through the dirt, and Lauralee and I bobbed for worms
When we arrived at the cabin, Mark and I paddled out in his canoe to the far corner of the pond. He showed me how to hook a worm onto a fishing line, which is just like coiling a very small rope, except that the rope squirms and tries to resist being speared.
And then it came time to cast our lines. This shouldn't have been that hard, I know. But motor coordination has never really been my strong suit. On top of that, I wasn't entirely sure whether it is possible to do that thing where you catch the hook on the back of your jacket and launch yourself into the water when you cast the line, but I didn't really want to chance it. The result was that I spent about ten minutes giving my rod these feeble little thrusts and trying to press the button that released the line at exactly the right time. I got it once, but it was entirely by accident. Mostly, the lure just dropped into the water directly in front of me. Mark, in an impressive display of self-control, didn't laugh at me once.
Finally, after Mark had me switch rods for one with a simpler casting mechanism, I started to get the hang of it. And then, after Mark had already caught his first two or three trout, I got a bite.
It's exhilarating to reel in your first fish. In that moment, I completely forgot that there were any other fish in the pond. I needed to catch that fish. That eight-inch-long trout was the only thing standing (swimming) between me and starvation.
Mark called out directions to me as I pulled the fish closer, and then up it came, arcing out of the water and into the bottom of our canoe, where it lay, gasping and flopping around. I had caught my first fish.
And then I had to kill it. I'm proud to say that I can now swat mosquitoes with the best of them, but I will admit that I hesitated for a split second as I held this struggling, writhing being in my hands. Then I forced my thumb through its gills and snapped its spine.
It's not a pleasant thing to do. Blood gushed out from the gills and covered my hands, and I had to apply quite a bit of pressure before I was able to break the spine. And then it twitched for a while afterwards, making me doubt whether I'd killed it at all.
We caught a dozen trout over the next hour and a half. I caught three.
Then we paddled back to the cabin and cleaned and gutted them, which is pretty fascinating, if you're at all interested in anatomy.
No doubt, this experience will seem entirely mundane to many of you. I know that lots of people go fishing regularly. But at age twenty-four, this was the first time I'd ever eaten something that I'd caught and killed myself.
I think what really struck me about it was how easy it was. When Lauralee and Mark first suggested a fishing trip to me, I had pictured a full day's expedition that would, more likely than not, leave us empty-handed. And I'm sure it is like that, sometimes. But instead, we were out on the water for under two hours, and we came back with a couple of meals' worth of fish.
I was thinking of fishing as a recreational activity, something you would do for fun before returning home to your lunch of bagels and cold cuts. I hadn't really thought about it as a means of subsistence. But it can be. It's feasible. Somehow, this was a revelation for me.
On the way back from the cabin, Mark and Lauralee showed me the plot of land that they are in the process of clearing. They have six acres, and they are planning to build their house this winter. They hope to be moved in by this time next year. They are going to grow vegetables and raise livestock. Eventually, they hope to [offer room rentals and experiences] to tourists. If they can, they would like to buy a solar panel to supply their power.
The goal, they told me, is self-sufficiency. And they recognize that there are sacrifices and a lot of hard work associated with that. But the way they see it, happiness isn't all about bonuses and new toys. Sometimes, happiness is about sitting in a canoe and catching a few fresh trout for lunch.