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The Zen of Fishing

A few years ago, around my 39th birthday, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It wasn't a terrible case, as these things go, but it undeniably introduced a new dimension of stress into my life.

Judging from the notices for support groups and yoga and meditation classes posted in the waiting room where I went for treatments, I was not alone in my newfound disquietude.

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I didn't enroll in any groups or classes. I did, however, take up fishing.

I'd never fished before, but it suddenly seemed a very good idea. I craved a river, a rod, pretty lures to dangle from the end of my line and the time to cast and retrieve, cast and retrieve. As I've since learned, my compulsion to fish in the face of adversity was not as strange as it might first appear.

Getting Started

You can spend $10 or $10,000 on fishing gear. A novice can keep expenses down by buying combination outfits that include a rod and reel, line and lures. These are available at sporting good stores, tackle shops and online. Two well-known fishing catalog companies, Cabela's (www.cabelas.com) and Orvis (www.orvis.com), are now online.

The variety and choices in fishing gear can be intimidating. Keep it simple for starters. A spinning reel is versatile, easy to use and fun to cast. A baitcaster is mechanically different, but serves similar functions. With both types of reels, you can fish with artificial baits called spinners, spoons and plugs, as well as with natural baits such as worms. Fly rods and reels, used with artificial "flies" that mimic insects on which fish prey, present anglers with more of a challenge because of the greater difficulty of casting the line.

Peggy Stock, president of Westminster College, says, "Fishing is like everything else. I wouldn't want my husband to teach me." If you also prefer to keep your marriage or significant-other relationship unburdened by fishing lessons, hire a reasonably priced guide for half a day, or ask a friend.

If you hire a guide, make sure to tell him or her that you're interested in instruction, not just pulling in a mess of fish. Employees at tackle shops can often suggest good local guides and can even teach you enough for you to start fishing without one.

Remember, says Captain Richie Gaines: "Fishing is good no matter how good the catch is. The measure of how successful a person is fishing is whether they have a good time."

"The definition of fishing," says Richie Gaines, who leads guided trips on the Chesapeake Bay, "is a perpetual series of opportunities for hope," which would be exactly what a freshly-minted cancer patient — as well as pretty much anybody — is after on any given day of the week. If you think Gaines' definition sounds awfully high-minded for a blood sport, you are correct, I suppose. But something about this ancient activity moves people to wax philosophical, and to embrace it to satisfy a deep, unnamable yearning.

Many have described fishing as a way to reach for a world beyond our own. As Michael Checchio put it in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Stream" (Soho $23), having a fish hit your line feels "like taking the pulse of the planet." Scores of writers have explained that fishing touches, calms and even heals the human soul. "When the going gets rough," Ted Kerasote advised in his 1997 book, "Heart of Home"(Villard $23), "you can take Prozac or buy a fly rod."

You may think this is all just so much hooey. As a former non-fisherman, I counsel you: Don't knock it until you've tried it. "There's something about fishing," muses Louisiana-bayou-bred Gary Marx, now of Chevy Chase, Md., "that has inspired so many books comparing it to great art.

So when (NBA basketball coach) Phil Jackson talks about Zen and basketball, people laugh at him, and maybe there's a reason for that, but with fishing — there really is a Zen to it. You're not meditating, because you're doing something, but to me there is a rhythm to it that connects you to nature in a very special way."

Perhaps not all 47 million Americans who fish have a Zen experience when they throw a line in the water, but many come close. According to the American Sportfishing Association, the most common reason people fish is to relax.

Thirty-five percent of anglers cite this explanation, compared to only 3 percent who say they fish "to catch many fish." Dr. Peggy Stock, president of Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, goes fishing to relax, spend time with her husband and have fun.

But there is something more. "Fishing is like life," Stock suggests. "You never know what you're going to catch. I think it teaches you lessons in persistence and tenaciousness. You're not always going to get what you want when you want it, in fishing or in life."

Wise words — but if, like me, you're after the fishing as much as the fish, you'll triumph nearly every time. When I go fishing on my home waters — the Wye River on Maryland's Eastern Shore — I am likely to see blue crabs swimming by in their comical, side-stepping way; spy a great blue heron patiently stalking its underwater prey; or bask in the sun alongside mallards, the male ducks gorgeous with their iridescent green heads, the females beautiful in their practical brown way.

I've also seen snapping turtles locked in a vise-like mating grasp, female carp lying exhausted in the mud from the effort of expelling eggs, snowy egrets snatching snacks of tiny fish — perhaps the carp's babies?

The cycle of life and death captivates me every time, reminding me how small and insignificant I am in the greater scheme of this Earth. The feeling is oddly comforting. It renders my own mortality much more natural and necessary, and less scary, than I ever could have imagined.

And the fish? Oh, yes, them. Sometimes I'll keep a fish, bring it home and clean it, and my family will enjoy an incomparable meal. More often, I'll carefully remove the hook from the critter's mouth and set it free. "You're okay now," I'll whisper, not putting too fine a point on whether I'm talking to the fish, or to myself.

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