By Dave Anderson
What is the fascination with fire? Man’s quiet companion. The cure for solitude, the draw of warmth, a feeling of welcome. It can’t be something we learned to love; children are drawn to the sounds and movements of the campfire from their first step. The glowing faces, the relaxed mood, the warning: hot. Is it the unchained wildness of fire and that we have learned to contain it? Or could it be the juxtaposition of giving warmth, preserving life and leaving cold, smoldering black in its wake, taking life and livelihood as it leaps from grasses to trees to homes? We learn to make a fire, keep a fire, respect a fire and that it is the key to life if one is lost. We associate fires with good times, a night on the beach, camping with grampa, breakfast by the woodstove.
It might be safe to say that fire has been our most loyal supporter, the one thing we could not have survived as a species without; its very existence paving the way to life as we know it. I have walked a secluded beach where the hearthstones of millennia-old fires can still be seen at low water, the spirits of these people, l feel them, they live on in all of us. An instinctual respect. A deep vote of gratitude, hardwired to the flame that we all keep within us. Our soul, the electricity of life, kept, tended and protected like a campfire in a January storm. We will all awaken to find it crackling, just a glowing ember racing on the edge of a leaf, we will spring into action to save it, nurture it, feed it. Holding the tinder close—careful breaths huffed into cupped hands—and from the ashes and woven ringlets of rising smoke will come a flame and relief.
The fascination with fire is something more than we can fathom. It’s tied to us, it has sustained us and all of those who came before us. Just as the herring follows its instinctual compass back to its natal stream, we are drawn to the flame for reasons lost to time. Our lives could not exist without it. It was once the single most important component of survival—it was warmth, it was food, it was entertainment, it was family, it was protection, it was the first sight of home and the last sigh before sleep.
By Dave Anderson
The nights surrounding the August full moon are some of my favorites for largemouth fishing after dark. Unlike the surf, where darker nights seem to bring bigger fish and more consistent fishing, bright moon nights have been far more productive for me in the ponds. I am big on feel, I try to rely on instinct to tell me when and where to fish. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes my feelings are wrong. My belief is that we, as human beings, have undergone hundreds of years of un-training; we used to be much more instinctual creatures. Evidence surfaces when a random image of someone you haven’t seen in 10 years emerges from the back of your skull and the phone rings, guess who? Or when your kid gets into a bad spot and you are miraculously there to catch her as she falls. But one of the most common manifestations of our fading catalogue of natural instincts has to do with being watched. It’s almost mind-blowing how often we feel eyes on us and can then turn and immediately lock onto that set of offending eyes. Even the fact that we can lock eyes and feel that electric connection is something that I believe is left over from the instinctual creatures we once were. Try locking eyes with a deer and see what happens, as soon as that connection is made, she’s gone in a flash of brown and white. It’s an animal instinct, we can all feel it.
A few nights ago, I was on foot, stalking largemouths in a pond a few towns away from my house. Sunday nights are some of my favorites to fish in the surf because no one is fishing, but on this pond with a single road tracing the north bank, I came to realize that not only is no one fishing on a Sunday night, no one is doing ANYTHING on a Sunday night. Less than eight cars rolled by in the time I was there, during the daytime, that street would be alive with the perceived importance of daily life.
Wading softly through the calm water, the smell of stagnant silt and pond weed filled my nostrils and brought me back to my youth, growing up on a great bass pond in Westboro, Massachusetts. Fishing has that effect on me, when I’m in the mindset I feel as though I could be any age. I was fishing a large wakebait, one I made for myself, throwing an 8-1/2 inch bait in freshwater can be a lonely proposition—most of the bass in any given pond are only a few inches longer than the lure! The feeling of hunting something big makes it very engaging and enjoyable when the explosion comes.
But, for the first 45 minutes, I felt very much alone.
It had been a long day and I told myself I was only going to give it an hour, unless it was going off, clearly, it was not going off. Worst of all, I had hedged my bets by fishing the three best spots first, and they were dead. I walked back to where I started and looked back at my car. “Fifteen more minutes,” I said to myself and I walked past my entry point to a place where I had only caught three or four fish in all my times fishing there. It’s a shallow flat with a single and distinct rocky edge that drops down about 2 feet and then continues on as a long, gradually-sloping flat. The next 15 minutes would produce five fish—no big ones, but all nice ones in the 2 to 3-1/2 pound class. This was enough to get me to stay, at least until midnight.
There was a distinct pattern in the five fish that I caught on that flat, they were all relating to prominent changes in that edge, large rocks, bump-outs and small submerged points. And the pattern held for most of the night.
My last stop was a an area where a marshy river entered the pond, it’s a hard spot to cross, so I pretty much always end my nights there when I fish this pond. The incoming stream has carved out a wide cove, I can just barely reach the other side with a good cast. When I arrived on the small delta of debris the stream has pushed up over centuries, I could hear something rustling in the reeds across the cove. This was not something small like a raccoon, and it wasn’t a deer because I had made enough noise on the mussel shells and gravel that a deer would have been long gone. A carpet of clouds had filtered the moonlight, leaving me in a hazy shroud of almost darkness. I heard the rustling getting a little more intense, so I whistled to it, like a dog. It stopped.
I began casting and, within a few minutes, hooked up with what would be my last bass of the night, another solid fish, just over 3-1/2 pounds. After that, the fishing tapered off and the night seemed to reach a new level of quiet and dark. The rustling was back now, but moving along the opposite shore, slowly, like a child learning to tip-toe. It was moving in toward the stream. It took this animal 10 minutes to cover about 250 feet of shoreline—that’s pretty slow. Then I heard it quietly slipping through the reeds and then splashing—very softly—through the river, and then through the reeds on the other side.
In that moment my senses were firing like the processors on a supercomputer. I felt like I was seeing in 360 degrees as my ears aided my mind’s eye. This animal, which at this point I was pretty sure was actually two animals, was now right behind me. I am not the type to get spooked by wildlife, if I was fishing a stream in Wyoming, yeah, I’d have been reaching for the bear spray, but in Southern New England, I know where I sit on the food chain. But that didn’t stop my brain and body from reacting. I could feel the eyes on me and my body reacted with a chill on my back. Some people equate this to fear, but again, this is a warning sense, left over from the thousands of years ago when our ancestors hunted and fished out of necessity and these senses told them when danger was near. I’m sure you’ve seen a dog with its “hackles up” when it can sense danger or an intruder, that chill is the same thing.
I never saw my stalkers, but I heard them shadowing me for over 100 yards on the walk back to my parking spot. Coyotes have much sharper instincts than we do. Any time I’m with a friend that gets spooked by their howling, I remind them that we don’t smell like food to them, we smell like deodorant, and shampoo and danger. But they are curious and bold in the dark and they will stalk you; they step when you step – they stop when you stop. It’s eerie, but also fascinating—instinct is amazing, a sense taken for granted and ignored. When you feel the silent nudge of eyes on your back, or the wary zing of a chill up your spine, don’t shake it off, listen. These instincts are the last vestiges of your sixth sense, exercise them, keep them sharp and virile; be glad that your survivor instincts are still awake and functioning inside you, because this world and the lives we live are doing everything they can to take them away.