Fishing as a Mode of Being

Our team included ethnographers, young people, artists, poets and philosophers. However, one of the very complex aspects of the project was the way in which the young people were confronted with the reality of possible death. When it came to disgorging a fish—that is, take a hook out of the fish’s mouth—young people sometimes became anxious. However, if this anxiety was overcome, it could also be a positive experience. Hugh described this experience:

Ellen caught a tench [type of fish] and I had to help her disgorge it, I did a bad job of it and Ken had to help us. He called the fish a bar of soap because young tench are really slippery because of their mucus.

Chantelle caught a big tench and we struggled to disgorge it. Ken had to come and cut the line because the hook had got so caught in the tench’s lip that we could only pull the line out once the line was cut.

Ken (angler) was very calm and relaxed and we all watched patiently as he produced some scissors from his pocket and cut the line. After we released the fish it dropped on the floor which was a bit distressing for us all as it had been out of the water for a long time. (Hugh Escott, field notes, 30/04/2013)

Here, the real possibility within fishing of the death of the fish is foregrounded. At the same time, Hugh was acknowledging the distress that the young people felt when unhooking the fish. We noticed that with young people, who might be experiencing mental distress in their lives, this paradox of catching a fish and then dealing with its life or death was important in relation to mental health. The experience opened up a new kind of mindfulness, which was both about hope and the experience of success (catching the fish) but also about the real possibility of the fish losing its life (death). Within that space, the young people have to engage with the reality of possible loss. Within the field work we have done, these issues of life and death, and losing animals have recurred over time.15 While schools often might not want to deal with the realities of death, in fishing, these issues were present, but also held in the balance. We argue that the ‘near-death’ of a caught fish instils a sense of responsibility and care in young people. This perspective links with a perspective that sees fishing as another mode of being. It is a space of practice which presents its own ethical issues which are separate from, but also relate to, the young people’s daily lives.

Life (as in being alive) is also very present in fishing. Video games and other electronic equipment, even mobile phones, were forgotten when the young people sat on the bank. They had to focus on the water, and watch the float. Here, this extract from Hugh’s field notes shows how the experience of fishing contrasted with playing video games:

Marcus (youth worker) linked this catching of a fish to aspiration and realization, he also got Jordan to talk about how he found fishing relaxing and how he dealt with stress or unhappiness (emotional intelligence), Jordan and me talked for a while about video games, he asked about my video camera, Marcus linked video games and fishing by talking about the sense of reality that fishing creates and how it is difficult for people who play loads of video games to understand what is virtual and what is real. (Field notes, 18/06/2013)

The concept of the ‘real’ and the alive world of the fish was very important to the young people. We began to see how young people could be given a way of being through interaction with the fish that helped them become calm. Mental distress could be alleviated by paying attention to the externally beautiful moments of watching the float, and catching a fish. The mental focus of fishing was on the moment, and on recognising what it meant to catch a fish and then return it to the water.

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