Be Careful What You Fish For.
I’ve always been terrified of being eaten by a shark.
You’d think that, as someone who grew up water-skiing, fishing, and swimming in Puget Sound, I wouldn’t be so paranoid about it. After all, what’s going to eat you in Puget Sound? You might get sucked under in the Tacoma Narrows, or end up as a bow ornament of one of those ridiculously loud cigarette boats that barrel around, indiscriminately, on Commencement Bay going nowhere fast and showing off for girls on the deck of CI Shenanigans; but you wouldn’t get eaten. Not even the Orca go rogue. In fact, you wouldn’t think that there is much in Puget Sound that is threatening, except for the junk, fecal coliform, and industrial waste we ourselves have put there.
But there are things in there, I tell you. Things you should be careful of. And this is how I know.
When I was about six years old we got a boat. Well, I should say that we got a dingy. A plastic dingy. A green, plastic, eight-foot dingy with oars. But it allowed us to venture off the shore at Allen Point and out into Henderson Bay. I spent many afternoons rowing that boat around the Point and fishing for cutthroat in and around the boulders just off the shore. Maybe I’ll tell you about that at some other time.
My little bit of Christopher Robin heaven: Allen Point.
But on this particular day my dad had taken me way out into Henderson bay. It was one of those beautiful clear late afternoons, and the bay was calm. The water was cold and crystal clear. We were fishing for salmon over toward Minter Creek — it was calm enough to row our little boat over there — which had a run of big salmon back then. In those days there was even a local fishing derby, if you can imagine that now. Nearer to shore, the oyster poles stuck up through the surface of the water like cake testers.
Anyway, we had been fishing for a while, Dad rowing and me fishing, and I hadn’t caught anything. Not a bite. Not even a nibble. And like most young boys, I was desperate to catch something, anything. I was complaining and chafing against my life preserver, and determined to make the fishless trip miserable by doing something annoying like kicking my foot repeatedly against the side of the boat. “Fine,” Dad finally said, “Put your line down to the bottom. Maybe you’ll catch a dogfish.”
The Spiny Dogfish.
A dogfish, for those of you who don’t know, is a small and dull species of bottom-feeding shark. It’s pretty much bycatch for any fisherman. But the thought of catching a shark perks a boy up. I let the herring down. And down. And down. And really down. At last, I felt the sinker hit the soft bottom of what must have been the underside of China. “That’s deep,” I said, looking at my nearly empty reel spool. “It is,” replied my father. “Now catch something.”
I’ve since found that, a parental strategy, bottom fishing has two things going for it. First, the kid is almost guaranteed to catch something, even if it’s a bullhead. Then he can proudly say that the trip was a success. Second, by fishing the bottom, it takes the little whiney trouble-maker a half hour to reel whatever it is up, until his arm so sore and stiff he can hardly move it. The little bugger will want desperately to hand the pole over, but he can’t, see, because he’s made such a production out of wanting to catch something. You can just sit there eating your sandwich and saying, “Keep reeling–you wanted to catch it” while you think. “That’ll teach ’em. Catch your stupid bottom-dweller and be done with it. Fine. I hope it bites or stings you once you get it up. That’s what things from the bottom of the bay do. You’ll find out soon enough.”
Dad kept the boat slowly moving back home toward the east side of bay, and I bumped my sinker along the bottom. Just as I was losing hope, there was a tug. Then another. Then the pole bent. “I got one!” I probably shrieked. “Good for you!” said my relieved father, as he put down the oars and pulled out a sandwich, “Now, reel it up.”
As planned, by the time I had whatever it was halfway up it felt like my arms were going to fall off even though I had switched hands reeling several times. Dad had finished his sandwich and was now impatient to get moving again. “Come on,” he urged, “Let’s see what you’ve got before it gets away. It looks like it’s pretty big.”
After another few minutes, we looked over the side. “There it is,” he said, “See it?”
I did. It was a shark. About twenty feet down, you could see it’s outline emerge: the sharp fins, the distinctive tail beating slowly as it swam in a sluggish spiral as I reeled. Every once in a while it shook its head and the pole bobbed again.
“Pretty good-sized dogfish,” Dad said, sounding genuinely impressed. “It must be about four feet.”
You never know what you have on the line…
Four feet. That was taller than I was. I had caught a monster. I felt like Curt Gowdy on The American Sportsman. Where was National Geographic when you needed it?
Then, as we looked down on the dogfish, something else emerged. It also had sharp fins and a distinctive tail, and it was following the dogfish in its lazy circles. Only this thing was not on my line. And it was bigger than our boat. A lot bigger.
Now there’s something particularly alarming about the way things appear from out of deep water or fog. You don’t realize that you are seeing them until you realize that you have actually been seeing them for some time. By the time you become aware of that fact and think, “Is that really…?” — it’s there, which makes that moment all the more frightening. “Cut the line,” Dad said in the icy tone that every child recognizes as a non-negotiable response to danger. “Let’s get outta here.”
I took the herring knife and chopped off the line as he pulled on the oars. I didn’t look to see what happened to the dogfish, but I kept stealing a glance at the gray-green abyss below the boat as Dad rowed. Once I could see the familiar rocky bottom of our own shore coming up to greet us I asked, “What was that?” “I don’t know,” Dad said. “And I wasn’t going to hang around to find out.” I don’t remember talking about it again.
A young Six Gill Shark that washed up in Puget Sound
I haven’t forgotten about it, however, as you can see. And looking back now, what we probably coaxed up was a Six Gill Shark, which can get up to 13 feet and well over a thousand pounds. But back then, all I knew is that there were things in Puget Sound that you didn’t want to come up unless you were genuinely ready for them. And truth be told, they generally don’t– unless you coax or haul them up. Nevertheless, it creeped me out every time I thought about it. So I tried not to think about it, especially when I fell water skiing and waited for the boat to come round and pick me up again.
However, certain events in your past tend to take on an added dimension when they become metaphors for other things in your life. I’ve wondered if there’s some kind of connection between that shark and my general fascination with, and suspicion of, what lies beneath the surface of things. My interest in the hidden history of ideas, my fascination with the Jungian concept of the “Shadow,” and my distrust of the whole culture of Suburbia and contemporary American religion are tied up in it somehow. I’ve got this sneaking suspicion that the world of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet are more real than surreal, for what I have experienced is enough to convince me that there are dark monsters lurking in the depths of many people’s lives, even though they appear appear, on the surface, serene, calm, and in control.
I had a dream about a shark once. It was the most horrific dream I ever had. I was of dangling helplessly in the water, unable to see or to defend myself from a shark that was eating me chunk by chunk. I woke up screaming. I can’t stand not to be able to face what is really swimming around at the bottom of things, even if it’s frightening or unpleasant. But, like people who actually study sharks, I’ve found that, rather than monsters, they are fascinating creatures that have a lot to tell us about the way that things work under the waters of the deep. But you have to be ready and willing to face them. Be careful, in the meantime, what you fish for.