“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven”.
The author of these well known words remains in dispute by Biblical scholars, though many believe the likely writer was King Solomon. Widely regarded as one of the most brilliant minds in recorded history, Solomon’s philosophical musings in the book of Ecclesiastes continue to provide intellectual stimulation to today’s readers, as it has to so many for the past three thousand years. My goal is to uncover messages hidden in these ancient words which I, as a fisherman, might find instructive and useful in my pursuit of the decidedly non-philosophical activity of fishing.
A brief review of the etymology of the word “Ecclesiastes” reveals that the Hebrew form of the word, which I will decline to attempt to reproduce here in its original form, refers to “The Book of the Teacher”. Further study shows us that the original Hebrew word includes a participle meaning “to gather”. I find these two ideas intriguing.
I look forward each year to the beginning of the month of October. As the cooler temperatures begin their gradual intrusion onto the pleasant warm days of September, many of nature’s creatures initiate their preparations for the coming winter. A happy dividend of this phenomenon is the increased presence of redfish on the flats. There they feed with an abandon that creates fish filled afternoons for the fly fisherman. Typically, large numbers of copper colored fish cover the shallow flats of coastal South Carolina during this time. They are eager eaters, devouring flies readily. It has been my observation that more of the larger fish can be found at this time as well. I vividly recall afternoons of so many rubric tails wafting gently in the dappled sunlight , that I scarcely could decide in which direction I should cast my gold tinged flies. These large gatherings of my favorite fish suggest the possibility of an ecumenical movement. One might even say an Ecclesiastic fishing phenomenon occurs in October on our flats here in South Carolina. “Praise the Lord! ” continues to be my sole response.
The speaker in Ecclesiastes is called, in Hebrew, “Qoheleth”, translated as “Teacher”. I readily acknowledge that I am anything BUT a scholar, however, I am inclined to disagree with this interpretation. In my mind and life experiences, “Qoheleth” would be much more accurately translated as “Mike”. When first I began this quest to become a fly fisherman and flats man, I knew nothing and could barely cast the line past the tip of the rod. Mike displayed amazing patience and took me on as a special project, hoping to take me from my raw untrained state to that of a real fly fisherman. I remember those times when I stood clumsily at the bow of his jon boat, making even clumsier casts at the redfish arrayed before me in the shallow saltwater of Mike’s favorite redfish flats. Over time, his instructions in every phase of the saltwater fly fishing game ever so gradually transformed me into a reasonably capable fisherman. It was he who had shared with me the magic time of October on the flats. As a result, my mind has accumulated memories sufficient to sustain me when that time comes that I no longer am capable of a journey to the flats I hold so dear. That time, the end of days in a way, seems to be approaching with ever increasing rapidity.
“A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing”
This fishing year has been a aberration for me. After learning so much from “Qoheleth” about the ways of the redfish, I have achieved a level of fishing success that has left me mostly satisfied. Most trips to the flats have resulted in the capture, and subsequent release, of satisfactory numbers of redfish. I suppose that I had become accustomed to such results. This year has been different. As I write, it is October 5. It is a time of joy, as it is the anniversary of the birth of my elder daughter. But it also is a time of some dismay as I reflect on the fact that I have brought to hand not a single redfish this year. As the Teacher says, there is a time to every purpose. It appears that the purpose this season is to learn another lesson., a time not to gather stones, or in my case redfish, perhaps a time to cast away stones.
My numerous recent trips to the flats have yielded an unusually low number of fish sightings, and even fewer casting opportunities. It seems that the redfish are gathering elsewhere. I have not been invited to these conventions, and my manifold efforts to crash their parties have uniformly failed. I believe that there is a life lesson in all this. As Qoheleth says:
“A time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak”
Now is the time for my silence. A time for me to think on all that has been given to me. A time to consider the wonders of God’s creation. A time to reflect on how precious is the gift of family and friendship. And, yes, a time to give thanks for all the redfish of previous years. It is not a time for remorse and bitterness or frustration.
Scholars expert in the study of Ecclesiastes feel that Qoheleth may have been familiar with the Greek philosophers Epicureas and Zeno of Citium, founder of the school of Stoicism. These great Greek thinkers held opposing world views. Epicureas promoted the idea that pleasure is the greatest good. That philosophy holds great attraction for me. However,he is careful to point out that overindulgence can lead to loss of pleasure, a point perhaps lost on me. I might argue that that overindulgence in catching, or even merely seeing redfish in abundance on the flats, can never lead to dissatisfaction. However this season, overindulgence remains merely a theoretical possibility for me.
Zeno, on the other hand, felt that happiness is best derived from shedding desires and passions. This path, he reasoned, permitted decisions to be made with pure, cold logic, leaving emotion and passion out of the equation. Imagine Mr. Spock with a fly rod. For me, life devoid of passion is merely a robotic existence. If ever I find myself machine-like on the flats, casting with mechanical precision, using a fly selected using a handheld computer, and unemotionally setting the hook and landing every fish, it will be time to find a new pastime. Oh, and read some more Ecclesiastes.
I was a young man at the time when “Turn! Turn! Turn!” became a hit by a band called the Byrds. An unpopular war in faraway Vietnam threatened to tear asunder the country. Many young men such as myself were exposed to the risk of involuntary service in the military and possible death on the battlefields of southeast Asia. It was Pete Seeger who set to music the words of Quoheleth. The haunting vocal harmonies were matched by melodious sounds of the twelve string guitars used on the track. I have read that satisfactory recording of the song required 78 takes over several days. Perhaps the most memorable words from the song are those Mr. Seeger added to those of Quoheleth- “I swear it’s not too late”. I pray that is the case with my redfishing as well.