Boxing up the last odds and ends of my work life, I sorted thirty-four years of books, papers, talismans and stuff among a few boxes and the overflowing recycling bin. I reached for one particular talisman, a button pin – Fishing for Solutions. Faded from years of exposure to finger oils and sunlight – it was smooth and perfect, nice in the hand to finger and flip while thinking. Given the handling and the dozen office moves during my career, I am not sure how it survived. It both reminded and inspired me – of the chase, chance and opportunity that every day and every challenge presented. I’d been working the last 14 years in fire and forest conservation across the U.S. The wicked fire challenges for people and our forests was both a passion and compulsion – and now it was over for me.
I am an avid angler. I am pretty sure that I’ve been fishing since I could walk and fly fishing since the mid-seventies. It is not difficult for me to draw parallels between work and fishing or my life and fishing. It’s all angling. Angling is in the place, people, process and quest. It’s in each slippery step of ascending a mountain stream. It’s in testing hypotheses, following instincts and patterns and anticipating change. It’s seeing the rise from the dark into the light, a revealing swirl or the tip-off surface dimple of distant sipping lips. It’s about understanding how to work with backwaters, eddies, tide changes, mean winds, spooky fish, frozen mornings and sizzling hot days, numb fingertips and sunburned noses. It’s about seeing the rise, the take, the quarry carefully cradled in hand, sometimes taking a memorable photo and then letting go. I am keen on understanding the context of seasons, tides and currents, being able to read the waters, make fly choices, payoff presentations and set the hook. I enjoy both the deepness of the learning and the art of catching and releasing or not catching at all. The solution is in the solving or catching – twins of the same competitive endorphin addicted “mutha.” Both work and fishing have these soul hooking elements of sport and pastime. Both finish when you stop and without ceremony, turn into the stories we tell later.
I’d like to say that I made up my mind to retire in some particular moment. The truth is that I had been preparing for this transition for at least two years. My last decision, when, arrived like passing flotsam while saltwater fly fishing in Belize in March. Staring at the water several days in a row waiting for a Tarpon to show itself has a way of providing time to think deeply. Scanning open water or the edges of mangroves for hours on end in the quiet of a boat is a really great part of fishing. I love looking at water – the colors and patterns – always in anticipation of a tell-tale sign, real or imaginary. So, in the middle of all the waiting on that third day of chasing Tarpon, the words came to me. In my small notepad I composed a Haiku quartet and a letter of resignation.
bobbing and rolling
standing, staring: stay awake
waiting for tarpon
drifting color's edge
blind casting tarpon
thoughts and rum prayers
watching, watching still
dreaming in seven blue colors
there goes a turtle
staring and searching
the definition of hope
a fin, tail or roll
I resigned my position in early April after 34 years of working passionately within the mission and structure of others. Fortunately, I move on with great memories. Now I can do – whatever. I took the summer off to play. I told friends that I had not been able to play all summer since the 7th grade. So, I played, I hiked, I fished, traveled to Japan, road tripped in the West and spent 60 hours staining my fence. It was easier than I anticipated to disconnect from work. I did miss the amazing people and conversations, but my warm summer days and nights were full and exactly what my heart desired.
In August, I went backpacking with Laura, a work colleague, inspiration and friend, into the High Uinta Wilderness. We planned to fish in a few of the many remote lakes and streams. For Laura, this would be her first-time fishing and I was excited to introduce her to fishing and specifically Tenkara. (Some say Tenkara is the modern version of the earliest Japanese fly fishing: simply a rod, a line and a fly.) I had not backpacked since high school but off we went. We hiked into Timothy Lakes basin, camped for four nights, day hiked to explore – and fished. Laura was a quick study of both the art and science, caught several nice brook trout and was hooked quickly. Fishing, catching, cooking brookies threaded on sage or willow sticks over a fire and eating them wilderness style is very compelling.
On the third afternoon, from a distance as I watched Laura excitedly fish a section of stream, I also noticed that fish were rising and taking my fly but that I had ceased to be able to hook them. I checked my hook and sure enough the business end of the hook had broken off at the bend leaving the grizzly hackle and peacock hurl of the fly on the hook shank but now without ability to hook anything. I continued to fish it anyway – without a hook. I was enjoying watching Laura experience all the parts and place of a passion that has had so much meaning for me for so long. Two days later, we descended out of the wilderness. I could feel the summer ending. The transition for me was both external and internal. Like the trees shedding leaves and the stream transforming them into nutrients, I was emerging into my next cycle.
Fall is here, and I feel no loss in resigning. I am struck by how quickly initial curiosities and concerns that I had before resigning dissipated into the flow of a different everyday life. I still enjoy watching the enthusiasm of the fire community driving change, the banter and the strategizing, which is made easy by Facebook. My life is my new “to do list”: adjust income stream from retirement savings, fish, read, take classes, plan fun trips, enjoy adventures with Luca my English Cocker Spaniel and just be. All very ordinary experiences viewed through my rapidly changing lens of what is past, present and future. I feel like I have rounded a big bend in the river.
The button pin talisman had meaning for me for many years, but I am no longer on the quest fishing for solutions and outcomes. I also know that I can watch or engage without personally having the catch or prize in hand as the result. Letting go of fishing with a hook is letting go of the weight that was the fish, letting go of the fight and letting go of the vested interest in those past endorphin inducing outcomes. As September came, I’d realized two important things for this transition to my next stretch of water. One, I had to fish, but only for myself. Two, I could fish without a hook.
Lynn Decker recently retired after 34+ years of working with great people in amazing places across the US on environmental conservation challenges. She held regional and national positions for both the USDA Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy. Most recently she directed The Nature Conservancy’s North America Fire Initiative. She has an educational and professional background in fisheries ecology, landscape conservation and integrated fire management. Originally from coastal California, she lives in Salt Lake City with her partner Pauline and their English Cocker Spaniel Luca. Lynn enjoys fly fishing, travel, cooking, blending and aging whisky, reading, telling stories and spending time slowly exploring life with a free schedule.
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