Because I am an indiscriminate saver of things — a tendency that always seems an amusing kind of madness in others but perfectly reasonable in oneself — I have tucked at the back of a seldom-used dresser drawer a small stack of papers, each neatly folded to credit-card size, held together over the years by rubber bands. Now nearly 8 inches thick, this little brick of paper contains, to the best of my knowledge, every fishing license I ever bought.
I can’t remember exactly how or why it began, whether there was even a conscious desire to save them or just some indefinable reluctance to throw them out. At the end of each season I’d just toss the old licenses in a drawer, maybe two or three or four of them, some from destinations specifically planned, others from places I just happened to find myself with a fishing rod. Though I can’t say for sure, I’d guess that by now there are licenses from 30 or so states and provinces; assorted river passes; permits from Indian reservations and controlled-access areas; conservation licenses; trout stamps; tags for steelhead, salmon, and sturgeon; national park permits; and other miscellaneous documents all authorizing me to do the thing I love most. Jumbled randomly together, they represent no deliberate goal, no compulsion to rack up a score of some sort, no sentimental or nostalgic collection. Over the years things like this just have a way of adding up, a lot like the years themselves.
I have no idea how many of those old licenses there are nor the slightest interest in sorting or counting them. In fact, I can’t recall a single occasion in three decades that I’ve done so much as casually thumbed through them. There’s never been a need to. If I can’t remember every last place I’ve fished, I can call to mind most of them, and so I have a pretty fair idea of what’s in that stack without bothering to look.
Preserved in there are, among other things, the records of various personal “firsts” — the first time I fished the beautiful limestone creeks of Pennsylvania, the first bass-fishing trip to Arkansas, the first spring chinook I ever caught.
Somewhere, too, in that stack is a particular record from the spring of 1969, when I strode into a bait shop with $8 and a barely concealed sense of pride and left with my very first fishing license. I’d been certified a “fisherman,” a credential, as I recall, that failed to impress even a single fish. But it pleased me to be a card-carrying fisherman, and it still does. If we can’t escape the endless litany of legal distinctions and bureaucratic designations that come to define our lives — “principal policyholder,” “married, filing jointly,” “I, the undersigned” — there is some comfort in knowing that “licensed angler” is in there with the others and that there is at least one essentially harmless occupation still sanctioned by the state. Hefting that stack of 30 years, I can honestly say that I’ve never begrudged or regretted a single penny of the cost.
It seems odd, though, that while I’ve spent the better part of my life fishing and have traveled some to do it, I always seem to end up, more or less, in someone else’s backyard. Those licenses document no trips to exotic locales, no once-in-a-lifetime expeditions, no time logged in remote and unspoiled regions that few anglers ever reach. By most standards, I suppose, they catalog only well-trodden paths and ordinary places, though to me those places are anything but ordinary. From the bluegill pond at the far side of town to the little trout stream at the far side of the country, each river and lake has revealed a distinct world apart, not pristine and untamed but invested with its own kind of wildness and, in its way, as remote from everyday life as the waters of Tierra del Fuego or the Alaskan outback. In the end, the most meaningful geographies are interior ones. If the places I’ve fished have not been wilderness, in my imaggination they have always bordered on the wild and offered me the same kind of solace, breathing space, and sense of wonder. Collectively, those places map out a private territory I think of simply as “fishing country,” and those old licenses have been my passports to it.
When the season is finished and the passports expired, I add a few more scraps to the growing stack of paper. There’s no sentiment or ceremony, just a lingering question: Why have I kept track of a lifetime’s worth of useless paper? Only now, nearing the midpoint of my fishing life, have I gotten some glimpse of an answer.
In some small way, I’ve come to see that bundle of old licenses as the tangible record of a life lived with a certain kind of deliberateness. They are a log of my travels to fishing country, a stack of postcards sent to myself from the edge of the wild, signifying a choice about what is valuable to me and why.
When the day comes, as it inevitably must, when I can no longer fish, I wonder how thick that stack will have grown. Then, I might at last sort through them and contemplate the map they make. And I wonder too if I might not go out and get one more license and add it to the rest, and if that will make the map less truthful or more.