Imagination & Ice Fishing

It is -21⁰C with the windchill and I am sitting in four layers over a six-inch hole cut into two feet of ice. I am dangling fishing line through my gloved fingers, waiting for that distinctive tug that lets me know something is on the other end of the line.

I am ice-fishing for the first time in my life. As an adult living in the prairies, this is disreputable. I am probably a degenerate. I am probably an invalid who has been kept from the slimmest chance of drowning all my life. These are somewhat true assumptions, because I am an urbanite who went fishing maybe a handful of times with my Dad in the Muskokas before I hit puberty and spent the rest of my time in a disengaged pacifism that would have me do no harm to another sentient creature.

But I’ve come to realize I’m an animal—and just as the bear has no shame about sticking its jaws into a waterfall to pluck out a salmon, and cows don’t think twice about tearing away at grass, I have no qualms about feeding myself. (Moderately and respectfully, of course.)

So I took the opportunity to put the fishing rod back in my hand and try my luck with humanity’s 40,000 year-old activity.

As my feet begin to freeze, I stare into the hole, getting deeper and deeper into a meditative state. Two hours pass and I haven’t caught a damn thing. I could switch bait to go for perch, which my fellow ice fishers are catching (mostly little unkeepable three or four inch things), but I want splake. I just know they are the bigger and more elusive fish and, therefore, the bigger prize.

As I stare into the hole, something begins to happen. I don’t realize it at first, and really only start to understand it the day after. But as I stare into the hole, I can see my line go into the water. A few centimetres below the water, it is too dark to see. So I picture my line, jigging spoon, and hook dangling near the lake bed. As time goes by, I try to imagine fish coming to the line, attracted by my clever jigging. When I feel a tug, I reel in expecting to see a hooked splake, but instead see the minnow’s body chewed off; I bait the hook and start the process again.

By the time I am too cold to bait anymore minnows, I switch to maggots and try for perch. This time the biting comes quicker. I can feel the perch nibbling on the bait. I can imagine them crowding around the hook, trying to decide how to get the maggot without getting caught. If I pull up at the right time and catch their lip, I could bring them above the ice. I use my imaginary underwater mind-camera to tell myself how to jig the line just so, to get a good bite.

It was this process, which must have ancient derivations, that was fascinating in retrospect—it was, in essence, the foundation for imagination. It begins with me, the fisher, observing patterns: when I put the hook into the water, I could pull a fish out. This almost seamlessly leads into anticipation: if I put a hook in, I should pull a fish out. This anticipation, in some amazing evolutionary feat, opens the gates to imagination. I can picture—outside of material reality—in the so-called ‘mind’s eye’—below the ice, removed from my sense perceptions—what might have been happening between the cause and the consequence.

There are lots of treatises on imagination. A lot of work has been done to comprehend it. Einstein famously used his teenage imagination to envision light as both waves and particles—he said, in the bluntest quote on the subject, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Throughout humanity’s history, imagination has played a fundamental role in shaping social and cultural behaviour, whether through myths, assumptions, or hypotheses. And as much as we idolize the ‘greats’ and tell ourselves their imagination is a superior form of genius, I would argue that imagination is a natural function of the mammalian brain that is born out of something as simple as fishing.

And for some anglers, imagination is all they go away with (we all know the cliché ‘fish-this-big’ story). Fortunately for me, it was two decent-sized perch that I filleted and pan-fried to enjoy with some warming wine and pasta.

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