Hunting and fishing are generally believed to be masculine pursuits. Countless magazine articles, television programs, jokes and cartoons have portrayed outdoor sports as one of man's primary escapes from woman. If a fellow does occasionally condescend to take his mate along on a hunting or fishing trip, it isn't really regarded as serious hunting or fishing. Women, after all, aren't supposed to be strong enough, skilled enough or tough enough to boat marlin, stalk deer or huddle in a duck blind in 20° weather at dawn. They may have attained equality in some areas, but never in this.
In my experience, such an attitude is total nonsense. Without reservation I can say that my wife, Hilde, is the finest hunting and fishing companion I've ever had. This isn't meant to disparage the many fine men with whom I've shared pleasant days afield or to imply that my wife is an extraordinarily gifted outdoorswoman, although she does cast a fly beautifully and is in good enough physical condition to hike steep hills and rocky draws for hours in any weather. The pleasure of Hilde's company has more to do with the fact that she is relaxed and noncompetitive, unlike the vast majority of the men who take up shotguns, rifles and fishing rods.
When we used to hunt, a pastime we gave up a couple of years ago, Hilde thoroughly enjoyed the hiking and the country, the wildlife and the dog. She never worried about how many birds she got; in fact, she might well be delighted at the end of a day on which neither of us had killed anything.
And when we fish it's the same. We love creeks and rivers, the sight and sound of clear water in motion. Fish live in lovely places, and trying to catch them is a reasonable excuse to go there. Generally I let Hilde start down a pool or riffle ahead of me. Sometimes when I follow her down I make longer casts than she does, or I wade farther out to cover water she has missed. If she hooks and lands a good fish ahead of me, I may take a turn in front. But it doesn't matter to us who catches the most or the biggest fish, or if either of us catches anything at all, because being there is what really matters.
I think that competition ruins outdoor sports as surely as an hour-long downpour can muck up a baseball game, and my liberal estimate would be that about 99 out of 100 men are compulsively competitive hunters and fishermen. Though they may try hard to disguise it and may make elaborate, even eloquent, claims to the contrary, the unmistakable evidence is there. Most of the conversation around the campfires concerns who will get or already has got the largest buck, or the heaviest trout, or the fastest limit of ducks or doves. Outdoor literature reflects an inordinate interest in the standard measures of success—the biggest, the most—while nearly always ignoring the philosophical and esthetic aspects of hunting and fishing. I think it's even reasonable to argue that much of the poaching that goes on, and plenty does, is a result of this competitive attitude. Unfortunately, a lot of men would rather kill a fish or animal illegally than suffer the humiliation of coming back empty-handed.
I've had competitive impulses while hunting and fishing myself, and have often observed them in others. Paradoxically, as hunters and fishermen improve their skills, it often becomes more difficult for them to enjoy their sports. This is especially true of the men who become good enough to get reputations, which they then feel obliged to live up to each time they go out with rod or gun. I once watched for three long summer days as a friend of mine, one of America's finest fly fishermen, tried to hook a summer steel-head in front of Hollywood movie cameras. He didn't hook one, though, and I don't think I've ever seen a more dejected man in my life. Everyone knows full well that even the finest anglers have runs of rotten luck, but my friend seemed to feel that he was being publicly disgraced. What should have been a laughing matter turned into a nightmare for him. Ever since then I've been convinced beyond doubt that the hunting and fishing life of a happy clod is preferable to that of a dour expert any time.
Perhaps the very best thing that outdoor sports can do for us is create a store of pleasant recollections for times when we are forced to stay indoors. One of my favorite memories is of a summer morning Hilde and I spent fishing on a steel-head stream. We were out on the river at dawn and we fished until nine. We saw herons, water ouzels, deer and an osprey with a 10-inch trout clutched in its talons. The osprey, we agreed, was far more skillful than we had been. We had fished riffles and pools as the chill air warmed toward morning, and neither of us had raised a thing.
With the sun about to clear the tops of the Douglas firs and cedars on the bank behind us, we decided to try one last spot. It was too nice to quit. We picked a stretch of water off a long, rocky island in the middle of the river, with a deep channel straight below it and a strong, churning rapids below the channel. We waded out quickly to beat the sun, and on her first short cast, which covered no more than 20 feet, Hilde hooked a good steel-head. After she had landed and released it, I made a cast that brought the fly across the channel a few feet below where her fish had been holding. I hooked and landed a steelhead of my own, and an excellent morning was suddenly made perfect for us.
The one thing about it that I can't remember is which of the two steelheads was larger; I don't think we even noticed at the time.