The Mystery of Lockjaw

Updated: Dec 28, 2020


A wise man once wrote, “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.”

Sometimes no matter how much expertise you apply to fishing; the fish simply won’t bite, they have ‘lockjaw’. The conditions are perfect, why won’t they bite? This requires the pursuer to consider every plausible explanation. After eliminating most, the real answer is shrouded in mystery.

Norman Maclean’s famous line in A River Runs Through It, implies life’s biggest lessons are learned beside the water ‘a fishin’.

“He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman,”

A simple but salient observation is at least seven of the twelve disciples were fishermen. John’s Gospel reveals Jesus’s disciples learned the deepest truths about his identity in and beside the salty untamed sea.

One is left to surmise, life’s greatest epiphanies are revealed in the toil, pain, failure, and elation of the catch. The mysterious lessons don’t come easy. You can’t just learn them by reading about them in a book. You must live life; you must put life into gear and move on down the winding road. You must ‘do life’.

Lessons, some eternal, are discovered in the fray. Although I like books, you can’t learn how to fish by simply reading a book. You can’t simply want to fish. To learn fishing’s lessons, you must go a fishin’.

Norman was a good Presbyterian and on to something when he said, “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.

“Most people give up too quickly. You can’t catch one if your lure’s not in the water.”

A thousand casts, two hundred backlashes, endless tangled messes, near misses, someone else hauling in the fish and you ain’t catchin’ nothin’, and sometimes if you’re lucky, a fish.

The quest itself is wrought with potential danger; ‘the sea might grow stormy’. Every trip presents the real prospect of failure, you might ‘toil all night and catch nothing’. Of course, if you go, you open the door to potential success, ‘your nets might fill to breaking’. In the process you encounter mystery.

If fishing’s not easy and it’s not, this raises the often-contemplated question, “Then why do large numbers of the human species like to fish so much?”

Howell Raines in his excellent book, Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis, explores the answer.

“In my view, the people who fish do so because it seems like magic to them, and it is hard to find things in life that seem magical. So, what is there about catching a fish that seems magical in the psychological sense? This appeal is the same as that which resides in pulling a rabbit out of a hat. We have reached a realm over which we have no explainable mastery and by supernatural craft or mere trickery created a moment that is as phenomenal on the hundredth performance as on the first. Fish in the water represent pure potential. If the water is not clear, we do not know if they exist at all. To get them to bite something connected to a line and pull them into our world is managing a birth that brings these creatures from the realm of mystery into the world of reality. It’s a kind of creation.”

Howell’s right. Why do people like to fish? Imagine showing up to lake or stream and loudly announcing to the fish, “Beware, I’m here to catch you!”

The fish listening carefully below, upon hearing your declaration, confer and then surrender and automatically begin beaching themselves.

“I give up! Here I am, pick me up and take me home and cut me into pieces and fry me in your skillet.”

Sounds nice, but that would be far too easy. Absolutely anyone could do that, and fishing would quickly lose its mysterious appeal.

Sometimes it didn’t matter how hard Moon and I fished or how long we tried, the fish were simply not going to bite, not a damned one. After all, they are all the Lord’s fish, and they exist and grow and swim and feed according to His divine decrees.

So, on some days no matter how much expertise we brought to the game it just wasn’t happening. God’s fish weren’t vaguely interested in cooperating. Such occasions only served to make Moon more determined. The harder the fishing, the more he seemed to like it. You knew you were in for a long day if the fish weren’t bitin’.

Adverse conditions challenge the expertise of the angler. When the lake is muddy you must know where and how to find clearer water, what colors of lures to toss, how the fish usually behave in various weather patterns and water conditions.

“Shane, pull your spinnerbait higher in the water to make it more visible.”

The worse the conditions, the more careful attention the fisherman must pay for the slightest clue mother nature might choose to reveal; the jump of a shad, the patterns of birds searching for baitfish, the interaction of wind and waves with aquatic vegetation and the shoreline, any discernable clue. Adverse conditions only served to kindle the fire of Moon’s determined searcher instincts. He was willing to walk or wade for miles searching for the best spot given next to hopeless conditions. “Give up”, was not part of his vocabulary.

On these hopeless fishing days, whatever motley crew might happen to be with him at the time tried for a couple of hours and then headed back to the car.

“Where in the hell is Moon? I’m ready to go, honk the horn!”

Just before dark, Moon would emerge wading out with an unsuspected huge string of bass.

“How in the Sam Hill did you manage to catch those?”

“Well, I noticed…”, and the long expert’s tale would ensue.

This scenario reminds me of another place in A River Runs Through It where Norman asks his brother Paul, “How did you think that out?” He [Paul] thought back on what had happened like a reporter. He started to answer, shook his head when he found he was wrong, and then started out again. “All there is to thinking,” he said, “is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”

If Moon did get skunked which sometimes happened, but never without an “A” for effort, he just said, “I guess that’s why they call it, ‘fishin’.”

However, the confounding thing was sometimes the conditions had absolutely nothing to do with the failure. The fish should be here, they should be killing it, but they weren’t, there wasn’t a fish to be had, not one. Fishing success is easily attributable to the right conditions and man’s ability, to experts like the Bill Dances and Moon Sunns of the world. But sometimes no matter how perfect the conditions or the fisherman, the fish have lockjaw. When you succeed you can attempt to bottle the mystery and attribute the success to yourself. When you fail, you need a better explanation, a more philosophical or maybe even theological one. Why fish bite in the first place is a mystery, why they don’t bite is greater mystery still.

When you fail at what you’re good at, you might be graciously confronted with the true source of all good things, reserved only for the persistent.

“That’s why they call it ‘fishin’.”

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When I first penned Moon and Sunn I included a truck load of chapter endnotes. I felt I needed to verify just about every historical detail of the entire book! After endless research editor Bobby Ha