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The Kinship of Fishing

Sharing the water with refugees from atrocities.

The Kinship of Fishing

(Al Hassall art)

This article was originally titled "The Brotherhood of Fishing."

The older I get, the more poignancy I see in things. And so it was the other day when an immigrant—brought here by a local church years ago to save his family from the killing fields of Cambodia—walked up near me, fishing the same shoreline. I was on the dock of my lakefront home, trying out a new fly rod and reel given to me by my late father-in-law. The rod was an 8-weight Cam Sigler, the reel a Billy Pate Bonefish model won by my father-in-law in the 2001 Spring Keys Bonefish Tournament. Altogether, a new outfit like this would probably cost eight hundred dollars.

The Cambodian immigrant was using something much more basic. His fiberglass rod was nothing fancy. His “reel” was a narrow plastic spool—the kind that hangs in most tackle stores and carries monofilament, and his line was spooled onto it.

I’d given him an old spinning reel a few years back, but I’d never seen him use it. I guess he liked his reel better, which was fine.

I couldn’t figure out for the life of me how the thing worked. The spool appeared to be attached to the rod with electrician’s tape when he wasn’t merely holding it in his hand, but unless the spool turned—which it couldn’t when taped to the rod—how could line play out from it on the cast? Perhaps he was simply holding the spool in his hand, allowing it to turn as the bait pulled line from the spool. It was a mystery all right, but however he did it, he could sling his bait well out into the lake. He’d then wrap the line back onto the spool one wrap at a time, turning his hand in steady circles.

It was clear that my companion was fishing for dinner. His bait looked like a slice of bacon, but it may have been a soft plastic lure. Regardless, I’m sure he was taking home whatever he might catch, which was his practice. I had seen him walking home with a bucket full of bream, or carrying a bass by the gills, many times.

Unlike my “friend,” I wasn’t really fishing at all. I’d tied on a small popper just to have something on the end of the leader, and my goal was not to catch fish but to see how the rod cast. It performed well. Too well, actually. A 70-foot cast was easy, but a 30-foot cast was a challenge with the rod loading inadequately, but that’s beside the point.

I call this person my friend, but he probably doesn’t think I’m very friendly. I ran him off my dock years ago, not because I minded him fishing from it, but because he kept everything he caught.

That summer I was feeding bream and bluegills from the dock every afternoon, and hundreds would swim over whenever they’d hear someone walking onto the dock. He’d leave with a basket of fish every day, and it seemed he wasn’t going to quit until there weren’t any left. I tried talking to him about it but he couldn’t speak English, so he just left, knowing that I was upset about something. That always bothered me because I’m willing to share if we could just establish some ground rules.

Fly fishing Cambodia refugee khmer rouge pol pot
(Al Hassall art)

His lack of English once led to a comical incident. He had seen an alligator in the weeds next to the dock, and when I approached he apparently became concerned for my safety. He grew very animated as he tried to tell me the reptile was lurking nearby, and resorted to using his hands. Describing an alligator with hand signals and snapping sounds is apparently not easy because I didn’t know what he was doing until I saw the critter lying in the weeds. It was important to him that I knew about that alligator, though.

I sat down and watched him fish, enjoying the late afternoon breeze, and the noises of the lake. We’d finally gotten some rain—a lot of rain—and the drought had broken. The birds were happy, the bugs were plentiful, and life was good for most of the lake’s creatures. I’m sure the rain had cooled the water in the lake, pleasing the fish, and the water was clearer. It was nice being outside.

My friend looked just as content and happy fishing in his way as I’d ever been fishing in mine. Largely through the benevolence of my father-in-law, I’d had the chance to fish with some of the best guides in the Florida Keys for some of the most desirable gamefish in the world. There are a lot of places I’d still like to fish, but if I don’t get there, at least I’ve been to one of the mountaintops. Or had I? Maybe there are no mountaintops in fishing, or maybe all fishing spots are mountaintops. Maybe the experience is judged not by the location or the fish, but by the life experiences we as anglers bring to the water, and how they relate to the fishing at that given moment.


For my friend who had escaped the brutal regime of Pol Pot, when 1.5 million Cambodians were killed, perhaps he was fishing on his mountaintop there on that lake in Florida. There is no telling what atrocities he may have witnessed, or how many family members he may have lost, but my guess is that his walk along that lakeshore in late spring was as magical as any fishing experience I had ever enjoyed.

In those terrible days of terror, even imagining such blissful fishing must have been unfathomable. Or maybe—just maybe—dreaming of such fishing is what helped him get through it and escape the Khmer Rouge.

I don’t know how one can deal with the stress of such an environment without taking little mental escapes occasionally, so maybe he took small fishing trips in his mind. I often think of fishing in order to get bad thoughts out of my head, or escape from my own problems for a while, so maybe fishing helped him cope.  

And so I found myself thinking of fishing on that late afternoon, and how it creates kinship among people who might seem on the surface as different as night is to day. Compared to my friend, my upbringing was pretty easy, yet there we were, each receiving a little peace from an activity that has been around since the beginning of time. We were brothers in fishing, enjoying its solitude and gracefulness in our own but equal way. I think I’ll invite my friend back onto the dock.  

Rick Dantzler is an attorney in Bartow, Florida, and former state senator.

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