Tim Johnson


Master Procraster

Of all the skills necessary to the angler, one stands above the fray.

Chinese general Sun Tzu lived more than 2,500 years ago, but his treatise, The Art of War, remains one of the most influential books on strategy ever written. In this age of drones and cyberweapons, it’s even an Amazon bestseller, ranked four and a half out of five stars.

The appeal of The Art of War extends beyond the military-minded reader. Adaptations include The Art of Trial Warfare: Winning at Trial Using Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and Sun Tzu’s Art of War for Women: Strategies for Winning Without Conflict. There’s even a pocket edition for those who feel the need to consult Sun Tzu on the run.

Fishermen must be good strategists. So I read The Art of War, courtesy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Internet Classics Archive, to judge whether I, too, might be able to take advantage of the strategic insights of a Chinese general whose copyright, like him, has long since expired.

The book is composed of thirteen chapters covering different aspects of strategy, expressed in Zen–Hallmark card style. In the first chapter, “Laying Plans,” Sun Tzu states: “All warfare is based on deception.”

This is certainly true of fishing. Whether a fisherman casts a plug, a fly, or a piece of bait, his or her goal is to deceive a fish. And when successful, not to let any other fishermen know the location from where the fish was caught.
Of course, Sun Tzu didn’t have to contend with Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and hackers. Life was so much simpler in the fifth century BC.

Chapter two, “Waging War,” offers this advice: “Now, when your weapons are dulled (think hooks, not swords), your ardor damped (all nighters on the beach), your strength exhausted (where’s the Red Bull?) and your treasure spent (think a tackle box full of Yo-Zuri lures), other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity. Then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue.” (The fish came in after you left.)

This translates well for anyone who has been at Wasque Point on Chappaquiddick when fishermen are standing shoulder-to-shoulder casting to big bluefish.

Many years ago I was fishing at Wasque in the morning during the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby, a form of Island warfare in its own right. The fishing was slow and I took a break to chat – and sample sambuca – with three Italian brothers from Jersey and their Irish brother-in-law on the tailgate of their beach buggy. A few fishermen were casting. Most were taking a break and watching for a sign of life.

A small woman in waders walked down the beach. She cast out a bait bottom rig. This was a bold move at a spot informally reserved for plug casting, except for those times when few fishermen are about and a bottom rig would not be an impediment.

Within minutes Island fisherman Janet Messineo’s rod bent under the weight of a Derby-winning bluefish. No question, she is an Island fishing chieftain.

Sun Tzu also offers guidance on the use of chariots – which could prove useful for beach buggy owners when the bonito and false albacore show up along Island beaches. And his admonition that “There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare” is good advice for Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, and the rest of the country.

There are plenty of fishing books that discuss the optimum tide, weather conditions, structure, and the type and availability of bait. But the critical skill is knowing how to put off the responsibilities and personal entanglements that interfere with fishing plans.

Inspired by the undiminished value of Sun Tzu, I have begun work on a book of strategy designed for fishermen with the recognition that I don’t expect anyone to be reading it in 2,500 years. (In fact, I don’t even expect humans to be around.) The title is The Art of Procrastination and Avoiding Commitments.

Put more simply, grasshopper: if you’re mowing the lawn, you’re not casting to bluefish.

The first strategy is to shift blame. This can be to a person – the plumber didn’t call you back, so of course there’s no reason to hang around the house waiting for him to arrive – or an inanimate object.

“We’ve had some equipment problems,” is the catchall phrase my contractor friend uses when he’s behind schedule because the striped bass are on the beach.

I find that my best strategy is to rely on my history of home maintenance incompetence.

A few years ago I decided our outside screen door would function better if I took about one inch off the bottom using a skill saw. In doing so, I cut a nice notch in the bottom, which I attempted to mask with the addition of a new door sweep.

I don’t remember the specific project my wife and I were discussing, but I do remember how the conversation ended.

“Not you, honey,” Norma said. “Not you. Someone else, not you.”

I protested. She pointed at the screen door. “Do I have to say anything else? Go fishing.”