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Sometimes you have dig deep ask ‘‘Why be sport fisherman?’’ Catch my greatest fish flathead catfish from Rock River eight

Sometimes you have to dig deep and ask, ‘‘Why be a sport fisherman?’’ Catch my greatest fish, a flathead catfish from the Rock River eight years ago, then release it. | Dale Bowman~For the Sun-Times

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Updated: September 24, 2011 12:21AM

What I most remember, as we fished through the night, is drifting in and out of sleep, which lends itself too easily to drifting into mysticism, or at least the dream world.

Then, as night had settled down completely over a little spot off a highway along the Rock River, Todd Carlander handed me a rod that had a fish playing with a bait, an act much rooted in this world, as well as the here and now.

After I tightened down the line on the circle hook, the battle was on. On that July night in 2003, I landed my most memorable big freshwater fish, a 40-inch flathead catfish weighing 30 pounds, 4 ounces.

Carlander clipped his flatheads. Mine was clipped with FLOY tag 002. After I caressed its tail, it sank back into the Rock.

That’s the essence of sportfishing: Catch a memorable fish, then release it.

Last weekend, I was taken back to that night, and to considering the nature of sportfishing.

There was a ‘‘River Monsters’’ marathon on Animal Planet over the Memorial Day weekend. Of all the fishing shows, this is my favorite. Jeremy Wade is a biologist and a compulsive, world-trotting fisherman. I will never follow his world-trotting ways to arapaima, goonch catfish or giant freshwater stingray. Catching sturgeon and hogging for 50-pound flatheads is as exotic as I get, but I understand his obsession.

My daughter and I were flopped in the living room watching Wade battle one freaky fish after another one evening. As he released another one, he suddenly launched into a rumination on the meaning of sportfishing.

To his credit — and this is one of the reasons I enjoy his show — Wade did not have a TV-ready answer on why he has to do sportfishing.

He gave due credit to the obvious: It would make far more sense if his obsession meant catching food to eat. And on a purely logical level, fishing to eat makes far more sense than sportfishing.

He couldn’t come up with a good answer, then finally kind of conceded, with one of those expressions that crinkled his weathered face into an obscure mask, that he just had to fish.

That’s the kind of question that every few years I try to sort out for myself.

On one level, I think sportfishing is incredibly decadent. Chasing fish simply to outwit and catch them, only to return them back to the water, is a sign of an individual or society with too much time to squander.

I could offer some true, but almost flippant, justifications: that it teaches a connection to the nature world and conservation and that it is a fun form of exercise and relaxation.

Those are true enough, but really, that’s not why I fish.

There’s a competitive element that comes from my childhood, one I am not particularly proud of, but it is part of me.

In my younger days, I had to catch more and bigger fish than my dad and younger brother. I still have to catch more than my brother. At least I matured enough to simply savor the rare times left to fish with my dad.

To this day, I most value fishing with people who keep score — and I know that contrasts with the idea of fishing as recreation — such as my friend Pete Riedesel and Ken ‘‘The Lakefront Lip’’ Schneider.

I really am old enough to know better, but I can’t help keeping score.

That competitiveness isn’t restricted to fishing.

However, I find in those rare years when I consider the meaning of my own sportfishing, the strongest reason is that fishing takes me from the physical and immediate to the spiritual and eternal.

As Carlander put it that night on the Rock, ‘‘Just when you think it is all coming together for flatheads, it is a broken dream.’’

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