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What is sport?

Just over the hill from my home lies Muir Beach, a small Pacific Ocean access just off Highway 1.

The sandy beach itself is only about 300 yards long. But the place is special because the coastline topography in that region includes a bluff several hundred feet high that drops abruptly to a rugged rocky beach, making it difficult and dangerous to reach on foot.

When I recently visited the beach for some R&R, I came upon four fishermen of broadly different styles that caused me to think about the meaning of what is "sporting."

One man had taken some real risks to scramble over some large slippery rocks south of the beach to reach a rocky boulder. Climbing it enabled him to cast out to a kelp bed.

He was fishing with bait. His rod and reel were large enough to land a sturgeon, but in that place he was most likely to catch perch or a rockfish.

His clothes looked fairly worn, and he spoke little English. He was clearly a subsistence fisherman, and he seemed to be having a great time. He had several nice perch and a small cabezon in a white plastic pail.

Down among the rocks there was an old codger in waders, wading waist deep in the surf, poking a broom handle into cracks and crevices in the rocks. On the end of the broom handle was a one foot-long section of straightened coat hanger lashed to the stick with duct tape. On the end of the coat hanger was 2- to 3-inch piece of heavy leader and a fairly large hook baited with a piece of squid.

Out here, we call this "poke poling." At low tide, a daring angler can wade out among the slippery rocks and thrust a poke pole down into crevices and pull out small eels, sculpin and rock fish.

His catch went into a burlap bag attached to a belt on his waders. The poke poler had a couple he said, "Nothing too big." He also had a big grin on his face and was obviously having a ball.

In the middle of the sandy beach, lodged between surfers, picnickers and tourists, were two other fishermen wearing new waders and wading knee deep into the surf to cast.

One was using a spinning rig with a rubber worm jig for bait. He had not caught anything, he said, but seemed to enjoy casting his line a considerable distance, which seemed to impress some people who were watching him.

The fourth angler was using an expensive flyfishing rig; making long, graceful casts. On his waist there was a square metal pan lashed to a belt on his waders. When he stripped in line to give action to his fly, the line was placed in the box, keeping it from being swept away in the surf and ready for the next cast.

The flyfisherman knew how to use his equipment with great skill. He was so intent on what he was doing that he did not want to talk to anyone. His partner, the spincaster, said that he did not have any fish, either.

These men were all "sport" fishermen, engaged in legal recreational fishing. And, yet, their styles were so very different. Perhaps more important, not only were their methods very different, so were their motivations and attitude.

In my dictionary, "sport" is "that which amuses in general; diversion; a pastime."

The baitfisherman and the poke poler were pragmatists. They were interested in food, and hoped to have some fun catching it. They both took risks to get to their fishing spots. They did not care about playing the fish. They wanted them in the bag. And they did not care if anyone saw them, but they were friendly.

The spinfisherman was an "artificial only" guy. He seemed to take pleasure from the fact that he was not using bait, regardless if it meant catching fewer fish. He seemed to enjoy the challenge of handicapping himself.

The flyfisherman was a "purist." I am not sure if he even wanted to keep anything he caught. It seemed to me that for him, the biggest part of his enjoyment was placing limits on his methods.

The differences among these four fishermen illustrate some of the diversity of motivations that bring sportsmen out into the field. But they hardly cover the full range of sport.

Back in the Midwest and the South, some adventurous souls go "noodling." This involves wading waist deep in muddy streams and running your hands up under the roots of old trees along the bank in hopes of finding a big catfish you could grab by the gills and wrestle out of the water.

I've never tried noddling, by I am sure that those who do have a ball … when they don't run into snapping turtles, that is.

When I was growing up back on Lake Erie, every spring as soon as the ice went out we would go out "torching."

Torching involved mounting two large Coleman lanterns on the stern of a flat-bottom rowboat and venturing out after dark with one guy in the bow poling the boat along and another standing up in the stern with a big spear on a 10-foot handle at the ready.

As we glided along through shallow, crystal-clear water, we would come up on carp, suckers and Northern pike, and legally spear them. Some nights we would fill the floor of the boat with fish, which we took back and smoked. It was a ball.

Meat fishing, poke poling, noodling and torching are all legal in some places, but to some folks they aren't "sport."

I want to offer the opinion that "sport" is not so much how you fish (or hunt, for that matter — so long as either option is legal and ethical), but why you do it.

If "sport" is "that which amuses in general; diversion; a pastime," isn't the real definition of "sporting" determined by who it is meant to amuse and why?

If you are out there to catch the attention of others as much or more than catching some critter, then you are a performer.

That's just fine, so long as you don't feel that you are superior to everyone else, because that's not good sportsmanship. And being unsportsmanlike is not what makes for good sport.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.