March 26, 2021
It’s going to get a little deep on this one... go ahead and interpret that however you want.
I want to talk about the subject of catch and release. Don’t worry, I’m not here to club anybody over the head, or any fish for that matter. And I don’t want to talk politics here, but I feel the need to make a political reference to lay the groundwork for this topic. From my vantage point, meat eaters and catch and release folk, have been at each other’s throats just as much as each side of our political system. Both sides admit that there’s a problem. And most of your average Americans will confess that they think most politicians are crooks, except for the ones that support their viewpoints. I view the catch and release subject much in the same way. Don’t confuse this for passive aggressive ego. I have a very defined stance, but I refuse to drink the cool aid of either cult.
I came to my decision on a river bank.
Before this day, I had been brought up in a home that caught fish, and ate fish. The only fish we didn’t eat were fish that were too small to clean properly. So, I got really good at cleaning small fish. After all, I worked hard for those little fish, if nothing else I deserved to get a meal out of it.
As time went on, years later, living in the U.P. standing in a river with a fly rod, everything I caught, I ate, almost out of a sense of obligation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m mildly ashamed to say it, but in my opinion nothing tastes better than a Brook trout. I remember a respected fisherman and relative that found out I was catching decent fish, said, “Put those big ones back! You’ll enjoy catching them again., or maybe someone else will.”
For some reason this didn’t seem like a very logical concept. After all, everyone that catches a fish like this won’t let it go, they’ll either mount it or eat it. That’s the only thing you do with fish right? Why let someone else eat it if I already caught it?
I was sitting on a riverbank not far from where I live. The stretch of river I was fishing was not wadable, in fact it wasn’t even cast-able with a fly rod unless you kept your reel close to the ground as you threw a roll cast. At this point in life, I was still in transition from gear fishing to fly fishing. This particular evening I had my spinning rod, and my fly rod. For the first time in my life I actually saw a large trout take a dry fly. At first I didn’t know what had happened. Something broke the surface of the water in the middle of a deep run. When it did, it made a sharp slapping sound and left a big ripple as evidence. Shocked, I wondered, “was that a fish, or a beaver?” Then it happened again, and I realized what I was seeing. My young fisherman instincts kicked in and like a soldier running into battle, after listening to the voice of William Wallace. I grabbed my spinning rod and cast. Honestly I don’t even remember what I cast out there. All I know, is that after I had cast so many times and switched lures until I had exhausted every one I had, I grabbed for my fly rod. I couldn’t tell what the fish was eating from where I was, but there were dark mayflies in the air. I took hold of one and snapped a picture of it, thinking that I’d try to tie a pattern to match it. After all my attempts had failed, I simply resorted to sitting on the bank and smoking my pipe while I watched in amazement.
I went to bed that night thinking about that fish. Every time I closed my eyes I could see it rising over and over again. I remember wishing that I knew more about fly fishing and entomology so that I could outsmart this fish. What ended up happening, was that I returned the next night to the same place on the river with more lures, every type of bait I could buy from the gas station, and every single fly that I could find in my home. I wasn’t 100% sure if the fish would still be there or if he would eat again but if he would, I was definitely going to be ready.
Sure enough, it happened again the same time the following evening... that fish came out for dinner. Crushing the surface, throwing water as it turned with its tail as it went back down. I threw worms of all kinds, I threw raps, I threw mepps, I threw panther martins, and every other spinning thing with hooks that I had. Eventually, as the night before, I reached for my fly rod and tried every single fly that I could find, my first choice being the one I tied to match what I saw the night before.
At this point, as you might guess, I didn’t catch the fish that night either. After sitting on the bank and enjoying the view while I smoked my pipe tobacco, I went home yet again, scratching my head and wondering how someone could possibly figure out how to catch an animal like this.
The next day was Sunday, and after church, I grabbed a couple buddies and was talking to them about my experience the day before. I told them how I knew where this fish was on the river and that it was coming out each night at the same time in a feeding frenzy. They were less a custom to the ins and outs of fishing and found it absolutely absurd that I could take them to a spot on the river and show them where a fish would start eating. So I did what any young fisherman would do and I invited him to come out, “heck even bring your fishing rods.”
Five or six of us lined the riverbank that was much too small for five or six of us, As I told them where and when the fish would start rising. It happened a little later than normal this night so by the time they had stood there for five minutes wondering where this fish was, they looked at me like I had pulled some practical joke on them. As we were getting ready to leave I heard it again. I knew that sound, it was the fish from the prior two days. The one that wouldn’t let me sleep at night, And now they saw it too. I think the best way to describe what happened next would be to make another Braveheart reference. It was like in the mid evil ages, when two armies would come together for battle and one king would call for the archers to fire. All of the sudden there would be a cloud in the sky full of arrows that at some point would make a downward descent and the only thing that determined the beauty of such a sight was which side of the battlefield you were on. Every single person on the riverbank cast their rods simultaneously. I don’t remember us getting tangled up in each others lines, but I can’t imagine doing something like that without a massive spiderweb of lures. If I remember right, the fish actually kept eating, somehow managing to dodge every set of hooks that we threw at it. The way that I ended my first two nights, was starting to become tradition.
The following day, I had determined that I was going to give it one last shot. In fact, I was going to bring another friend, but I was going to be very choosy about who it was. I ended up calling my friend Dennis. At this time, Dennis was in his early 60s and had much more fishing experience than me. I told him about my predicament and that I was going to go One last time, and I’d be honored if he could join me and show me how to catch this fish. I had heard Dennis tell me stories in the past about fishing in central and southern Wisconsin, and there were a few stories that included targeting a specific fish. I figured this would be a great learning opportunity, and if nothing else, I would feel better about the fact that I didn’t catch it if he didn’t catch it either.
This night started out just like the rest, aside from the fact that we had to Kindle a small brushfire because the mosquitoes had finally decided to live up to their reputation they have here in the U.P.
I let Dennis take the first number of casts to the fish, as he had already told me about a few tricks that he had up his sleeve, courtesy of his grandfather. One of them included a clear plastic bobber which only served as a mechanism to keep the worm that was on a hook below it in the center of the run.
I don’t know how much time is passed, but I do know that it was long enough that I had started to realize Dennis wasn’t having much more luck than I was. At this point both of us were casting to the fish, him with every trick that he could possibly remember, and me, meticulously going through every fly in my box. The night was starting to shape up just like the others as I was sitting with pipe in hand, and Dennis with his.
He indicated to me that it was probably time we should go just as I happened to come across one fly in my box that I hadn’t tried yet. It was an ugly thing. It may have been one of the very first elk hair caddis flies that I have ever attempted to tie. All of the hairs were left at different lengths, some bent, and some broken. I don’t even think that I had been introduced to a hair stacker by then. I told him that I agreed we should leave, but only after I tried one last fly.
After a single roll cast, the fish ate my fly. I set the hook and the fight began. I wish that I could say the fight lasted long enough to justify spending four days on this fish, but it didn’t. After only a minute or two, Dennis had to fish in the net. I struck a pose with the fish for what turned out to be a bad photo, and reached for my stringer. Standard procedure was to stick the metal pin on the front of the stringer through the bottom jaw and up through the nose of the fish. Just about the time that the deal was done, I looked at the fish, and then called out to dennis. I said, “Dennis, this fish cost me 4 days of my life! Think he deserves to live?” Dennis smiled in agreement and nodded. I slipped the fish back into the water, and immediately experienced a sense of fulfillment that no recipe for brown trout could beat.
As I went home that night, and through the next few days, I remember thinking about all the effort that went into catching that fish. I started to realize that harvesting a fish had fallen to a very low priority for me. The sense of accomplishment after spending so much time and effort on one fish, gave me a a new perspective.
I have another story that has a lot to do with catch and release as well, and in its own way, it’s even crazier than this one. I’ll share it another time, but I have just a few more thoughts here.
I’ve heard that Alaska has a few places where an angler is allowed to harvest a fish, but once the fish is harvested, you’re legally obligated to stop fishing immediately. This makes me think. How many fishermen do you know that claim to fish for food, who would have a hard time deciding what they wanted more, to eat fish, or catch fish... Personally, I think it would take many fishermen that exact scenario before they came to terms with the fact that they enjoy fishing more.
For me, that 4th day on the river, caused things to come together in my mind. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve killed fish since then, but it’s with a completely different perspective. Forget the science of fish numbers, or any other thing that can muck up the conversation. When you’re out in the water, you become part of the ecosystem. This connection runs deep, deeper than most know. It’s not quantifiable with words, but if you spend enough time there, you may start to see or feel it. I would suggest that if you’re unsure of this connection, that you consider the possibility that you still need to find your place, and in the meantime, you hold off on making too much of an impact. I’m not a betting man, but if I was, I’d put hard money on the table that given a choice between leaving with lunch or catch more fish, most anglers would opt to cast again.
Count it as food for thought.
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