I've felt increasingly torn between two diametrically opposed groups. Both are equally vociferous; both equally convinced of the righteousness of their stance. Both are equally wrong.
In the left corner are the catch-and-release anglers, for whom the fish are sacred, and angling an act of pure connection, followed by redemptive release of the fish. In the right hand corner are those who keep everything, those who chide me for releasing a single fish. For them, fish are only food, to be consumed, the notion of fishing as sport is treated as immoral.
Is there no nuanced approach to this subject? Let me offer one.
First, I should state that my fishing heritage is firmly rooted in the right hand catch-and-eat corner. I was going to start this column with my favorite steelhead recipe, but that's not the kind of statement I'm trying to make. My grandfather taught me that fishing for sport- playing with creatures for my own entertainment, impaling them on a hook simply for my enjoyment, was morally wrong, that we had an obligation within the framework of the law, to eat what we caught. This was written in stone, and still seems to inform the ethics of the catch and eat camp. I also believe that this ethic was borne of a deeper memory- that of the Great Depression. While it gave rise to a practicality and ingenuity that I admire, it also instilled a deep, almost morbid ethic towards food- you should never waste it, and if you don't want it you'd better share it with someone else. Fish are definitely food, to them. I still get reprimanded by some for releasing pike when I'm fishing for walleye. Their view- you caught it, you keep it. My view- why would I keep a bony slimy pike when I'm after the tastiest fish that swims trout country? Is this really necessary?
Here's a question to the catch-and-eat crowd- if it really is about food, why fish? Why not net them (other than the legal implications)? Why spend the money on boats and gear? Why not just buy fish at the supermarket- it's easier and much cheaper. The fact is you're out there for the same reason I am- you enjoy being outdoors, you're out for the recreation, you enjoy the catching. There is an excitement in that moment, a thrill that is hard to describe when the fish strikes, the ensuing battle, the bated-breath mystery solved in the moment that you slide the fish in close, and for me, that moment that you bring the fish to hand. You hold something wild, the unknowable and ephemeral suddenly tangible. I feel in that moment a connection to the land and water beyond metric. I feel it, you feel it. You don't get that from cradling a fish stick. And it is not just the fight- doing the same thing in your bath tub would be a dull chore. Who really cares about fishing a stocked pond for that matter? Once you're past that infantile stage, there's no mystique- it's like playing a video game rigged in your favor- what's the point?
For those who remember the days of smelt dipping in the Great Lakes- I challenge you to tell me that wasn't just a trip to Walmart, a gluttonous rampage. Those days are largely over, and we are to blame- every single smelt dipper has a story of trunk-loads of smelt, and I’ve heard more than one story of them fertilizing the garden.
My view of catch and keep began to change several years back, after finding multiple frost-crazed packages of fish in my freezer that had to be thrown away. Had I shown more respect for the fish or less, by keeping them and then having let these fillets go to waste? If I had released them they would have gone on with their lives, spawned, or at least fed an otter or mink, instead of rotting in the landfill. My view also changed as my seasons became seamless, each fishing season and activity flowing and meshing together- I no longer felt the need to freeze fish when all I had to do was walk out the door and pursue whatever was available at the present, and heaven knows fresh fish always taste better than frozen. Keeping fish is certainly not necessary from an economic standpoint, not in the Western world. Hot dogs are pretty cheap, and fishing is a relatively expensive activity, at least when compared to the price of food. If you need food that bad you're better off working, not fishing. Work at least has a guaranteed result. But as recreation, as a holistic experience, I challenge any one of you to dispute the fact that a meal of one or two trout after a pleasant spring outing, broiled with olive oil, garlic, dill and lemon and served over a bed of spring greens, preferably with morels, doesn't enhance your enjoyment of that experience. So does the knowledge that you did it in moderation- you weren't out to vacuum the river dry.
My altered view of fishing is this- fishing and hunting are recreation, not sports. I find the notion of fishing or hunting as "sport" reprehensible and outdated, rooted in Victorian values that should have been expurgated from modern consciousness with the start of scientific knowledge. Thinking that a brown trout is a wily cunning adversary is to anthropomorphize them in the worst way possible- you're channeling Teddy Roosevelt. Brown trout are hungry, wary, a lot of other things; they definitely are not equals pitted against you in a game of skill. A deer is not a match for a man with a gun. For them it is not a game- it is life and survival, something they are good at, and something they occasionally lose at- once. It's not sport.
Viewing fishing (and hunting) as recreation alters my view in important ways- it removes my focus from the quarry to the larger picture- my full enjoyment of the outdoors, the other creatures, the complete ecosystem. I slow down, smell the flowers, take breaks, take naps. It's not a death quest to catch food and I enjoy what I do keep all the more as a seasonal delicacy instead of as a crop to be harvested and optimized. I always get a guaranteed result from each outing- an enjoyable time outdoors, rather than disappointment at not catching or bringing home fish.
I don't believe that fish are sacred; I do believe that fish are good food. I also release most of the fish that I catch. Catch and release is fine, when kept in balance. Don't give me that conservation mumbo-jumbo- if you're interested in conservation, don't go fishing. It's well established that ALL fishing results in mortality. If you're fishing, you're killing fish, plain and simple. The percentages change by season and species, but some of those fish die. Buy your license so that the dollars go to conservation, then go to the movies and support Hollywood. Don't insult the rest of the sapient world claiming that you're promoting conservation by a firm catch and release policy- the difference in mortality is only a question of volume.
My catch and release policy is situational and seasonal. First of all, I don't enjoy freezing fish, I don't trust myself to keep track of them. Secondly to you who may think I can just bring my fish home and give them to you- go get a license, spend some time outdoors. It will be good for you. I found the time, so can you. Shut the TV off, take the family with you- it will be a win-win-win situation.
There are situations in which I feel it's wrong to keep fish. One of the fish I do love to eat are walleye, but not fish over about 22 inches. Those big hens produce a lot of eggs and taste like wood. Go on, catch a leg-sized walleye and eat it along with a 16 incher- you'll only do it once. I'll put those fish back every time. The same with large brown trout. I've eaten my share of browns over the years and guess what- the further over 12 inches they get, the worse they taste. I don't like them over 10. Here's a little secret- those really big fish, the ones over say, 20 inches- they are the ones repopulating your favorite trout stream, PUT THEM BACK. Digital cameras were invented for those fish. Many of Michigan's blue ribbon streams don't get stocked, they are self sustaining populations, you don't have to bring them home. If you remove those salmon sized fish from the stream you're going to see those populations drop precipitously. Don't blame the DNR for your rapacity. It's those fish- those big ones over 20 inches that put thousands, not hundreds, of eggs into the gravel each year. More than that, they are big enough to establish and defend territories on gravel, successfully spawn, and fend off predators. Don't keep them. If I want to eat trout, I go to some small stream such as are scattered all over the place and catch some brook trout. They are common, and taste far better than browns.
|yep, this one went back in. Andy Schmidt photo|
If you are a guide you have an obligation to practice catch and release- our rivers in Northern Michigan simply will not support that kind of pressure. Couple your knowledge with new customers in your boat each day and the math goes south quickly- you'd vacuum the rivers dry in no time. You guides know this, I'm writing this for the general public. I would hope that clients have done the math and realize that you can't measure the experience in fillets- your spouses would go through the roof at the cost. That’s what you're getting- an experience, not Long John Silvers.
Don't even get me started on steelhead. Many steelheaders act as if steelhead are the sacrosanct grail of the fishing world. Steelhead are heavily stocked here in the Great Lakes. They are delicious. A lot of steelhead streams are put-take operations. Knock yourself out. In the more marginal streams it's delusional for you to believe that releasing those fish makes a difference. Other streams are sustained by natural reproduction and could use some moderation on the part of anglers. Do your homework; make an informed decision. I am of course referring to the Great Lakes fishery, and not the beleaguered steelhead streams of the Pacific Northwest- you poor guys out there will have to figure out on your own what you're going to do.
In the end, whether it's walleye, perch, trout, salmon or steelhead, personally I feel that moderation is the key. I'm not out to stock the freezer or feed all my friends. I realize that fish are a sustainable resource. I'm not about to criticize other anglers for their legal take of fish, I expect not to receive grief for releasing them. I do keep and eat my share of fish, but never more than what I can eat fresh or, in the case of perch and walleye, what I can eat in a short period of time.
Fishing allows us to interact with the natural world in a profound manner. You witness the food web first-hand, you participate, you reap the benefits whether you catch fish or not. When you reach that stage, when it's not just about killing, when you appreciate that you, the Modern Man, have a place in the natural world, then you truly appreciate what it means to fish, what it means to cradle finned perfection; then you truly appreciate it when you enjoy the icing on the experience- a fresh fish dinner. Finally you can also experience the pleasure of making a rational decision- to send that big hen steelhead back on her journey to the gravel, to snap a couple of pictures and let those big browns swim, to keep only a couple of fish for your dinner even on an epic day instead of ruthlessly taking your limit. Of being able to thoroughly enjoy a fish-less day. To finally be able to let go.
I'm standing on some pretty tall shoulders with this post- a lot has been written on this subject over the years. I highly recommend the book "The Founding Fish"“ by John McPhee, his chapter on catch-and-release on page 309. It is not just some profound writing on the subject, but also a compendium of quotes and references that cover the gamut of modern fishing history and opinion- from Thoreau to McGuane, from the guys who have clickers attached to their vests on down to PETA. While my conclusions are different from his, it will make you think in new ways on the subject. I had planned to quote extensively from his book, but this post is already too long. While the opinions expressed above are my own, formulated long before I read this book, reading it helped me better inform and elocute this column and I owe Mr. McPhee a debt of gratitude. Oh, and I owe a title credit to Circa Survive, whom I rocked out to while I wrote this; I hope I can repay them with a fishing trip.