Friday, March 4, 2011

On Letting Go

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.
the tangible

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.
the intangible

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.


  1. I enjoy fish dinners, but its not a good reason to rape the land.

  2. We are selective releasers as well. Different species have different rules, but one rule is constant and you hit it right on the head, the big ones are the ones that are giving us the opportunity to enjoy some fun outdoors. They also taste like crap...those go back in the water every time.

    FYI, I am studying Fisheries Biology, so I am of a conservationist mindset. I like to consider myself informed about a species and which ones can be taken and which ones not taken. Not every fish can be conserved...Conservation, for me, comes from conserving the habitat. Without the habitat, there are no fish to be fried...


  3. FR, very good post on this subject. I agree with your sentiments about releasing the big fish, and taking home the occasional meal using an informed approach to doing so. I am mostly C & R myself. I keep the occasional 5 fish limit of 11-12" stocker Rainbows from AR... and I'm always up for a good ol' southern catfish fry, but I only rarely catch catfish.
    There was just one small thing I wanted to point out that I don't fully agree with... and it may just be a matter of word choice. I think your concept of "conservation" may be leaning a little toward "preservation." To explain what I mean, let me briefly define the two words/concepts. Conservation = the wise use of resources. Preservation = the activity of protecting something from loss or danger.
    I'm not trying to nitpick, but as a biologist, I think of the two as being very different concepts/practices. I also don't think I'm "insult[ing] the rest of the sapient world" by suggesting that C & R is a conservation practice or an activity that promotes conservation. By practicing selective C & R, I am using resources wisely. I think "using" a resource can be recreational in nature, and as long as it's done in a sustainable manner it fits withing the realm of conservation.
    I'm sure the occasional fish doesn't make it, but I've caught enough fish (and I'm sure you have too) that bear the battle scars of previous tangles with hook and line to know that most of them do survive when released properly. If you and I (and other informed/responsible anglers) continue to release the wild, naturally-reproducing, big ones (and keep the occasional meal of stockers) we are practicing conservation in our own way. We are certainly not preservationists, but I think we are doing our best to conserve our fishing resources.
    Just wanted to share my thoughts and maybe help clarify how C & R fits into a model of conservation.

  4. very well presented, and in deeper thoughts- is there any species in the animalia kingdom that so denotes something is there for our 'taking' like SEAFOOD? we need to be better denizens and practice selective harvest. Another good read- FOUR FISH by Paul Greenberg.
    All the guys who complain a river isn't waht it used to be are likely the ones who raped it when the DNR stocked it and it is no longer planted...

  5. Nicely done, Jason. I especially like the section about the "keep everything you catch" mindset being influenced by the Depression.

    My brother, dad and I rarely keep trout (which is about all we fish for anymore) because the streams we fish can't handle much pressure. When we do, it's typically steelhead--which don't handle a spawning season very well anyways.

    A small annoyance in my world: catch-and-release anglers who play the shit out of fish. I'm curious about how the mortality rates of fish are related to the size tippet used to catch them...

    Also: MASSIVE props for John McPhee. He's who I wanna be when I grow up.

  6. Well said. Outside of the idea of conservation is the learning to respect all that nourishes us by understand the process undertaken to obtain our main source of protein, whether it be fish, cattle, etc. Fishing is an accessible experience that can easily demonstrate this process.

  7. I never bring a fish home, to the dismay of the family...I try to be very careful with my catches to give them that extra chance to survive. I know that here in Utah, they are asking for fishers to take a few to thin things out a bit right now. Excellent post...

  8. Nice to see a post like this - thoughtful and direct. I reckon I fall right in line with you on the issue of fishing, catch and keep and catch and release. I particularly agree with your statement; "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." But I'm also with you on, "Of being able to thoroughly enjoy a fish-less day. To finally be able to let go." Just a really great post. Thanks for your effort.

  9. Excellent post and I agree with all that you said. There is already too much of the "this camp vs that camp," "you're with us or against us," etc. kind of mentality in this country. Why does it always have to be one or the other? The middle ground is the best place to be and where most of us fall. Tread lightly on the land, or water, to ensure that it will be here for the use and enjoyment of future generations. A few fish taken here and there in a respectible fashion should not chastised by anyone.

  10. In the end, what it all boils down to is that they are fish. And we, well we are humans and fishers of fish.

    And, don't anyone pass out or anything - but if i were to elaborate on it I don't think I could say my thoughts about it any better than those of Jay, whom I'd obviously wrongly pegged as more of a preservationist than a conservationist. My apologies to you, Sir.

  11. My thanks to all for your comments. @Jay, sounds like issues we'd have to hash out on the river, preferably with Owl Jones moderating.

  12. Thanks, Owl. I told you I'm not that far out there. I'm actually pretty level headed about things.

    FR, thanks for not getting too mad at me. I really did just want to clarify what conservation really is. I think all too often it gets confused with the idea of preservation. Based on what I've learned, I feel passionate about making sure that people understand that conservation does allow for actual consumption of resources as long as it's done in a responsible manner. Based on everything you wrote, I believe you actually are on the side of conservation... maybe more than you realize. I think you definitely "get it"... and you, sir, are definitely one of the good ones in my book. I don't think we would have anything to hash out on the river other than who gets to fish the primo runs/holes.

    Oh, and I have to agree with Morgan, the C & R people who fish for everything with a 3 wt annoy the hell out of me. I often use a 6 wt for trout, and even though I could use a 5 wt when fishing for bass, I use a 7 or 8 wt for the very reason of control and quick release.

  13. Uh, oh- sounds like this is morphing into a rod wt. debate- game on. I love my 3- I just got it, but it's mostly my fontinalis; ) rod for small stream. I don't like pushing gear that hard (or the fish) and mostly fish my 5 when I know that bigger fish are in the mix, and 7/8 for a surprising amount of stuff including night and streamer.

  14. FR: I have a 3 wt and love it! But I only use it when I know I'm going to fish for smaller stuff...small browns or brookies or blue gills--which corresponds, kind of obviously, to small streams. My 3 wt won't turn over a hopper/dropper rig and would be ridiculous at night or on one of my favorite stream's evening hatch--so my 5 wt it is. And, maybe clearly, I use my (dad's) 8 wt for steelheading.

    I once read an article about how amazing it was to play a fish for 15 minutes using a 2 wt. A 2 WT! I nearly lost my mind.

    Anyways. Morgan's real-person-job-wish-list: a 6 wt and very own 7 or 8 wt! Uh oh--this sounds like it's morphing into a gear-I-want debate! ;).

  15. That's easy, Mo, I want a complete spey outfit and some room to cast it!

  16. Great post...I visit small streams several times a year to catch eater brookies. I let the balance of my trout go. I also share the feelings about McPhee's work (and "The Founding Fish" in particular). Check out his work on making birchbark canoes.

  17. Well said FR.

    I can say we agree on the greater share of your comments and, like Jay, have a bit of a ripple on semantics. But that's understandable...and quite doable.

    I invite you to read a paper I wrote in 1984 and posted online in '93. It's called, SA-LIFE Manifesto. (read it here > ) It's more a 'How To' than a 'head piece'; though it's a bit 'heady for most'.

    It's based on how I fish today and have since I was 15; when I first started developing the SA-LIFE principles. That's been a few years now.

    Keep the brain cells clicking, your line humming and the pan near by.

    stywe lyne!

  18. WoW this post is great. I agree with everything said. I am on the side of Catch n Release most but keep some to eat. The ones that make sense to keep. Its not that your saying you want to preserve the fish, its more about which of the fish you are trying to preserve. The Big egg producing ones. The ones that are actually on the brink of disappearing. I used to fish a creek in Wisconsin and it had nice Huge fish in it. I watched people over the years kill 20"+ Browns and Bows, but they would laugh at the 10" inchers and throw them back. Now you fish there and you are lucky to catch a single fish over 20". The 10" are swimming rampant and producing fewer eggs by far. Like you said its not 100's of eggs it is 1000's. When you do the math on how many of these eggs actually reach maturity, the numbers are the facts. If 1 out of every 100 eggs make it, then a huge trout will have 10 times as many eggs surviving or probably more. Plus the fact like you stated that the Big ones are way more successful at the spawn. That is until some Jack Wagon decides he wants to throw it in the smoker and then tosses all the eggs in the garbage. Simple concept, but I guess not as easy to grasp for some. I don't keep a ton of trout, but the occasional 10-12" fried up in a pan with butter,side of morels. NOthing Better! Great Post. Its like I was reading my own thoughts. And one last thing. I would love to see someone fish some of the places I fish with a 9ft 5wt rod. It would end up being about 7ft after they snap the top off on a tree branch. The whole fly rod wt. size all depends on what kind of water you are fishing and what size fish are in it. Again great post.

  19. Thanks for setting up the arguments, though I don't assume that many people fall into either purist camp. I see lots of people "releasing" fish with dry hands, time out of the water and other crude mistakes. This seems worse than anything discussed above.
    My approach is to fish fewer hours of the day with the intent to catch dinner. Mostly pan-sized wild trout. Hatchery fish are no fun on the line or the plate. So I read, write, hike, fool around with my campsite and fish part of the day. That's one simple way to limit my impact on the fish I don't eat. It's a great treat in this mediated world to catch, kill and eat wild animals. If I lived in the right area I'd certainly hunt, too. But I drive enough miles for a few weeks of fishing that I don't want to add another big footprint on the world.

  20. @This Into That- I've been dealing with both purist camps for years. It sounds like you have your own balance worked out, which I like. Releasing fish with dry hands is one thing, fishing with intent to keep everything you possibly can regardless of consequence is another. Yes, C&R can have a negative impact, but I don't believe it will half so much as those guys fishing the Hex hatch and keeping 20" plus fish. Glad you've got small feet.

  21. Excellent thoughts and I think you hit the nail on the head. It isn't only about the fish, but the whole experience. For me, it's about connecting not with nature, but with the God that created all of nature. After a day of fishing, I am energized and reminded that I am still loved, even when the fish, wind or rain beat up on me. For who could see all of the beauty of God's creation and understand it not?