Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Search for Balance



Catch and release, catch and release, catch and release. Say it with me three times.

Catch and release, catch and release, catch and release. Feel better?

Catch and release is good. Catch and release is beneficial. Catch and release brings good Karma. A trout is too valuable to be only caught once. The more you say it, the truer it becomes.

Catch and release.

All of life is a search for balance, and they say you don't really figure life out until you're about 80 years old. Then you die of course. A fly fishing blog is hardly the place to find truth and Zen. Fly fishing of course, is a spiritual journey, even before you are aware of it. Fly fishing is by definition an expansion of awareness, mindfulness, a balm to the soul, a healing of the psyche. You only get good at fly fishing when you learn to use all of your senses, when you slow down, relax, become AWARE. When you finally let go of ego and self, stop listening to the internal voice and start listening to what the natural world is trying to tell you.

Last year I ate a brook trout. I caught it on a fly, cut it's throat, watched the life drain out, and then took it home, skinned it, fried it in butter and consumed the delicate orange flesh. It was delicious and good. It was communion. It was satisfaction, the completion of a task. It was finished business. It was the essence of a stream on a plate. To be trite, it was the circle of life.

I also ate a young steelhead last winter, as an act of rebellion. I caught it on a warmish day when the ice did not collect in my guides. It was a very fat fish, about twenty inches long, with a white belly, gleaming silver sides with just the hint of pink, and a blue gray back. I took it home and filleted it out, then cooked the fillets in olive oil. The flesh was a deep crimson in the pan, and absolutely delicious. It was a very satisfying meal.

We live in a world of polarization- politically, religiously, ideologically. It's ingrained in our culture- "Go Wildcats!" Be true to your school. My country, right or wrong becomes "my thinking, my way of life, right or wrong, but your thinking and way of life are definitely wrong." As individuals and families we gravitate toward moderation, but as societies we adhere to the worst forms of tribalism, wanton gluttony and avarice, and ultimately violence. This alone may explain fly fishing, the need for the individual to find balance in a world that demands zealotry.

For some reason abundance in the wild engenders bad behavior in humans, as if we as a species get filled with a primal lust unexplained by hunger or the desire for wealth. We lost our minds when we saw herds of bison stretching to the horizon, when passenger pigeons darkened the skies, when the cod on the Grand Banks swam so thick they slowed the progress of boats, and we systematically exploited them to the brink of extinction, or beyond.

There's an entertaining passage in the Bible in which the Israelites, recently freed from Egypt and wandering in a barren desert, began to complain that there was no meat. Some suggested that returning to slavery in Egypt would be preferable- at least they had food. According to the passage, God sent quails into the camp and the people went gathering them by the bushel basket. God killed a certain number of them for being greedy rather than taking what they needed to sustain themselves.

Regardless of your religious bent or lack thereof the lesson is instructive. At the very least the author had a keen insight into human behavior, and our baser tendencies when faced with natural abundance.

I'm not against catch and release, having practiced it for the most part for a number of years now. I'm not against keeping fish for a meal, having partaken on a number of occasions in the same period. Food is what originally brought us to the streams, and it is only in the last few decades that the notion of recreation has even entered the equation. Historically recreation was always a part of angling, but with the goal of a meal at the end of it, and not as the ultimate desired end.

Catch and release will increasingly be a tool of conservation, but it is just a tool and a rather blunt instrument at that. It is not a guarantee. Fish still die from being caught. An angler who catches and keeps two trout may do far less damage than an angler who releases thirty trout and kills five through bad handling, or fishing when the water is too warm.

This for me has been my journey thus far. A search for balance, some peace of mind, connection to the natural world, and every now and then, some fillets on my plate that I caught and cooked myself.

19 comments:

  1. Around my area, the DNR stocks a some urban lakes in the late fall with hatchery Trout. Those that aren't caught will inevitably die once the water warms in the Spring. So I can fill the freezer without feeling any angst bout violating the catch and release ethos I practice the rest of the year.

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    1. Situations like that are kind of a no-brainer. My official stance is that if it's legal I have nothing to say about it. In personal practice there's streams I won't take a fish from, and others I have no problem with it. With non-native species like steelhead I have even less problem with eating them. They're not endangered in the Great Lakes by any means.

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    2. I should add that you don't need a permission slip from anyone to keep and eat a legal fish. Keep in mind that most panfish species including walleye don't need protection, and most trout fisheries are artificial, even wild ones. If it's legal and ethical, don't let peer pressure decide what's right for you.

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    3. Jason - The perspective you are coming from here is remarkably refreshing. It is beyond true how polarized everything is. And I especially love that you point out the fact that many fisheries and the fish in them, even wild ones, are artificial. It's a point that is met with blank stares nearly any time I bring it up. Great post. Keeping the pursuit of fishing grounded is something try to maintain in my own blog articles.

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  2. Very true. I keep the first good fish of the year and a few in between, but release the majority of them. Nothing wrong with it as long as the water your fishing has a healthy enough population to handle fish being taken.

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    1. And that's where it helps to know your waters and fisheries. In the end the state managers have the responsibility to set limits and seasons, and its up to each of us to be self monitoring.

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  3. Bravo Jason
    Be true to yourself and act accordingly.
    Switzerland and parts of Germany have banned C&R in favor of catch and kill, believing it's more humane. To obtain a fishing licence one must pass an exhaustive course on how to dispatch your catch.

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    1. I'm aware of that about Germany. Really all of the laws in Europe I found to be really arcane and discouraging. They have all kinds of access laws to keep you from catching and killing a fish.

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  4. A thought provoking and well written post. I don't think truer words were written.

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    1. Thanks Kiwi, I really appreciate it. It came from the heart.

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  5. I'm with you and have no problems with a legal fish caught and taken. It is why we all got into it in the first place, then it evolved, and some of us did, as well. Just like Steve, they stock trout in select lakes here around the Chicago suburbs twice per year, so, like you said, it's a no brainer. Nice write up, and definitely a thinker.

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  6. Just got off the Conejos River in Colorado and thought I'd relate an experience: took me 4 days to figure out the river, what the trout were eating, the browns - big ol' salmon flies, and the rainbows eating PMD 20 emergers 24/7....anyway, hooked a 25 inch wild 'bow on a dropper size 20 PMD emerger off the 10 salmon fly. The 'bow behaved like a Soviet Oscar sub....no jumping, just head down and "I'm towing you to deep water as soon as I can get there" which went on 20 minutes or so...meanwhile a couple comes tooling down the dirt road right by the pool in the middle of this depth charging on a mini dune buggy, stopping to see who wins this tug of war. This 'bow is bending my 5 weight double and I'm hoping the ferral strength on this Reddington Sage Vapin is up to it...no net and I manage to tire the fish out to land it...no small task with the fast water directly below...9:00 PM, 54 degrees F and I really don't want to re-enact "A River Runs Through It" if I can avoid it.....The guy riding the mini-dune buggy can't believe I'm putting him back after this, his wife chiming in that he had been trying to catch something for the last 3 days on salmon eggs. "I'll take him", he says, "if you don't want him?". Nope..." it'll be here waiting for you"...message sent, at least a 15 year old wild 'bow on a river that doesn't get stocked, full of big, beautiful wild browns and 'bows.

    We want this to last, go buy your food trout at the Super Market, but put the wild one back in the river...too many of us, not enough of them....

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    1. That's a helluva story. We all have a lot to figure out on the river.

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  7. Great Article. My personal practice goes like this...If legal, and I choose to take, I only take what I will eat fresh. NO FREEZING! Just what I can consume in a meal and when I want another fish dinner I'll go catch another legal fish. I also make a point of only harvesting fish that are part of healthy populations. Sustainable! There are plenty of panfish opportunities to be had out there. Approximately 98% of my fishing is C&R.

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    1. My practice exactly. Keep only what fish I can eat fresh. I'm not trying to survive the winter.

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