CATCH AND RELEASE AND COUNT - PARADISE LOST?
Now Tom [not his real name] seemed like a pretty nice guy, well-spoken and friendly. I had just recently met him and he didn't know about my long involvement in fly fishing. So when I heard him say, "I hate fly fishermen," I was a little taken aback, but not entirely surprised because he had told me he was a part-time hook and line commercial fisherman. I had been involved in Great Lakes sport and commercial fishing issues so I had some pre-conceived ideas of what he was mad about.
My first thought was, "Yea, just another commercial fisherman who thinks the fish are all his." As our conversation continued he told me about his service on a state fisheries advisory commission. He perceived they had a rather sizeable entitlement mentality that had more of a commercial goal than his own. He kind of puffed up as he told me about the survey data he had presented at a public meeting that indicated that fly fishermen killed more fish as a result of catch and release that the small commercial anglers like himself who limited their catch. He concluded by saying, "These guys [fly fishermen] just can't seem to catch enough fish, and I don't think catch and release is everything it's cracked up to be."
Switch to 1862. Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, a committed fly fisherman, conservationist, and uncle of the President Teddy Roosevelt has taken a laborious trip from New York City to Lake Superior north of Sault Ste. Marie. This was brook trout country and Mr. Roosevelt's gem of a book "Superior Fishing" that has chapters on fly tying and fish conservation, also details how overfishing had decimated fish populations in the waters of the eastern United States as early as the mid-eighteenth century. Despite that knowledge, his conservation ethos, and a concern for not taking more than can be used, Roosevelt is quoted as saying, "Our prey was still there, eager as ever for hook and feathers, and soon covered the bottom of our boat with their glistening forms."
Before we rush to accuse Roosevelt of some form of moral depravity for possibly killing more fish than he and his companion could use we have to recognize that sport fishing, as an end in itself, is relatively new. Fish were primarily a food staple; "fresh, potted, smoked or salted." What is revealed is the Barnwell Roosevelt loved to catch fish on the fly, something we can easily identify with, and simply put he found it tough to stop catching when the fishing was obviously so good. That is a familiar refrain to this day, and no doubt accounts for the not so unspoken emphasis and popularity of "counting" as an indicator of fly fishing success. If desire to catch isn't in our genes it be certainly be found in some part of our ego. Even John Volcker [Robert Traver] did not begin to question the taking of a limit each time out until his later years.
In one of his last column's, "Brookies for Breakfast," [March 23, 2009] and a must read, FAOL's own James Castwell reminisced about his journey in fly fishing He lamented the practice of what he called Speed Fly Fishing; "Catch' em and unhook' em and move downstream one step." Referring to the old days he said, "I never enjoyed killing any fish but it was part of the game, a necessary part – almost ceremony, ritual." He described the act of catch, kill, and consumption of trout as being; "More of a circle of life as it should be." We can contrast the beauty of that with the catch and release antics related to me by an acquaintance whose wife had caught a nice brown while on a float trip on a well-known Western river. The fish slipped out of the guides hands, hit the bottom of the boat and started to bleed. A request was made to keep the fish, but instead it was thrown to shore into some bushes for apparent recycling. The explanation that was given was: "We can't let anybody at the take-out see that we kept a fish." Catch and release run amok and/or a disrespectful rendition of fish as a commodity? Hopefully it is a rare occurrence, but it is a distinct example of important motivational changes in fly fishing as it has evolved into an industry.
As a bona fide "oldster" any instinctual need for me to consume the catch or pile up count has genuinely receded considerably. Some of the old for catching has faded to embers in cahoots with diminishing physical capabilities. But there is relief too. The pressure to find the Holy Grail in the form of the perfect fly or a river offering the sure thing isn't so important anymore, or at least it has been assigned to a more realistic corner. So what's left? Even Volker/Traver, who lived a richly productive life, wrote of a sense of there being "nothing" in his last years. Do dedicated fly fisher folks develop a sense of melancholy as they age, a sense of "is that all there is, of paradise lost? Numerous writings hint at just that conclusion.
So what good doctor, would you propose to remedy the apparent conflict between the old and the new, the obvious ambivalence of you old guys over catch and release, counting, etc.? Maybe we can start by recognizing that some of the old is not really passé in these days of rapid technological change with its resulting emphasis on instant gratification. Maybe instead of learning all about fly fishing in two days and expecting a trophy catch or 20 fish the first and every time out it is still possible for a prospective fly fisher [or a veteran] to pay their dues a bit, gaining incalculable benefits of learning over time, discovering more patience than we knew we had, not expecting a sure thing, maybe getting skunked a few times, realizing a day on the stream does not carry with it a need to perform as someone else might think one should, and most importantly, feeling deep satisfaction at self-reliance in developing skills that, lo and behold, really work.
Maybe we need to realize that although we want to protect the resource with catch and release, which at bedrock level may be a selfish desire to assure quantity, and thus count, and act of killing and consuming a trout is not, in itself, an act of degeneracy, disrespect or selfishness.
At the risk of sounding Pollyannaish, I would purpose that our fly fishing does indeed provide for a great deal more than "is that all there is." In fact, it provides most of the components that make life meaningful and us fully human. Opportunity for immersion in some of the most beautiful segments of the natural [created] world, in addition to art, science, literature, meaningful social relationships that develop over time, spirituality, "solitude without loneliness" [Traver], physical activity/conditioning, self-discipline, development of a sense of humility, intellectual stimulation, and on and on. What more can a person ask for?
And also, at the risk of sounding like a cliché, one knows something special has happened in the pursuit of one's sport and in one's life when feeling of awe, wonder and happiness never cease and are continually renewed when gazing on a flowing stream or swimming trout.
Let it happen.