I've been a disciple of catch and release since I've become a fly fisher, partly because the sport of fly fishing is so elegant the kill is a minor component and easy to forgo and I don't need to kill for sustenance. If I feel like eating fish it is just as easy to purchase one in the market as it is to bop one on the head streamside. And maybe it helps to salve the guilt I still feel when I think of all the fish I left suffocating on the bank as a young boy with no intention of keeping them.
But now and again things occur that make us challenge deeply held convictions. Fly fisherman and catch and release advocate Bob Jacklin decided to keep and mount a 30 inch brown trout he caught on the Madison, and the abuse he took for the decision warranted a story in the Big Sky Journal, the flagship publication of Montana. The catch that made me challenge my catch and release ethos was more substantial---5 foot inches to be precise. Yes, a pretty girl.
She's attractive and bright but, in true western fashion, she can gut an elk. And she's younger than my 1968 VW bus; in other words a keeper. I tried to impress her with tales of my fly fishing prowess, a foolish stratagem in Missoula, Montana, where not only does everyone fly fish but they do it a hell of a lot better than I do. But she said those three magic words that would have me in a tizzy for the entire next weekend. No, not "I love you," but "I love trout."
So I find myself on the Bitterroot River, desperately trying to catch a few trout for a planned dinner the next day. And I'm having no luck. Oh, there's trout here. I know, because I keep missing strikes, and I'm glad I'm alone because the loud curses that burst from my mouth every time I miss a fish are reverberating off of the river banks. I'm seriously thinking of local stores where I might buy a few fish and lie about catching them, which, as a fisherman, I have no compunction about doing. It's not that I think coming home empty handed will be a deal breaker, but this is a test of my hunting and gathering prowess and no matter how far we think we have crawled from the primordial swamp, these are still important traits to display in the courting ritual.
As I cast to a small eddy that must hold a trout or two, my cell rings. I answer it while simultaneously realizing that I NEVER carry my cell streamside. But Freud would have no trouble with this slip; it is the pretty girl calling. I have nothing to report. We talk for a bit and then I hang up and begin fishing with a purpose. With renewed incentive, I take two nice rainbow trout in a bend pool, and, counting my blessings, call it a day.
The next night as I'm preparing the fish, the pretty girl says, "don't cut off the tails."
"Why?" I ask.
"You'll see," she replies.
When the gutted and breaded fish are fried, she takes each one, belly side up, grasps the tail and gently pulls it toward the head. The spine with all the bones attached pulls free, leaving two perfect filets.
As I said before, she's a keeper.
And while the dinner went well I almost lost my hunting and gathering standing when, while on a fishing excursion the following weekend, I hook myself through the upper lip with a size 20 copper john and had to call her to help remove it. She was empathetic (though a less sympathetic friend, who, hearing the story later, said "you can tell everyone you caught a 170 pound jack ass") and cut off the barbed end and worked the hook through my lip, and though embarrassed, I learned three important lessons: don't hold the fly in your mouth while checking your leader; always fish barbless; and a hook through the lip really doesn't hurt, in spite of what PETA might have you believe.
She also kissed it, and that definitely made it better!