Catching fish vs. conquering them: an internal debate
Not long ago, I started a mini-tiff within my email fishing circle. “What is an email fishing circle?” a normal person might ask. Fair question. It’s people I write back-and-forth with about fly fishing. Not exactly “fishing buddies,” since I rarely, if ever, fish with them. Some, I’ve never even met in person, which is fine by me. Like many a loner fisherman, I like being with people just fine, but often like it even better when they leave. I don’t mind being alone. Not in order to know my own thoughts – we’re already overly-acquainted – but to enjoy respite from the thoughts of others.
But we are creatures of contradiction, and man can’t live on mere nature or solitude alone. He needs company, society, someone to bounce off of on occasion. Even that Thoreauvian ideal of solitary monasticism, Henry David Thoreau, was no Thoreau. According to The Thoreau You Don’t Know by Robert Sullivan, while living at Walden, Thoreau still went to town nearly every day, was the last to leave at parties, and had his mom do his laundry. Though such human nitpicking is probably what made him run for the woods in the first place.
So back to my email fishing circle(jerk)…….I had just read an article on Midcurrent, a fly fishing site that’s in my regular reading rotation. Written by Bob Mallard, a Maine fishing guide, writer, and fly designer, the piece was taking up for the practice of catch-and-release fishing, which you’d think would need no defense. It’s been in vogue for decades, at least among fly fishers, since as the legendary fisherman and conservationist Lee Wulff put it back in the 1930s, “Game fish are too valuable to be caught only once.”
Yet in recent times, Mallard wrote, there was some hard push-back against it by everyone from state fish and game managers to fishing writers, who questioned the practice as virtue-signaling, taking away from “compensatory mortality” (the idea that “harvesting” fish – i.e. killing them – causes declines in mortality by other means such as disease), and that it is discouraging newcomers from taking up fishing. This last of which is especially fine by me, since if you’ve been on the over-crowded water during the pandemic - when new legions of the unemployed and bored-out-their-skulls licked Walmart tackle racks clean so that they could spook the living hell out of my local fish – we could stand to encourage their discouragement.
But the Mallard paragraph I wielded like a shillelagh was this one:
A popular conservation blog recently praised the catch-and-kill angler for catching a couple of fish to eat and moving on, rather than catching and releasing numerous fish for the sake of fishing. This shows a complete lack of understanding in regard to incidental mortality. Using a conservative rate of 5%, a fly fisher would have to catch and release 40 fish to match the impact of the angler who harvests two fish and goes home.
In fishing world, there’s a longstanding debate over how many fish die later after being caught, even after being released. (This depends on a variety of factors, such as how they are caught and handled, to how long they are kept out of water.) Mallard was convincingly pushing back on the pushbackers. To which my virtual fishing buddy, nicknamed The Cool Refresher (his cast, resembling the liquid spearmint blast of refreshment one used to experience with now defunct Freshen Up gum), responded: “I can’t argue with your money stat…..it is the winning argument. I can, however, wonder at a species of ape that devises very sophisticated methods of temporarily torturing harmless fish for reasons not food-related. We’ve had this discussion before. I am a participant, and I love doing it, but it does seem a little weird and twisted.”
I’ve always hated C.R. for his knack for bottom-lining things, which can get in the way of my moral rationalization, rationalizing being what separates us from the animals. I love fish, of course, and haven’t killed one on purpose since my teen years. (I like eating fish just fine, but Mrs. Paul has already done the dirty work for me.) Of course, we always hurt the ones we love. And both non-fishermen and fishermen looking to fill their meat buckets accuse us catch-and-releasers of being cruel Torquemadas who play with their food. Some seem genuinely befuddled, saying, “Why don’t you kill your fish?” As though me conking something over the head that I outweigh by a 100-to-1 margin (at least) is some display of fortitude or merit. Why would I want to kill a beautiful brook trout or a largemouth bass, the latter of which is like killing a puppy with Angelina-Jolie lips? I might be a sadist, impaling their mouths with sharp steel so I can play them and hold them and then set them free – a psychic payoff that for reasons I don’t entirely understand, I never tire of. But I’m no Jeffrey Dahmer.
Besides, I tell myself, it’s not the same as hunting, where the animal has no say in the matter. I’m not dropping something from a hundred yards away through a scope, or even shooting it at close range with a bow. Unless you’re deliberately snagging it, a fish has a choice, a say in its own fate. If it chooses to smite my pheasant tail nymph or muddler minnow, it thinks it’s committing an act of murder. Me catching it, unhooking it, and setting it free is basically like letting it off with community service. Hunting is a sucker-punch. Fishing is an honest deception.
Also, I try to keep my stressing the fish to a minimum. I pinch down my barbs, for easier de-hooking. I wet my hands, so as not to compromise their protective slime coat. I don’t take vanity shots to post on Instagram like some desperate teenage girl. If I’m overwhelmed by a fish’s beauty, I might give it a harmless platonic peck – the way you’d kiss an elderly aunt, not like you’d kiss Gal Gadot if you had a shot. I keep our interactions brief, as the fish might suffocate if I took the time to ask how its kids were doing, or whether it had read anything good lately. And though I don’t purport to speak for fish, I can guaran-damn-tee-you that if they have to be caught at all (they’d prefer not to be, in my experience), they’d much rather be released than thrown into the livewell by some mouth-breather on a gang-bang fishing charter, where the fish will probably die of Fireball-shot fumes before they can even be gutted and cleaned back on shore. Killing fish after you catch them isn’t “merciful,” it’s just killing fish. So don’t congratulate yourself for moral superiority if you do such.
There is plenty of scientific debate on how much pain fish feel, or whether it’s anything like ours. (There are zero studies on whether their pain is worse than the pain I feel when unable to catch them.) To which the fish might say, if they could talk – and thank God they can’t, or that might be a game-changer – “Who cares if my pain is like yours? My pain is my own.” (If fish did go all Greta Thunberg-whiny on us, I might actually be for conking them out and throwing them in the cooler.) But for whatever it’s worth, I have experienced what I put them through.
Several years back, while cinching a knot with my teeth, I lost the handle on my Hornberg fly, and it went right through my lip. I gave it a good tug, but had not yet pinched the barb down, so no dice. It was there to stay. I’d also left my hemostats in the car, needed for pinching the barb down once you push the hook all the way through, so you can then back the hook out through your double fresh lip piercings. It was a long walk back to the car – much longer than I ever keep a fish out of water. (Though I could breathe the whole time.) And thankfully, no wise-ass was around to say, “Oooh, nice catch – that’s a big one. How hard did he fight?” But even though I could taste my own sulfuric blood gusher, I went numb after the first 30 seconds. The only thing that was really hurt was my pride. And, in keeping with my strict catch-and-release ethos, after I removed the hook, I let myself go. Neither did I kiss myself before setting myself free.
One of the hazards of being a conscientious human being is the “conscientious” part. Our minds often don’t let us rest entirely, even after we’ve put a proposition to bed, one such as say: the need for me to scratch my predatory itch and to hold something wild and beautiful makes it okay for me to dominate a creature, even if I don’t kill it. On the killing-floor end of things, one of my favorite chapters of all-time, by the artist and writer Russell Chatham, came in a collection of his called Dark Waters. The chapter was titled “Sporting Deaths.” In it, Chatham, a lifelong hunter and fly fisherman (he sadly left us two years ago), recounted one horror show after another that he’d witnessed in the field or on the water.
After a dispute between two steelhead anglers, who’d gotten their lines crossed when hauling in a monster, a game warden settled matters Solomonically, cutting the live fish in half with a skinning knife. While fishing for brown trout on the Yellowstone River, Chatham watched a fisherman catch a whitefish – just “a goddamn whitefish” the angler called it – - and the fisherman hurled it up on the bank in frustration since it wasn’t a trout, as far as he could chuck it. Chatham found it wedged between logs, gasping spasmodically. While grouse hunting one afternoon, Chatham was trying to wash away the experience of a week earlier. A friend of his had shot and crippled a bird. Chatham, trying to put it out of its misery, picked it up and cracked its head over a fence post. When he came back an hour later, the bird was sitting there, looking at him. He nearly vomited after what he’d unwittingly done, and quickly broke its neck.
But when hunting a week later, he’d seen a shadow flush, instinctively raised his shotgun, only to see a blue jay. He accidentally touched off a shot. He saw feathers fly, and the jay swerve unnaturally to a nearby tree. He couldn’t believe what he’d done. His hunting dogs circled the tree, whining. The jay was staring down at Chatham from the tree, shot up, its beak half open. He waited for the jay to fly away, but it wouldn’t. It was dead, it just didn’t know it yet.
Chatham stood back, aiming his gun at the blue jay for several long minutes, then fired off another shot – what he calls “a demented effort to be ‘sportsmanlike.’” The jay then fluttered from the tree and over Chatham’s head, Chatham jerking off another crazed shot, missing the bird completely. His dogs whined even louder. The jay landed in an aspen, crippled. Chatham started sobbing uncontrollably. But he got off a final “merciful” shot, ending the bird’s pain – also, the only life it would ever know. Chatham set down his gun and cried for some time, then sat in the late afternoon, listening to woods sounds and watching the light shimmer off the Yellowstone River. He doesn’t conclude with any tidy explanation. He merely says: “I’m a hunter and a fisherman, always have been and always will be. Why?”
It’s a question that hangs in the air for all of us. Several years ago, an old email correspondent friend of mine, Marshall Cutchin, who runs the aforementioned Midcurrent, and who was for years a fishing guide in the Florida Keys, gave what we do some thought. He fired off some of those thoughts to me one Saturday morning, which later became an essay he published in Mountain Journal. One of the reasons I like so many fly fishermen I know, is that they are thoughtful enough to shoot off unofficial essays for your own personal consumption on their days off. They are reflective enough not just to think about fishing, but about why we fish at all.
He wrote the following:
There is a thrill in stalking and gaining the upper hand on game animals that is not easily replaced in the human experience. If not part of our DNA, then it is at least a part of an RNA expression conditioned by many thousands of years of practice. Unless we want to deepen our cycle of satisfaction and shame, we shouldn’t constantly seek to beat ourselves up for behaving like the animals we are. But nor should we be dismissive about its source. Few of us truly depend on game animals for food anymore, unless we live in part of the world where it is a necessity. I question myself more than ever when it comes to fishing. The older I get, the more I sense that the self-questioning is key to fully appreciating what I am doing. I question the morality of causing pain, the impact of my presence on the wilderness, the greed implied with the thrill I get from interfering with an animal’s life. I doubt I would ever fish again if it didn’t cause me to pause and place myself in some insignificant unknowing role…… If you are a fly fisher, you are just a person holding a fly rod, nothing more……Those activities that place our own egos, our own sense of relative self-worth, most at risk, have a value that is hard, if not impossible, to measure. In fact, we normally avoid that depth of self-evaluation at all costs, as our sanity demands. But we have a choice about whether or not to fish or hunt, and with it comes not only a thrill that is virtually impossible to explain because it is so deeply encased in our bones, but the obligation to self-question…..But if you care about the role of fishing or hunting in the human experience – especially in your own experience – you owe it to yourself…….to welcome this self-questioning with humility and even reverence.
I don’t know. There are days when I think Marshall is utterly right. And then there are days when I feel purely selfish, and don’t want to think about it at all. On those days, I subscribe to our email circle-jerk friend Nick’s comment on the matter. Nick is not an un-conscientious man. He’s a conservationist and has been a River Keeper member. He strives to do right by the world, and its fish. And yet, he boiled down our debate to this: “I’m happy when I’m fishing – I don’t need any reason other than that.”
Bonus Track: Greg Brown’s “Just By Myself.” Key lyric: And I'll go fishing/Get with the flow/I know a river out in Idaho/Where I'll catch a big trout/And let him go/Cause I'll be happy by myself