In the spring of 1970 my brother and I were excited about the pending trout season. The streams in southeastern Pennsylvania ran clear and cold out of the hills. There were fish to catch.
It wasn’t “just” fishing season to us. My brother had purchased fly fishing rods and we practiced casting on our side yard. The mystery of the process felt much like throwing a baseball well. There was technique and there was flow to the art of casting a fly rod.
We soon learned that the long, looping casts were not so valuable as the short, accurate casts necessary to land the fly in a small stream at close quarters. It does not help to have 50 feet of line if your target is 20 feet away and shrouded by overhanging bushes. In many cases that is where the trout were. Dark, boiling holes at the edge of strong rivulets were their favorite haunts.
We worked our way up sections of streams overflowing with spring rains. It was dangerous work in hip waders. You did not want to let the water top your boots and fill them up. You could dragged under and away.
At 12 years old I had plenty of moxie about such things, but there was a moment when the cold water came tumbling down my boot leg. A short shot of panic ran through me and I moved too fast, sending even more water into the boot. Clamoring ashore, I sat on a rock and let my heart slow down. Just then a fish rose to the surface and took an insect in its mouth with a sharp pop. It’s funny how often things like that happen when you’re fishing.
Years later I would fish the Lake Michigan shore with the same brother. We were casting lures to catch King Salmon, coho and other stocked lake denizens. For seven hours we worked that shore by Waukegan Harbor. For seven hours we watched other fisherman bring in their catch, but we caught nothing.
The sun sank low in the September sky. A quick rain storm passed through. The lake surface darkened and you could see down into the water for twenty or thirty feet. I cast a lure and the line went stiff. A large King Salmon had taken the lure and took off toward deeper water. “Work the drag!” my brother yelled. I never understood drag on a fishing reel. The physics of it escape me. So I kept the line taught and forgiving at the same time.
Then the fish turned toward me and my brother yelled. “Keep him off the rocks!” For a second I saw the huge side of the fish flash past. Then the line went straight and the fish passed near the shore where the rock edges were sharp and I felt the telling slack that told me the fish had broken free.
It’s a strange phenomenon fishing for trout in Lake Michigan. Those fish really have nowhere to breed. There are no traditional rivers they can follow to lay their eggs for future generations. They simply get tossed in the lake, grow to a certain size, come tearing up to shore in fall and then a bunch of them wear out and die.
So you’re really fishing for ghosts, of a sort. If you’re lucky you’ll catch one and perhaps even eat it. Trouble is, many of these big fish accumulate levels of mercury and other heavy metals from the pollution falling on the lake. As predators even further up the food change, we risk taking all that in if we eat too much of the creatures just below us on the food chain.
But if you’ve ever eaten a fresh trout caught from a clean lake or stream, you know the allure. That’s why my brother and I retain a certain sense of wonder about the process. It’s not just about the eating. There’s the thrill of actually catching such a beautiful fish. As I’ve aged the allure of that has diminished somewhat. As a lifelong birder and naturalist my leanings go toward catch and release, or not catching all. Leave the fish alone.
Out in Glacier National Park one year I had brought along my fishing gear and decided one afternoon to try my luck in the rushing stream that exits from St. Mary’s lake. With one cast at the base of a bridge I latched into an elegant gray trout of some sort that I did not even recognize. It looked like a grayling but I let it go so fast to put it back in the water I’m not sure to this day what it really was.
Then I stood next to shore and was showing my son how to use the lure in the water when another big salmon struck the lure and I lifted that fish right out of the water. I’d caught it right underfoot. But this was not a pretty scene. The crankbait I’d tied to the line was too big and tough for the mouth of that fish. It caused damage. I let the fish back into the water but packed up the fishing gear and told my family, “This isn’t right. We don’t have the right kind of tackle to fish here. ”
Sure, we could have caught more fish. But it would not have been proper. That did not stop my wife from teasing me the rest of the weak about a brand of beer called Trout Slayer sold in Montana. The rip was justified.
All fishing is local and global
I don’t fish much anymore, although a few years ago a friend of mine and I worked a former farm pond for bass and I caught two fish more than 20″ long. We released everything we caught, and we caught many. But within a year or two the pond was essentially fished out by locals who took buckets of fish home with them daily. There was also the problem of new homeowners slathering their lawns with weed chemicals. That runoff could not have been good for the water in that lake. Algae now coats the entire surface in summer.
Which all makes me yearn for fishing of a different sort. The morning I spent fishing for stocked brown trout in Octoraro Creek in Pennsylvania, for example. The water was cold and clear. We used our fly rods and even tried our luck with our own hand-tied flies. These were created from the feathers we collected at an amazing aviary near our house. There were peacocks and peafowl and the feathers of those many birds would float out of the pens to be collected by us. We’d break them up and make them into fishing flies.
But none of that was working, and for some reason my brother handed me a can of fat earthworms and said, “Here, try these.”
I stood alone in that rushing water and put a chunk of worm on a small hook and gently looped the fly line out into the middle of the stream. Instantly I felt a tug. Several fish later I had caught the limit. I walked upstream to meet my brother and showed him the creel full of fish. I was done for the day yet satisfied.
Fishing for your self
There are lifelong principles at work in all of this. The entire experience of fishing is dependent on how well you respect your prey and your situation. Life is most sustainable when you understand your limits and your measures. It does no good to take more than you need or to fish without restraint. It always pained me to witness large stringers of fish rotting in the sun at some lake resort? Why drag those fish out of the water only to let them turn into fodder for flies?
It is incumbent on us to be our own governors, to seal our appetites with the satisfaction of doing the job well enough to know when it is done. Otherwise the balance of creation is thrown off, sometimes for good. And we mean that in the strangest way. Even when it appears that human dominion over the earth is executed for the good of humankind, it is easy to deceive ourselves and go over the line, as it were, to wanton consumption.
When the Bible cites the example of Jesus calling fisherman ashore to consider making his ministry their cause, he casts a net instead of a line. “Come with me,” he invites them, “And I will make you fishers of men.” It is no coincidence that same call is all about avoiding wanton consumption and giving in to desires. That is the ultimate and true nature of fishing.
Americans wiped out an entire species of bird, the Passenger Pigeon, that once numbered in the billions. Some of those hunters took pride in wiping out 10 birds in one blast of the shotgun. Finally there were not even 10 birds left to shoot.
It’s true even in politics and business. It is possible for one party or industry to want to win so much that they wind up losing all perspective on what their winning is really all about. Nature and human culture has a tendency of pushing back at that point. It’s the balance of evolution and of social dynamics that a creature of any sort that does not understand sustainability is likely to fail in the end.
The real victory is in having the perspective and humility, the grace and gratitude, to know how to conduct yourself in concert with all of creation. That strategy never leaves you fishing for answers, because you have them all along.