For the impression it made on me, that little bluegill might as well have been a space alien. Ever since that day, I’ve found fishing to be about the most fascinating, beautiful, peaceful thing I do. If ever there were an activity that’s all about discovery, patience and appreciating details, this is it.
THINKING LIKE A FISH
When you catch a fish, an interesting psychological game starts to play out. It happens if you’re catching a five-pound large-mouth on ultra-light tackle. And it’s even more fascinating when it’s a fish that might outweigh you, one that, given half a chance, would gladly eat you.
For the fish, of course, it’s all about survival. But they don’t just act out of blind terror; there’s an intelligence there. Over generations of experience passed down who knows how, they seem to have learned a few things.
There’s a distinct moment in which you can sense whether you’ll ultimately prevail.
They can strip every shred of the night crawler from your hook without moving it an inch. They play dead until that one moment when you think you’re about to grab them. They find the only rough spot on the keel of your canoe and manage to grate your monofilament right over that spot. Hell, I’ve even seen them enlist the help of their friends!
For the fisherman, it’s about trying to anticipate these wily ways. It’s also a battle of wills. This is especially true when you’re fighting a hundred-pound-plus game fish—one that has at least an even chance of getting away.
There’s a distinct moment in which you can sense whether you’ll ultimately prevail. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s that first foot or two of line you finally gain after a half-hour stalemate. Maybe it’s just your aching arms getting their second wind.
The conversation doesn’t end when you’ve landed the fish. Most fishermen I know say something kind to the fish, something like “Aren’t you a beauty!” or “There you go, little guy,” as they ease it back into the water.
And then there’s the conversation you have with yourself. Is the fish going to be okay? Could the little bit of blood you saw coming from its gills mean it wouldn’t survive? For me, this self-dialog has gotten especially intense since I’ve been catching the “big game” of the fishing world: the marlin, the sailfish, the tarpon.
I’ve seen large tarpon released . . . only to be
bitten in half and then devoured by opportunistic hammerhead sharks.
These are the species known to sometimes literally fight to the death. I’ve heard stories of very large marlin—say, 400 pounds or more—dying on the line, an autopsy revealing that their hearts burst from the exertion of their fight.
Even if a big fish can be released alive (always my wish), that doesn’t guarantee it will survive long. I’ve seen large tarpon released, still weak from a 45-minute fight, only to be bitten in half and then devoured by opportunistic hammerhead sharks.
OFF THE HOOK
I’m committed to catch-and-releasing fishing. I won’t hire a guide who doesn’t believe in it too. I believe, as it is said Native Americans once did, that each creature has a spirit. They bless us with whatever contact they allow us, whether that be sacrificing their bodies to nourish us, or simply letting us play with them for a while in wonder.
But questions persist. When my playing ends up costing another creature its life, is that a fair transaction? Does the fact that I nearly always fish not for food, but simply for fun strip me of my last shred of justification? Is my commitment to catch-and-release just my way of rationalizing a brutal and ultimately destructive behavior? Can I fish and still remain true to my code of honoring and respecting Nature?
Perhaps the ultimate answer will lie in finding
a way of interacting with fish on a more equal footing.
We’ll see how deeply those concerns take root. I’ll keep looking for techniques and technology—like the revolutionary circle hook—that are kinder to the fish. But perhaps the ultimate answer will lie in finding a way of interacting with fish on a more equal footing, one where there’s more at risk for me than a few bucks’ worth of tackle and not landing the fish. Some might suggest swimming with sharks.