Catching Is Just The Half Of It

A couple of weeks back Israel Dunn posted to his blog, Shorebound Hero, an article entitled “I Actually Only Want To Catch Fish.” I knew at the time that there was something I wanted to say here, but I wasn’t entirely ready to articulate it. Then came the little snit between Kirk Deeter and Louis Cahill over the use of strike indicators (“bobbers”), which you can catch up with here, and it struck a similar chord. At their heart each article explores the philosophy of angling and the limits to which we are willing to go to explore our love of the sport.

I want to say up front that I don’t disagree with Israel. The point of his article is really not that incendiary: he wants to catch fish. I think he is extrapolating a bit too much to say that he’s “fishing for all the wrong reasons”, or that we’re seen are “uncaring or shallow” if we want to catch fish. I don’t think most people are thinking to themselves, Well that guy with the rod in his hand only is interested in catching fish? What a dickhole! (Maybe the PETA types.)

“We all go fishing to catch fish,” Israel concludes, “and I honestly believe there is nothing wrong with that.” And he’s right. Truth is, I want to catch fish. We all want to catch fish. I don’t sell thousand-dollar-plus rod outfits on the premise that it makes you look cool (though I’m sure a few customers have dropped cash mainly for that reason). I don’t sell them on the premise that you’ll catch more fish either– I’m not an used car salesman– but high-end gear comes with certain technological advantages that, in theory, should aid your fishing skills with could, in theory, improve your ability to catch fish. (So, really, it’s science, and that explains why a geologist is shilling fly rods.)

A fly shop is a smorgasbord of things designed to help you catch fish. Fly tying hinges on the belief that you can design and tie a fly pattern that will catch more fish than anything else (and this must be the reason we tie flies, because the belief that you will save money is so utterly ridiculous it ranks right up there with Let’s hide in this fridge during a nuclear test and Eh, we don’t need to put a cover on this thermal exhaust port that leads directly to the main reactor.) Expensive rods are designed to cast easier and more accurately. Textured fly lines are meant for longer casts, higher floatability, and easier mending. Large arbor reels allow line to be reeled in more efficiently. And then there are the bobbers.

We call them strike indicators, but they serve the same purpose as your run-of-the-mill fishing bobber. (I have no explanation for the name change, other than someone thought fly fishing’s reputation wasn’t elitist enough and needed to further the divide between fly and conventional anglers.) If you’ve read the Deeter/Cahill articles you’ll know that The Great Bobber Debate is simply an extension of the age-old “dry vs. nymph” argument softened up for the modern, more inclusive fly angler. Do strike indicators make it too easy to fly fish, allowing anglers to overexploit the resource? Or are they simply one more tool–one often necessary–to catch fish when other methods fail?

Thus we come back to Israel and his personal stance on fishing: “I am not one of those, ‘I love the experience’ type of anglers.  I don’t relish the calm and tranquility of the outdoors… I want results!!!  Lots of results, in the form of selfies, selfies with large fish.” Again, I don’t have a problem with Israel wanting to catch lots of fish; his passion for the sport is evident, and he has become a skilled angler in a short period of time because of his drive to absorb as much information as possible about fishing. At the same time, I’m glad that not every angler is 100 percent results-oriented like he is, because our fisheries would be in big trouble.

It’s okay to fish like Israel. It’s also okay to be one of the “Love the experience” types where catching fish is only half the story. It’s okay to walk away from the stream having not caught anything; it’s likely you still learned something, or the experience forced you to consider new techniques, or to search out new water that you may not have tried otherwise. In the moments that I have not caught fish I have had the opportunity to see amazing things: two male brook trout clearing out a pool, circling and striking one another in a show of dominance; a bald eagle high above the kayak, swooping down to the waterline and expertly picking a fish from just out of sight; a group of red-spotted purple butterflies sunning themselves on the rocky bank. No time spent outdoors is wasted time.

It’s okay to want to catch large fish like Israel. It’s also okay to want to catch fish of any size. It’s also okay to want to catch any type of fish. Big fish, such as muskie and steelhead, can be a challenge. Little fish can be too, but for different reasons. The brook trout in my neck of the woods don’t get much bigger than 8 or 9 inches, and they inhabit small (small!) streams where casting is difficult and stealth is of utmost importance. In the middle of Madison there is the opportunity to catch large carp, and there is a certain level of skill needed to do it, whether or not they are “junk” fish.

In short, we need all sorts of different anglers for a healthy stream “ecosystem.” Guys like Israel push the limits of the sport to try and gain an edge, which allows for fly fishing to evolve as it has for generations. Guys like me distill that information to the masses and through new gadgets designed to make fishing easier to love. And your average Joe Angler simply loves fishing, whether he does it once a year or catches only one fish per trip. No matter how you fish, we need you to keep the sport healthy.

That’s why I can’t fully back Kirk Deeter’s suggestion that some stretches of water should be regulated against certain types of angling. Setting up dividing lines between angler groups isn’t the answer during a time when fisheries need as many champions as they can get. Adding complications to fishing regulations isn’t the answer when the number of anglers is falling, and overly complex rules packages are part of the problem. There’s a reason the Wisconsin DNR, after years of input from anglers and other resource user groups, chose to simplify, not increase in complexity, the trout regulations for 2016 and beyond.

There’s room for everybody. However, each of us who puts boots in the water does have a code of conduct to live by. A Fishido, if you will. A good angler will adhere to these unwritten rules, and we’ll all be better for it.

  1. Respect the fishery and the fish. Do what is best for them, not you.  The future of our passion lies in the current and future health of the fishery. In a world where all of our needs are easily met, there is no need to exploit the resource beyond what it can handle. The survival of the fishery should take precedent over your need to catch a fish on any given day. The respect you extend to your quarry could include, but is not limited to: practicing catch-and-release, using barbless hooks, following the tenets of the Keep ‘Em Wet movement, laying off trout streams when water temperatures spike, taking care to limit the transport of invasive species, not using live bait, and (in Deeter’s case) not using strike indicators. There is certainly more an angler can do, as well; I’ve heard stories of anglers using “hookless” dry flies, and their satisfaction comes from simply fooling the trout to take the fly. Like I said, these are unwritten rules, and it’s a personal decision regarding how to respect the fishery (to paraphrase a great Dark Lord of the Sith, Search your feelings and you’ll know when it is true!).
  2. Don’t be a dick to fellow anglers. Deeter relates a story where a gaggle of guides in drift boats passed right through a run he and his buddy were fishing, throwing bobber rigs to great success. It’s a story I’ve heard many times over from other anglers. It’s a story that I can add to myself: a long time ago, on a streambank far, far away in Montana, a neophyte fly angler was– for lack of a better term, and in defiance of the Comics Code Authority– fucking around in the Madison river near Ennis, Montana, not really sure what he was doing. During this adventure a drift boat passed by him, and one of its occupants gave the neophyte a look that screamed What are you doing here, buddy? For years that angler thought he was in the wrong, that for some reason that drift boat had the right-of-way through the stretch of water he had been fishing first.
    Years later I realize that I had just as much right to fish that water as that boat did; and in hindsight maybe I should have been upset that the guide decided to lead his clients through a stretch of water I was already working (to be fair, I never would have had the skills at the time to catch anything). Did that boat have just as much of a legal right to that water as I did? Yes. Was it kind of a dick move to fish over me? I think most people would not take kindly to it. Had that happened on some stream in the Driftless area, in the middle of nowhere without witnesses for miles… well, luckily us Wisconsinites are second only to Minnesotans in our hospitality.We should strive as anglers to be respectful to our fellow anglers, just as much as we are to the fishery. These are our brothers-and-sisters-in-arms. Give them space to fish. Give them the benefit of the doubt. If they’re not fishing exactly how you would fish a hole or a run, shut up about it and take some notes; maybe you’ll learn something. If their fishing methods do not match your own code of Fishido, see it as an opportunity for healthy discussion rather than outright derision. I’ve changed my own fishing techniques over the years– from worm-and-bobber to nymph fishing to dry flies without a barb– partly through experience and partly through the experience of others passed down to me.
  3. Rule One is more important than Rule Two. There may be some instances where your respect for the fishery should supersede that of your fellow angler. If a scientific study comes out that indicates 90 percent of all trout caught on nymph-and-bobber rigs die, then sorry nymphers, but bobbers gotsta go. When you’re part of a species that probably wiped out megafauna due to your hunting prowess, and is probably responsible for an impending mass extinction event, you forfeit the right to freely exploit a resource in whichever way you see fit.

And that’s about it. I think we’ll accomplish a lot more as a group if we are willing to follow the code of Fishido than bicker back-and-forth about little pieces of brightly colored plastic. And as long as you follow Fishido, I’m just as happy if you catch a world-record-breaker or a beautiful little brook trout. Because catching fish is only the half of it. The other half is what we’re doing to make sure we can catch that fish a second time.


Author: chesleyfan

I work, I fish, I write.

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