While it was great fun splashing in the stream, picking wildflowers and harassing the frogs and tadpoles, it took a while for me to appreciate the challenge of spotting a feeding fish, and then successfully planning and executing a successful stalk to outwit him with my hand-tied flies.
At first, I missed far more trout than I caught, and my goal was to catch my daily limit of fish. In the 1950’s and ’60’s the legal limit for trout was 15 fish per day. Initially, I had great difficulty catching that many in a single day. But as I became increasingly proficient at outwitting my quarry, catching a limit became more and more common.
I guess I figured that a creel full of fish was the mark of a successful angler. After a while, however, it began to dawn on me that I really couldn’t eat 15 trout at one meal. Since my dad and brother were also catching their limits, I soon figured that it was quite impossible for us to eat 45 fish in a single evening.
Of course, there was always the freezer, and surplus fish could be frozen in empty milk cartons filled with water. That way, the blocks of frozen fish stacked neatly in the freezer. It also took me a while to learn that frozen trout were not nearly as good as fresh trout.
Almost like a Darwinian process, I eventually reached the conclusion that simply releasing fish unharmed meant that I could catch them again later after they had time to grow larger. Instead of bringing home 15 dead fish, I began to bring home fewer fish that were larger in size. My goal shifted from catching lots of fish to catching bigger fish, instead.
Unbeknownst to me, under Dad’s guidance, I was still evolving on my journey to become a successful angler. If you caught and kept only big fish, it wasn’t long before there were only little fish populating given water. Where was the fun in that?
Probably the hardest step in my angling education was learning to release the big fish so that they could breed, and only take home a few smaller fish for dinner. No longer did my freezer resemble a stack of cordwood made of frozen fish. Photographs of fish being released became my goal rather than stacks of freezer-burned fish that were really pretty lousy food.
Somewhere along the way, while doing some volunteer fish conservation work for the Fish and Game Department, a fishery biologist taught me how to mark the trout I released by clipping the small adipose fin located just in front of the tail. Now, when I catch a fin-clipped trout in one of my favorite waters, it’s like meeting an old friend.
When I stop and think about it, I realize that fishing is very much a microcosm of life itself. It is a journey, not a destination, and catch-and-release fishing is an important component of that journey.
I’m not sure where it will lead, but I’m still learning. Thus far, I know that I can heartily recommend catch-and-release fishing to you as a powerful tool to not only improve your fishing skills, but maybe even your very being.
Until next week, tight lines.
• Don Moyer is president and CEO of a consulting firm and has more than 20 years’ experience working with the outdoor recreation community, including anglers, hunters, backpackers, environmental groups and the public. He can be reached at email@example.com.