Yesterday, I was standing on an abandoned beaver house, several miles deep in the WIld (the Adirondacks), teaching my daughter to fly fish in the ungroomed conditions of a totally wild beaver pond. (aside — right now, at least two of my friends are asking ‘where was I, Cameron?’ with blood in their eyes…)
Mostly by luck, we stumbled on a pond caught in a particular moment in it’s transition. The beavers are gone; they’ve moved upstream. But the fifty meter long dam they built is mostly intact, and had held a serious head of water in the meadow; more importantly, this is part of an old recurring cycle in this little valley, and the beaver have been here before. A cold, fresh, year ’round stream keeps the water clean.
So there are trout. Spectacular, unstocked native brook trout. At this time of year, they glow with vitality and the males have red bellies and all of them are fat and very, very tasty. Finding this particular fishing spot took luck and years of hiking on the nearly trackless ridges of the southern Adirondacks, and next year, when the spring melt breaks the damn, the pond will be done. I was there to have my daughter and my father spend time together. By luck, we caught that moment…
But for two days in August of 2015, the fishing was…incredible. For about fifteen minutes, any fly that hit the water was taken by these lovely, amazingly tough fish who are usually so shy and careful. My hands shook with excitement, but my casting remained accurate. It was incredibly like a good sword fight. No, really. And there’s more allegory to come…
My daughter caught her second…and third, trout. My father, a superb fisherman of some eighty plus years, caught trout until he was bored.
Myself, I caught five. Three I returned, One swallowed the hook and had to be killed and one spectacular fourteen inch fish was lunch. Dad killed two more twelve-inch fish. Also for lunch. Bea elected to eat her first completely solo catch, but we… ahem… dropped her fish in the water. Not her fault. Adults… trying to help.
Anyway, my point is about the authenticity of experience and what ‘sport’ is. Perhaps what I want to say applies to martial arts as well. I suppose I will offend some trout fishermen, and I’m sorry. I do not write to offend.
Aside… if you don’t fish… catch and release is a policy whereby fishing is only done to land the fish and the fish is then returned to the water with as little handling as possible. The idea is to keep fish stocks strong, but in fact, so many fish die from being caught (in Yellowstone National Park, for example, fish are caught twelve to twenty times a year) and exhausted and handled that more fish have to be stocked every year. Not native fish, but hatchery fish. Who are, of course, quite easy to catch, as they’ve never been in the wild.
I do not understand ‘Catch and Release.’ I understand ‘catch and eat’ and I understand not taking too many fish. The two I killed represent all the trout I will kill this year. I put back others…carefully… because I didn’t want to eat them, but I wouldn’t fish if I weren’t going to eat. I’d just leave the fish, or the deer, in the Wild.
To go to the trouble of walking several miles into the wild, to manage to catch fish in a beaver pond, which is a nightmare of deep and shallow, of underwater sticks from left-over beaver-feasts just waiting to take your fly; to catch a fish under these conditions, to drag it across the pool and LAND it (when it wants to swim under the sticks and break your line) and THEN let it go…seems odd, to me. Why not just sit and watch the beautiful fish rise? Why… pretend?
Catch and release… on groomed rivers with tended banks and stocked fish put there so that fishermen can catch them…and release them… is a sort of simulation of a nineteenth century aristocratic pastime, isn’t it? It maximizes the display of equipment and ‘skill’ in fly-tying and presentation of the fly and use of the right, very expensive net. And of course, no gets messy with blood, and everyone is far too rich to need to eat the fish. It proves one’s social status without providing any danger or foolish degrees of difficulty.
Yes, I mean this as an allegory about certain martial arts. But I mean it about fly-fishing, too.
Myself, I take joy in hunting and fishing, in being, however temporarily, an apex predator, and in consuming the result. Few experiences in the world can equal the moment when a big trout takes the fly. The fly you made; the cast you made. But I can tell you one thing better; eating the trout you caught. Of course, you have to get messy with the blood, and you have to confess to yourself that you killed something beautiful and wild. To eat it. And finding a wild trout pond in the wilderness is far more work than the fishing can ever really justify, unless you love the authenticity of the experience.
I imagine that this could all be said in some hyper-macho tough-guy way. Actually, I don’t mean it like that at all. To me, it’s simply honest. This is who we were, certainly, and to some extent, who we still are. Predators. It helps me understand the past; it helps me understand why people kill people and animals. It helps me create the Wild in my fantasy novels (where I’ll note that Ser John Crayford is an avid and authentic trout fisherman…. That’s not really a spoiler, but you’ll find a fishing scene early in Dread Wyrm).
About five hours after we caught all those fish, my daughter and I went for a late-night walk to see the full moon. (In deep woods, you have to find a clearing to see the moon). While we walked, coyotes bayed at the same moon, a chorus of predators, and then, to our surprise, something very large moved very quickly through the dark woods to our left. A bear. We were not seriously threatened. Adirondack black bears are very polite. But… we were not the only predators in those woods, and that is also a useful lesson.
We moved very rapidly back to our nice fire….
A good reminder. The Wild is still out there.
They don’t catch and release.