My wife caught me looking at porn on the Internet the other day. I was a little embarrassed at first. Being confronted with the fact I have a rather salacious appetite for ogling at such images was a bit uncomfortable. I felt quite exposed. I know I should be happy with what I have and have no desire to covet that which others possess, but the pictures and videos are just so damned sexy, sensual really. The large, brown eyes; the arched back; the damp skin; all daring me to stare, to download and save, to advance to the next image. And with today’s ubiquitous, high-megapixel cameras, the images are extremely lifelike. When magnified on a computer screen they beg you to reach out and take hold. They tempt like sirens. They know my weakness. And there is more and more of it every day.
But, my wife did not chastise me. She did not run off in tears and shame me for my infidelity. Instead, she just rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“Looking at fish pictures again, huh?” was all she said.
That’s right. I admit it. I am addicted to fish porn. And I’ll bet you are too.
When I first started fishing, the idea of taking pictures of the fish I caught never crossed my mind. First, there was no Internet, and therefore no practical way to share photos with anyone other than your closest friends. Second, there were no small, waterproof cameras available, and nobody had a phone in his/her pocket. We would often wait until we got back to camp and dump the fish from our creels to take a snapshot with grandpa’s box camera – you know, the one where three dudes in flannel hold up a few lunkers by the gills before grilling them for dinner. Fishing magazines or the occasional outdoor show would show us pictures of huge steelhead or salmon or tuna, but those were monthly indulgences at best. The only other place you would see a picture of a fish was on the walls of the local bait or fly shop, and those were often grainy and sunbleached.
Back then I didn’t worry about the size of fish I caught, mostly because I was often more interested in eating what I caught, and I didn’t have the constant reminder that “size matters” from being bombarded with gargantuan fish photos at every turn. But, with the advent of social media, the train has jumped the rails. We are programmed to believe that every fish must be large or it is unworthy. We search for approval by posting only the large pictures online (guilty, by the way), and wait impatiently for a like, retweet, or follow so we our egos can be stroked and our achievements acknowledged. We now even argue whether or not a fish is 24 or 22 inches based upon the photo and the angle at which it is held.
To be clear. I do this. And I do it too much. A large fish has always been considered special to an angler. The idea that the beast has managed to survive a hostile environment long enough to grow large is an accomplishment. The fact the angler was able to bring it to hand despite its heft, strength, and guile is a testament. And, of course, a large fish will feed more people than a small one. All these reasons make complete sense, and I will always love to catch big fish and view fish porn for these reasons.
However, what about the other ones – the smaller fish. Do they not count? Why don’t we bother paying tribute and memorializing them?
For one, they are far more prevalent. The odds of catching a ten-inch trout or a one-pound bass is much higher than hooking and landing the twenty-incher or five-pounder. Also, these fish are generally not as “intelligent” or highly specialized. They haven’t learned the ways of the fish world yet and are usually easier to fool, fight, and land. And, they often are rather “cookie cutter.” They tend to all look and behave the same until they get to a certain size where differences in spots, skin color, markings, and girth tend to set one fish apart from another. Like inferior diamonds, they are just not as rare.
And rarity is something nearly everybody can appreciate. But, is there something just as important to find in the six-inch brookie, a different kind of rarity? Can the small fish punctuate an experience, breathe life and purpose into a rarity of moment lessened appreciably by its absence? While my fly tying bench may not be littered with photos of fry that fit in my palm, and I have never told a fishing story that ended, “and it had such beautiful parr marks,” the little trout have their own unique way of leaving their impression.
The first fish I ever caught on a fly rod was an 8-inch brook trout. He was nice enough to
eat an unintentionally skated size 12 Renegade in the narrow outlet of Waterdog Lake on the Grand Mesa in western Colorado. I wandered off by myself with my new toy and a box full of flies I bought at Kmart. Thirty-five years later the details of the day are still surprisingly vivid. I still remember the smell of skunk week and the moss-covered metamorphic boulders I used as stepping stones as I rock-hopped down a gentle, grassy hillside casting sloppily into any water that looked fishy. At one point the skies grayed as a thunderstorm approached and a few stray mayflies began coming off the water. I saw a splash in a small back eddy. The fish had given itself away. I don’t even remember setting the hook, but that willing trout was the start of my obsession. I remember unhooking him and examining the blue and red dots and the white-tipped fins before letting him go. I know I caught a few more on the way back to camp, all of them small. The small fish was my beginning, the first domino tipped in a chain that is still running its course.
In fact, I probably caught a hundred fish under 12 inches before I caught my first photo opportunity. I got skunked a lot, too. If you’ve ever gotten skunked more than twice in a row, you might know how much of a trophy that single, 10-inch rainbow can be. There have been plenty of days where the fishing just wasn’t any good. Whether it was the North St. Vrain, or the South Platte below Deckers, or the Lamar in Yellowstone National Park, I have had my fair share of bad fishing days. And on all three of those waters (as well as many, many others), I have had my day saved by small fish willing to give itself up for the cause. And in most cases, saying you caught only one, and it was tiny, is a huge improvement on having to admit you rolled a big donut. One small fish is far bigger than zero fish every single time.
But the rarity of moment that is usually made possible by the small fish alone occurs when you put on your pack and hike a few miles away from the beaten path. These days are one of the things I look forward to the most each year. I appreciate the freedom of hiking with a daypack and a few liters of water. It is good to take the waders off and be unencumbered by an exorbitant amount of gear. All you need is a two- or three-weight rod and a single, small fly box filled with a variety of parachute dry flies and large attractors (maybe a few bead head nymphs at the most). A hike of no more than two hours, and suddenly the path becomes far less worn; you find yourself far away from anything resembling civilization, surrounded by beautiful landscapes and pure tranquility. The fish you generally find in these locations tend to be on the small side, but they add meaning to your journey, a reason to be there other than the absence of man. And, to be honest, these are the days you can really stack up the numbers. On more than one occasion, at some of the “notellum” spots we hike into, it is not unlikely that two or three fishermen will rack up a body count of over 100 fish. Some of them can approach sixteen inches, but most are 10 or so. It is the thrill of knowing that each cast can produce a strike, that every shadowy holding area might contain three or four willing fish. It is Disneyland for adults and makes up for all those days where scratching out a few fish or getting outright skunked might be the most one can expect. These little, willing playmates hidden among the scenic backdrop of deep-cut canyons and meandering meadows are the prize for your efforts, the beautiful trophies awarded by the fish gods for your dedication.
So, here’s to the little guys. The little packages in which good things reside. The hidden gem often overlooked in pursuit of greater things. They may not be the subject of grip-and-grins, and will surely never make the cover of Stonefly magazine or be the subject of a “Fly Fishing New Zealand” video at the Fly Fishing Film Tour, but they will be forever woven into the most important and meaningful fly fishing days of our lives. Show them some love as well.