By Gary Cordray
When I was somewhere around eight years old, I distinctly remember my father taking me on a fishing trip in our old Red Dale camper on the Grand Mesa near Paonia, Colorado. This was not our first trip together. I had fished ever since I could remember, and between him and my grandfather, I had learned how to be fairly self-sufficient as an angler, baiting my own hooks, landing my own fish, and even crudely cleaning them for the evening frying pan. The forest was my second home, and it and fishing were inexorably linked.
However, this trip would be different. This trip was the first time my father was to show me something he called “fly fishing.” I had seen other men fly fish, watched in amazement at the long, looping casts they made from the bank of the lakes that dotted the Mesa, observed them stalking the banks of the feeder creeks as they bushwhacked their way deeper into the trees and eventually out of sight. It seemed mystical and impossible to me. So, when I heard that I was going to get the opportunity to learn at my father’s side, I was beyond thrilled.
After setting up camp that morning, I stuck close by my father as he strung up his short bamboo rod and selected a large, bushy fly from an aluminum fly box. He said it was a Royal Coachman. Even the name of the fly sounded elegant and regal. As we made our way toward a small stream he said was Leroux Creek, a ten-foot wide trickle overgrown with dense brush amid the forest canopy, he began his lecture. I paraphrase.
“Okay, first of all, we need to be very quiet. These fish are spooky.” I nodded, afraid to speak. He unhooked the fly from the hook keeper and showed it to me purposely. “When we cast, this fly is going to be zinging over our heads. We have to be very aware of where other people are, got it?” I nodded very enthusiastically. “This means we also have to be aware of where every tree or bush might be because you might snag your fly and then we have a real mess.” I had never had to be aware of such things watching my complacent rod from the shore waiting for the tip to bow when a fish took our bait. This added a whole new wrinkle to things. “Now, we’re going to put these fish back, okay? We don’t want to hurt them any more than we have to. So, we always get our hands wet before we handle them.” I must have looked bewildered at this. Something did not compute. My father just smiled and proceeded to show me how it was done, landing brookie after brookie as we made our way through the woods. Each one he landed, he first wet his hands and then laid it gently back in the water. It was odd watching a fish swim off like that. The fish I had caught in the past didn’t do much more swimming after I got ahold of them. Eventually I made a few casts myself, with no real luck, but was just as content watching him pick his way from pocket to pocket in a graceful dance with both fish and stream.
Already, it was obvious. This way of fishing had a different set of rules. As a bait fisherman I was accustomed to drowning a worm lanced with a hook or occasionally using a lure with a one or two large treble hooks hanging off it. I regularly harvested the fish I caught, and had little concern for how I handled fish or who I might be offending with my general presence. I remember trying to wrap my mind around all these nuances I was being exposed to. I was mesmerized.
That day I learned for the first time about catch and release. I learned about treating fish as creatures who would continue to live long after we had had our fun with them. I learned about giving way to preconceived notions, about respect, about connectivity, about conservation, all on a very rudimentary level. And I was transformed in some small way.
There is something honorable in catch and release fly fishing, an etiquette that is not as inherent or prevalent in every form of outdoor activity. This is a fact. By choosing to not treat every encounter we have with a creature of the wild as a life or death experience, we give our sport a greater meaning, and by extension, give our lives more meaning. When we choose to restrict and monitor ourselves on the river and set standards that serve as the model for what conservation and ethics in fly fishing should be, we in turn gain a sense of pride and accomplishment that transfers into the rest of our lives. We understand that the simple goal of catching a fish to consume it is not always the most important end product. We understand that the way we do things, and why we do them, is just as important as if they get done or not.
Now, it is true that some fly fishermen harvest all the fish they catch, and it is also true that some fly fishermen never, ever take a fish home to eat. But, the vast majority of those who fly fish in America generally adhere to some form of catch and release fishing. These days the guides who work in the fly fishing community are almost exclusively catch and release. They know the practice works to prevent the decimation of fish numbers that were seen in the 1970s and 80s across the nation. However, nowadays it is fairly common to hear stories about people catching the same fish with very distinct markings on multiple occasions over the course of a few seasons. These fish are given the opportunity to live, spawn, increase their numbers, and even be caught again by another lucky angler. But very few areas in the nation are catch and release fisheries by law. Most of the waters we fish have strict harvest limits, which help, but most do not demand that fish “be immediately returned to the river unharmed.” This has become a conscious choice made by the majority of fly fishermen due to awareness campaigns within the industry as well as organizations like Trout Unlimited. And they work. But, it is not just the fish that benefit.
Whether it is bull trout in Montana or Tarpon in the Florida Keys or Rainbow Trout in Colorado, when a fly fisherman catches a fish, holds it in his hands, admires the beautiful markings, takes a quick picture and then releases the fish, watching it slowly swim back to its watery home, a certain symbiotic relationship is developed. We feel at once connected to a fish, not because it will fill our stomach or be mounted on our wall, but because we know it continues to live and thrive just as we will, and we had the opportunity to interact with it in the meantime. For a moment we were a part of its life, not the reason for its death. It is the closest most of us ever get to a wild animal without killing it, and that connects us back to nature and give us a greater perspective on our own mortality, our own needs, wants, desires. But this is just the edge of the knife blade. There are other practices that stem out of the conservation philosophy that help to add even more meaning to our lives as fly fishermen.
One of these is the practice of pinching the barbs on our flies which is a natural extension of the catch and release philosophy. Barbs can do a great deal of damage to a fish, especially those with soft mouths like trout. When we go to remove the hook, the barb can become lodged in the skin and then cause tearing and bleeding after it is removed. If you don’t believe this, try getting a barbed hook out of your fleece sweater without leaving an ugly mess behind (not to mention trying to get it out of your own hand, neck, finger, or even eyeball). Many fish die because of infections caused by this damage. By pinching our barbs, we give the fish a much better chance at survival. We also give them a much greater chance at escape as it is easier for them to throw the hook during the fight. But it is this sporting chance that also give our sport more meaning. When the only object of fishing is to harvest a fish, the “sport” is essentially nonexistent. When we limit ourselves in this way, it makes us more conscious of how we play the fish once it has been hooked. We must tap into the skillset we have acquired over time, be aware of how the fish fights, how it tries to best us in its environment, and then react accordingly or be bested. This does not mean that it is easy to land a fish on a barbed hook, but it is undeniably much easier (there has to be a reason for that barb in the first place). By taking on this challenge, we decrease our advantage and should, therefore, feel a much greater accomplishment when we actually win the battle and do so without unduly harming our opponent. We can take pride in the fact that we have evolved in technique and practice. And that pride, that sense of control, helps buttress our self-esteem as people.
And it has become contagious. Many of us as anglers have begun adopting even more practices which help us to protect the fish we love so much. And, while they do not necessarily make it more difficult to catch fish, they do go a long way toward showing respect for the natural resource. We use rubberized or soft cloth bags on our nets, helping to minimize the destruction of the protective slime covering the bodies of fish. Those old-style bags made of knotted nylon are very destructive. It used to be fairly common to see waffle-like patterns almost burnt into the sides of a trout caused by nets of this variety. We wear far more rubber-soled fishing boots, rather than felt, to minimize the likelihood of carrying invasive species like New Zealand Mud Snails from one body of water to the next. While it is still unclear as to whether these boots actually help or not, the cooperation from fishermen has been extraordinary to watch. We are willing to try almost anything if we believe it can help protect the habitat and do not hesitate to join in even if the “science” is still being debated. We have seen firsthand what happens if we do not make efforts such as these.
Most recently, the “Keep ‘em Wet” movement has begun to gain ground in the fly fishing community. While most of us know that it is important to not hold a fish out of the water for too long (especially trout and their kin), this philosophy of never taking a fish out of the water makes some sense. All over Instagram and Facebook you will see #keepemwet attached to fish pictures. The idea is simple – do not remove the fish from the water; if you must take a photo, do it while keeping the fish mostly submerged. The concept of minimizing our impact, even at the expense of missing that glory shot you would have shown your buddies, is now becoming firmly entrenched in the brotherhood of fly fishermen (and other anglers as well).
All these “limitations” or “restrictions” on our behaviors have the ability to make our own lives more complete. We learn to think of our impact as humans on the natural world before we think of ourselves and our own glories. We learn to respect other living creatures as much as we respect our own triumphs. We learn to commit ourselves to a cause that stems from wanting to do the right thing, not the easiest thing. All these breadcrumbs of etiquette lead us to a higher sense of satisfaction and a feeling of being part of a true community, one that cares about the future while still taking full advantage of the present.
While harvesting fish legally still has a place in fly fishing, it is not the only way to experience satisfaction. The greatest sense of bliss that comes from this sport will always be gained by caring enough to know when to limit ourselves in our primary pursuit and examine the manner in which we carry ourselves during that pursuit, always conscious of our part in a complicated tapestry that will forever be our legacy.