Complimentary Catch and Release Tips:
I took a trip to the headwaters of the Connecticut River recently. I naively yearn for fishing locations where I have to bushwhack my way to the water with a machete, but I’m not alone in my love for fishing, and the world is such an overpopulated mess that I can walk up and down well-worn paths along both sides of any river that still has fish in it and be happy while my idealism slowly dies.
One morning I got down to the stretch of river between Lake Francis and Third CT Lake. It was pretty crowded… Every one of the real fishy spots had a guy in waders standing in it. This is not a big whoop, by the way, those other hearty souls have every bit as much of a right to be on that river as I do. I should have gotten my ass over there earlier if I didn’t want to hike farther into the river system than anybody with any sense wanted to in order to find myself a nice patch of fish-holding sweetness that hadn’t had 50 years of daily beatings.
I got down to a nice hole that I’ve had success and failure in before, but there was a guy there already. As I made my feet fall softly and moved slowly among the ferns by his pool, he hooked a fish and had it ready to net. This is where the shit-show started and a lifetime of sadness and anger boiled up inside me. Instead of bending down and netting the fish while it remained in the water, he lifted it out of the water with his line and started trying to catch a bouncing fish in the net from mid-air like it was a toy. The fish was wiggling like crazy and his first few attempts failed to catch the fish in the net, but he did give the suffocating, horrified fish a good beating with his net. Once he grabbed the fish against his chest with a dry hand and tore the hook out of its mouth by yanking on the tippet and he squirted the fish back into the water like you would a bar of soap in the shower if you were seven years old and having a bit of fun.
He was a friendly enough guy. I talked to him for a little while even though in my heart-of-hearts I kind of wanted to beat him with my net, but I kept an eye on the water close to us while pleasantries passed between us. There was a little eddy about 5 feet away, and sure enough, belly-up for the entire world to see, our recently deceased trout was swirling around in there. I pointed with my rod-tip and said, “Hey look, there’s a dead fish, I wonder what happened.”
He said, “Whoa, he looks like a good fish too!”
I just wanted to fish, so even though my innards, on every level, coiled like a snake, I blew it off and didn’t press the issue any further because the river already had its corpse for one day. There was nothing I could do to help the fish, and I figure crayfish have got to eat too, so I just hopped from boulder to boulder downstream thinking about the great circle of life and all of that. One thing I can do after the fact though is contemplate a few finer points of releasing a fish that you don’t intend to kill, bring home, and share from a generous heart.
1. A trout that’s out of the water for more than 30-45 seconds is going to croak whether you put it back in the water or not. Scientists have studied this shit. Science is not a vast political conspiracy. This is going to vary from species to species and between individual fish, but that’s roughly how long you’ve got to free the hook, get the trout back underwater, and hold it there until it swims off under its own power to go be a trout in peace. I have gotten into the habit of holding my breath while I take a fish off the hook. While I’m doing my best to free the terrified creature, if I feel like I need to breathe, odds are that the fish does too, so I’ll give up if I haven’t gotten the hook out and submerge the fish for a little while so it can regain its strength before I try again. Oh, and the clock started ticking while you were swinging the fish around trying to net it in midair, you fucking retard.
2. If you had your fun catching the fish and want to let it live to fight another day, wet your hands before you touch it for the love of all things holy. The slime that coats a trout’s entire body, the one that’s a total pain to clean off when you are preparing a fish you want to cook… it’s part and parcel of the fish’s immune system. That slimy coating keeps molds and other infections from taking root on the fish’s skin, considering that it occupies a rather moist environment, and it will replenish itself if only a small amount is wiped off. If your net has a giant slimy spot left in it once you let the fish go because you were squeezing the fuck out of it with a dry hand, that fish is going get sick and die a prolonged, agonizing death that you bear responsibility for.
3. That beautiful trout that you have decided to benevolently release into the stream just spent the last few minutes fighting for its life. It had no way of knowing that you weren’t going to kill it, so it just spent every, last molecule of its being trying to escape from the alien abduction we call catch-and-release fishing. You were able to net it in the first place because it gave everything it had and is near death. What you are supposed to do is hold the fish’s tail in one hand and cradle its belly in the other. .. Holding it right-side-up, you move it gently back and forth in the water until it regains its strength and swims off on its own once it has recuperated. If you are particularly attentive, you will observe bubbles escaping from its gill-plates which means that said gills are finally covered in water again and the fish is breathing healthily. I don’t give a fuck if the water’s cold and it makes your hands numb, which is going to happen because trout tend toward cold-water environments, wait for the fish to leave on its own. If you just toss it in the water like some piece of shit you don’t care about, it’s too tired to swim and it’s going to drown, which will fuck your holistic idea of harmless fun into a thousand pieces as the trout suffocates in the very environment it is meant be breathe comfortably in.
If you fuck one of these basics up, the fish will be lucky to survive, but if you fuck all three of them up the fish will be dead before the next piss you take, and some stranger might happen by to know you for the asshole you don’t think of yourself as.
I have no problem with taking a fish, by the way, when it is done with purpose. This isn’t one of those elitist rants that fly back and forth between fly-fishermen, power-bait people, and live-bait sportsmen that makes by behind pucker up. The only people on this stretch of river are fly-fisherman per-regulation… A fisherman can keep fish within clearly defined limits, if they so desire. When I imagine myself as a man who is two inches long swimming across a clear pool of water, I doubt a trout would think too hard before it swallowed me entirely so they and I are in a karmic balance. Fair is fair, that’s the entire idea of catch-and-release, but it’s a twist on nature’s eternal conflict because human’s can show compassion in a way that is rare in other animals when we feel like it. If you intend to bring game home from the out-set and survive based on the product of your hard work, I commend you; you have struck a blow against all of the forces in society trying to control you and mutating your food supply while they’re at it.
With all of that being said, I’m pleading to my fellows to make a decision about what you’re going to do with your catch before you even go to the river, choose your weapon, and land a fish. Stand by your decision like a man. If you are going to let your fish go once you have held it in your hands, make sure the thing’s going to survive if you have already decided not use it to further your mortal coil. Commit. Take responsibility. I can guarantee if you’re cutting corners with your catch and release, you’re cutting other corners in your world that damage everything you touch. If you’re going to shine one shoe, shine them both. If you’re going to make a woman pregnant, be the best father you can be even if it wasn’t what you planned on before you started fucking. If you bring shit home from the grocery store, eat it before it goes bad. Don’t be lazy, wasteful, and ignorant while you turn an otherwise good world into shit one act of carelessness at a time. If you can button things up with whatever your quarry may be and bring reasonable care, commitment, and compassion into the rest of your world, I’m betting things are going to start looking better and better for you across the board. You will be a complete person and the world will be your oyster. I’m doing it, and if you do it too, maybe someday the first thing I see when I get back to Boston won’t be a homeless crack-head begging for change by the highway… Think about it.
As I'm sure you can tell, GW is passionate about his fishing. Oh yeah! He's outspoken, too. Salty as GW may be, he's right. Please take a minute and consider your technique when handling fish and other game.