Whip Finish


Ralph Long - September 12, 2011

A recent event on a local trout stream caused me to sit back and look hard at the current culture of fly fishermen that are out there wading our waters these days. It was both eye-opening and saddening, to say the least. I was fortunate enough to get on some water with a Saturday evening escape of honey-do's and family obligations so I chose to visit some nearby water at one of the popular easy-access points. The bridge offers a parking point and 2 larger pools below, and although I tend to skip these spots most times out this time I needed the convenience to maximize my time on the water. Arriving, I parked and was quick to observe a fisherman posted at the heads of both pools nymphing. SO, I figured that would be my queue to head to the bottom of the 2nd run and setup on the tail-out for some dry fly action as evening set in.

I moved down and got positioned, and as I stood there observing the water about mid-thigh out into the stream I took my time rigging since I didn't really expect much action just yet. While watching, I was pleased to see 2 fish rise taking midges on the far bank. Very nice, I thought as I studied the air for any sign of a hatch. It was about that time the gentleman above me set the hook on what appeared to be a sizeable fish. I watched him play a nice looking brown trout, and then spend what appeared to be a struggle netting and releasing the fish. Not thinking anything odd I began casting to my 2 midging trout as their rhythm became identifiable. It was then, while stripping line in for another cast, that I looked down to see a trout drifting on its side just as it passed my upstream foot. Quickly grabbing my net, I reached down and scooped up the barely struggling fish and got a look at it in my net. It was a nice hefty 16" brown trout, barely gasping, with a slight sign of blood from its gills. A fish obviously just this side of the "the light" so-to-speak. I was in the process of trying to revive it, although not too optimistic, when the fisherman above me began wading towards me.

"He's not going to make it, eh?" he offered flatly. "He was hooked pretty hard." he again offered as an advance explanation. I nodded my head and looked up, "Nope sure ain't." I offered. 'This one is frying pan material." With the last remark greeted with an off-hand chuckle, as if accepting it as a joke. "I hooked him pretty deep into the tongue, and half expected as much" was his reply.

The fish was obviously not going to make it. "It happens" I responded. "Sometimes an aggressive take can do that despite our best efforts." And with that I snapped the neck of the fish and offered it out to him. To say that he looked at me in complete shock is an absolute understatement. He actually stared mouth open, back-and-forth from me to the fish at least 4 times before he said anything. He watched me dig into my chest pack for the zip lock I carry for just such an occasion, and as I dropped the fish into it he held up his hand and stated, "I don't kill fish, I practice strict catch-and-release". Mustering up the best smile I could at the time, I returned, "Well, you try not to. But we all kill fish whether we like it or not. This fish was going to die. No doubt about it. And even with your best efforts, we still have a mortality rate of 5% at best." But this guy was in 100% denial, giving me a stern condemning look and offered, "I can honestly say that all of my fish are released unharmed. This fish was probably the 1st fish that didn't make it all summer."

Now I'm pretty easy going as a rule, but this had pushed a button that had no way of shutting off. I looked him up and down, then looked him in the eye and told him flatly, "You know, you can't hide complete ignorance behind $3000 worth of fishing gear." Needless to say, he shared a few choice words with me, then stomped back to his truck and left throwing gravel and likewise, leaving me with the fish.

I took the opportunity with his departure to take advantage of the vacated hole, and since I now had one fish to fry went on the hunt for more. One fish would not feed me, let alone anybody else in the family. So, switching to nymphs and an indicator I started hunting for trout. Thirty minutes later, I was leaving the stream with a limit of 5 nice fat fish and a seldom enjoyed meal. I too release probably about 99% of my fish. But before I will release a mortally hooked fish, I will eat it when legal to do so. I practice C&R for conservation purposes, not because I feel it's morally wrong to kill and eat them.

This event got me thinking however, and what I am seeing really does disturb me in many ways. Fly fishing has been inundated in the past generation with individuals who, aside from the fact that they own the gear, have little-to-no connection with the outdoors. They see fly fishing as a sport or pastime akin to golf or mountain biking in anywhere from a corporate to a religious mentality. All of which is perfectly fine in itself. But too often they remove themselves from having any impact on the fish they pursue by strictly adhering to Catch-&-Release. As if stating "I practice catch-&-release" 10 times grants them atonement for any fish they may have inadvertently killed, and somehow cleanses them of participating in what is in fact a blood-sport. Most not only do not know how to properly care for a fish that is kept, but could not prepare the fish properly for the plate even if they did. Now while I am all for bringing people into the sport of fly fishing this pattern is unsettling, and in my opinion does fly fishing a disservice, which obviously prompted this rant.

So I offer this to our small slice of the outdoor culture. Right after you take your 1st fly casting class or purchase your first fly fishing video, use the technology at your disposal to also teach yourself how to properly care fish. That fish that you will, in fact, eventually kill. Learn how to transport, clean or filet and prepare the fish. So that in the event that your impact on the wildlife you pursue becomes a fatal proposition it is not done in waste. Turn that reverent mindset you hold for trout and the environment in which they live,into a deep respect as well for your task of responsible stewardship. Since myself and others in turn did not catch and release that fish only for it to be caught again and wasted.

See you on the water.

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