What a long, strange trip it’s been, one angler’s journey
Over my 55 years on this earth, it has been my pleasure to fish some of the great waters in this country, and I have even managed to land more than my share of fish during that time. Looking back, I see that there have been several cycles in my fishing pursuits, from a kid with a cane pole fishing for panfish, to who I am today, some one that pretty much limits myself to catch and release fly fishing for trout.
To quote myself, “When you pause to reflect on fishing, you often find out that the pursuit of fish has no bearing on your pursuit of fishing, or your enjoyment of the experience”.
Fishing has been described as a jerk on one end of a line waiting for a jerk on the other end, and that about sums it up as far as the actual catching of fish is concerned. But there is much more to fishing than just catching fish, if you look for it. I will admit that I still get the same adrenaline rush now days when a fish hits as I did when I was a kid just starting out, even though I know enough now to know it isn’t going to be Moby Dick on the other end of the line. With as many fish as I have caught, especially given the number of really large fish that I have caught, you would think that I would have become jaded, or immune, to the feel of a fish tugging on the other end of the line, but I haven’t, I guess that’s why I still fish at all.
Most people fish for food, not because they have to, but because they like the taste of fish, and I do too, there are few meals better than a mess of bluegills fried up right, or a couple of trout cooked to perfection. However, that’s not the reason I still fish, as I have kept only a handful of fish over the last 25 years. People tell me I’m crazy to fish, then release the fish I catch, and ask me why I fish at all if I’m not going to keep them. Maybe I am crazy, but I don’t think so, I can come up with lots of good reasons for both sides of that question, why do I fish, and why do I throw the fish back.
I guess I’ll start with why I throw the fish I catch back, my flippant answer is they are too easy to catch, and they are. There is a saying that 10% of the fishermen catch 90% of the fish. I don’t know if that is exactly true or not, but I think it is close. Catch and release was pretty much unheard of when I started fishing, yeah, you threw the little ones back “to grow up”, but no one released a “keeeper” that I knew of. That changed a bit when I started salmon fishing in the rivers. When salmon begin their migration upstream to spawn, they stop feeding and some of their internal organs shut down so the salmon can devote all their remaining energy to reproduction. I don’t want to turn this into a biology class, but by the time the salmon are ready to spawn, they are in really sad shape, especially the males. They have changed from beautiful, silver fish into the ugly, black swimming undead that they become in the rivers, until they do die. Large portions of their bodies are being attacked by fungal and other types of infections, showing up as white ulcers on their bodies and fins, if the fins are even still there. They are not an appetizing sight in the least, even though some people will keep them and eat them. I guess it is because I caught enough fish over the course of the year, that I had no desire to keep and eat a fish that was already starting to rot even before it was dead. So that was when I first started releasing fish that were keepers. That’s also when I started to realize how addicting Big Fish Fever can be to people, other fishermen would yell at us for letting fish that large go, telling us they would have taken them if we didn’t want them. Our response was “Why?, Why would you want a fish in that bad of shape?”, and they would tell us that they tasted just fine smoked, personally, I think they would have taken the fish home to show off, telling people they caught them, then dump the fish in the trash, but that’s just a hunch.
That was reinforced in kind of a strange way, fishing for salmon off the piers along Lake Michigan. Before the salmon start migrating up the rivers, they school up at the river mouths that dump into the Big Lake. It is easy fishing, if you know what you are doing, you can hit your limit quite easily. It was on one such day that Spud and I had done well, I think we had 7 or 8 fish between us when we decided to pack it up and call it quits for the day. If you think the walk out to the end of the pier is a long one, try it while lugging your rod, tackle box, thermos, net, and a hundred pounds or so of salmon back to the parking lot. I don’t remember how it started, but, we were talking about how heavy the fish were to carry, how many fish we already had in our freezers, and one thing lead to another. Spud yelled out, “Hey! Any one want a fish?” and we were almost trampled in the mad rush of the other fishermen ready to take us up on that offer. I think we gave all the fish away but one female, which we kept both for food and to harvest the eggs in her for bait on later fishing trips. It sure made the walk back to the truck a lot easier that morning!
The next time that we were out there fishing on the pier again, which would have been the same week or the next, we didn’t even bother putting the fish on a stringer to begin with. As soon as we landed a fish, we would turn it loose again. We found that turning a 30 pound salmon loose is almost as much fun as catching it in the first place. Guys would run up to us, nearly livid, asking why we threw it back, and telling us that if we didn’t want it, they would have taken it.
I have to say at this point, Spud and I were becoming a couple of arrogant SOBs in a lot of ways, not that we weren’t both a little on the arrogant side to begin with. But, catching fish, and lots of them, when most of the fishermen around us were being shut out made us even worse than we were to begin with. It isn’t that we were rude, or kept how we did it secret, on the contrary, we would try to help out any one who wanted to know how we caught fish, when so many other fishermen couldn’t get a hit. It was fairly simple, we used light line, never higher than 6 pound test, smaller lures than most people, and we knew the fish, the rivers, the piers, and the lakes. It was almost surreal at times, we would land a fish, some one would ask us how we did it, we would tell them, and they would turn around and tell us it was impossible to land a salmon that way. We would point out to them that they had just seen us do it, and some of them would accuse us of lying. Huh? You just saw me hook, land, and release a fish using the rod I have in my hand, how could I being lying about any part of it? I believe that’s why 10% of the fishermen catch 90% of the fish, the other 90% of the fishermen won’t even believe their own eyes.
I suppose it helped a lot in that there were two of us, both of whom knew what they were doing. We would each start out using something different, and varying how deep we were fishing, and our retrieves, until one of us had a hit. Then we would narrow down the pattern until we were both catching fish consistently. This is when turning fish loose really got to be fun, just to get a reaction from all the other fishermen around us suffering from severe cases of Big Fish Fever. I hate to say it, but we took great pleasure in the reactions we got from our fellow fishermen, many of whom would come unglued as we turned large salmon back. It was one thing if they didn’t know how to catch fish, quite another when they will call you a liar to your face when you try to tell them how to duplicate our results. Still worse were the snaggers. We would recognize some of the people fishing on the piers as people who would snag salmon in the rivers, or try to. Releasing fish became our way of rubbing their noses in the fact that we caught so many big fish that we didn’t even keep them all.
About the same time, catch and release was taking off among other sport fishermen as well. It does make sense, if you keep every fish you catch, pretty soon there won’t be any fish left to catch. That goes with other changes in the way a lot of fishermen thought as well. I think most of the states had regulations much like Michigan, in that there was a minimum size limit on game fish. For example, here in Michigan, trout had to be at least ten inches long. Those regulations were set with the idea that you had to let fish grow up to an age where they could reproduce, which made sense in a way. But fishermen were complaining that there were no large fish left to catch with the old regulations, so state fishery biologists began tinkering with the regulations in order to improve both the numbers of fish, and the average size of fish as well. With just a minimum size limit, as soon as a fish of legal size was caught, it was removed from the gene pool, and only smaller fish reproduced. This has led to many of our inland lakes being full of tiny panfish, with no large fish left, they have all been caught out. The problem has gotten so bad that the Michigan DNR has poisoned out some lakes completely, and then restocked the lakes with fish with a more diverse gene pool.
Coming up with good regulations for trout streams is even harder, as every river is different. In fact, different sections of one river may need different regulations, depending on many factors such as stream temperatures, availability of food, access for fishermen to the river, and a host of other reasons as well. Ideally, you would find fish of every size and age in any body of water, so that the big fish can produce more big fish, and they would eat the smaller fish, keeping those numbers down, leaving more food for the big fish to eat. That’s the way it works in nature, and it works pretty well until we come along and mess things up.
The final pieces of the release them all puzzle happened a couple of years later, after one of my annual spring fishing trips. I had 2 weeks of vacation each year, I took the first week of May and the last week of September off for my vacations every year back then. I had a great week fishing, starting out in the Pigeon River Country fishing for mostly trout, and an occasional steelhead still in the rivers that time of year. Then I headed over to the west side of the state to join up with Doug for some fishing in Lake Michigan, along with fishing for the last steelhead of the season in the rivers there. We did some trolling for Browns out of Leland, where Doug’s charter boat was based out of, even though we used a small boat rather than the 53 footer he skippered as a charter captain. I wasn’t about to pay the fuel bill for Doug to use his charter boat, and neither was he, even back in the 70’s. We caught a few nice browns that way and a couple of Lake Trout as a bonus, and caught even more Lake Trout one evening surf casting in Good Harbor Bay.
I am not a big fan of Lake Trout, they aren’t fighters like the rest of the trout family, but I’ll tell you, landing Lakers on a fly rod makes for much better sport than catching them while trolling with the heavy gear normally used in trolling. And actually, Lakers aren’t trout at all, they are from the Char family, same as Brook Trout, but I don’t hold that against Brook Trout, as you can’t pick your relatives. That’s not something you hear of, fly fishing for Lakers here in Michigan. But, early in the spring when the smelt are running, the Lakers will school up in the shallow water around river and stream mouths to feed on the smelt that are running up those streams to spawn. So it was that evening in May, Doug and I met up with some of his other friends from the area, and we managed to land quite a few Lakers that night. At the time, I had the goal of catching every species of game fish in Michigan on a fly rod, and adding Lakers to the list was something I am quite proud of. I don’t know of, and I have never heard of, any one else in Michigan catching Lakers on a fly rod. I think it is somewhat common in other parts of their range, I’m not even sure about that. But that was back when I still set goals in my fishing, which I no longer feel any need to do.
When I was fishing the Pigeon River Country that week, I released everything I caught, as I had no way to preserve fish since I was camping. Fishing with Doug, I could store fish in his freezer until I went back home. Besides, as a charter captain, Doug had the “keep them all” mindset of a charter captain since his clients wanted to keep everything they caught. We fried up a bunch of the Lakers we caught, and had a pretty good party that night, my last night of vacation before I went back home. In the morning, I packed all the fish I had kept while fishing with Doug in my cooler, and made a stop for some dry ice to keep them frozen until I did get back home.
As if an entire week of fishing wasn’t enough, I just had to stop off at Otter Creek on the way home to see if there were any steelhead left in it. There was, so of course I had to start fishing, and it wasn’t long before I hooked a nice male of about 6 pounds or so, in the first pool upstream from the mouth of the creek where it flowed into Lake Michigan. He made one quick dash around the pool, then headed back towards the lake, which was less than 50 yards from the pool. I was sure I would lose him if he made the lake, so I was putting all the pressure on him that I dared to, but he still managed to get into the lake itself, and then a life changing event happened, the fish died, right in the middle of the fight.
It happened quickly, one second he was pulling for all he was worth (literally I guess), and the next second there was only dead weight on the end of the line, and he floated slowly to the surface on his side. I pulled him in, lifted him clear of the water, and felt an overwhelming sadness as I watched the colors fading from his body.
It was something I had seen before, hundreds of times. Trout are the most beautiful of all fish as far as I am concerned, dead or alive, but their colors fade out when they die, turning from rich, vibrant hues of almost every color of the rainbow, to muted tones, nothing nearly as pretty as when they are alive. That has always saddened me, but not to the degree it did that day.
I was far enough along my catch and release journey to know that trout will fight to the point that they need to be “revived” before you release them, but I had never had one die in the middle of a fight before. One of the reasons trout are so popular as a game fish is their fighting ability, but it comes with a cost to them, they will fight to the point that they are exhausted, too tired to maintain the flow of water past their gills which they need to “breathe”. There had been many times when I had held trout in the current of some very cold water while they rested enough to be able to swim away on their own again, even ruined a couple watches doing that, to say nothing of the cold, numb fingers I had as a result of it.
So why did the death of one fish bother me so much? I guess because its death was an accident of sorts, I didn’t mean to kill him. I had been taught that you don’t kill unless it is for food, you hunt for the sport of hunting, you kill, pull the trigger, for food. If you don’t need the food, you don’t pull the trigger. I certainly didn’t need that fish for food, I had a cooler full already, to be added to what I already had in the freezer back home. As a matter of fact, I was up to my gills in fish, I was having a hard time finding people to take what I couldn’t eat myself. All my family, friends, and coworkers had their freezers full of fish that I had caught. If I had landed that fish, I would have released it.
As it was, I cleaned it, threw it in the cooler with his brothers, sisters, and cousins, and headed for home, wrestling with many questions as I drove. How many fish does one have to keep to prove they are a “good” fisherman? What is a good fisherman? Should I even continue to fish if I wasn’t going to keep any fish any more? Why do I fish? Was I being a complete idiot for even worrying about one fish? Why do I even care if others know I am a good fishermen or not? I guess I asked myself those questions before, and I continue to ask myself those same questions today, but in that moment, it was a big turning point for me, because in that same time frame, I was asking myself related questions about hunting.
The fall of that same year was the trip where I ran into violators everywhere I went when I was salmon fishing, as I wrote in my earlier blog, Big Fish Fever. One technique that the violators use to harvest salmon that I forgot to mention in that entry is a thing called culvert cleaning. Salmon, steelhead, all salmonids for that matter, prefer low light, they don’t like to be out in full sunshine. So they will often hold in the culverts under roads that streams and rivers flow through. The violators will position one or more people below the culverts with nets, then send a floating container with a few rocks in it and tied to a rope down through the culvert. As the container drifts through the culvert, if it doesn’t scare the fish out, they will shake the container by jerking on the rope, making noise as the rocks bang into each other, to make the fish leave the culvert. Then, the people with the nets will scoop the salmon up as they come out of the culvert. That was when I vowed never to go salmon or steelhead fishing in the rivers again, a vow which I managed to keep until a couple of years ago.
I was completely and thoroughly disgusted with “fishermen” at that point, and with fishing to a degree, but part of that was because of other things going on in my life. Things weren’t going well at my job, Spud and his wife, Chris, moved out of the area, and the real biggie, the woman I thought I was going to marry dumped me for her childhood sweetheart. Looking back, it was one of two really low points in my life, the other I will get to later. But then, I wanted my old life back, with Diane as my girlfriend, and Spud and I cracking jokes about how bad the weather was as we fished for steelhead on a cold and rainy March morning. But, I knew that none of that was going to happen, so I went the other way, and made as many changes in my life as I could, and I probably went too far.
I suppose you could say that was when I grew up, even though I was in my mid-twenties at the time. I decided that I no longer had anything to prove to anybody, not even myself. I gave up hunting, or I should say I gave up killing. I still hunt, but I take a camera with me now rather than a rifle or a shotgun. In fact, shooting pictures of game is far more of a challenge than shooting game with a gun. My dog liked it that way even more, since I wasn’t shooting rabbits, she got to run them longer, and if there was anything old Plugger liked to do more than breathe, it was to run rabbits.
I hardly went fishing at all, I did go with my dad a few times, but that didn’t go well. He was as bad as some of those guys on the pier. He was always asking how Spud and I caught so many fish, but he refused to give our way a try. One day when he asked me to go trolling with him out on the Big Lake, I consented, with one condition, he let me run the boat and control how we fished. He agreed, reluctantly, and about an hour after we started fishing, I got us on a school of coho jacks, running 3 to 5 pounds apiece. I was having a great time, those coho jacks fight better than when they grow up, and we caught more fish than my dad and I had ever caught before, or after, while fishing together. Of course he wanted to keep them all, but I told him if he kept them as 5 pounders this year, they wouldn’t be around as 20 pounders the next year, and beside, we both caught and released more than our limits any way. But my dad wasn’t happy, they weren’t big enough for him. So much for me running the boat, it was back to endless hours of catching nothing trying to catch the big ones.
That did nothing to help my outlook on hunting and fishing, or life in general. For the turn around in my life, you’ll have to wait for my next entry, coming soon to this very blog!