Piscatorial theology


My father was raised on a farm on the shore of Montana’s Flathead Lake at the turn of the last century. The local rivers were all trout streams then, teeming with salmon, cutthroat and rainbow. For Dad, fly-fishing was more than a passion — it was a religion, one that lasted all his life. My father shared the same reverence that Norman Maclean expressed in A River Runs Through It. He worshiped at the altar of Isaak Walton; The Compleat Angler was his bible.

Dad approached fishing with the solemnity of a primitive priest selecting a vestal virgin for sacrifice. He wore classic vestments: sweat-stained fedora, faded flannel shirt, canvas trousers suspended from wide yellow “braces,” and hip-high rubber waders. The sacraments had to be performed with an artificial fly — bait fishing was an abomination — and the hook had to be set gently so the fish was not injured.

And it was not just any fish Dad sought. I often watched him pass up schools of fish that surfaced like a sprinkle of raindrops, searching for that special trout he wanted to take. Only then would he artfully drop a fly on his choice, usually getting a strike.

Dad taught me how to remove a hook from a fish that he planned to release: always underwater, using only fingers, never pliers, and gently moving the fish back and forth to revive it before release. Fish to be kept must be killed immediately, not tossed into a bucket to slowly die. Dad taught me to clean the fish, to pack wet grass into the body cavity and around the fish so it would cool, and to gently place it in a wicker creel. All of this baptismal instruction was in the service of one supreme gospel truth: Fish only for food, never for trophies, never for sport. The greatest sin was to cause hurt or waste, or to seek amusement at the expense of God’s creatures.

I treasured my father’s first fishing rod, given to him on his sixth birthday in 1902 and passed to me on my sixth birthday 32 years later. It was metal, with three collapsing sections and an open-faced wooden spool. A simple outfit, sturdy and effective. Dad used that rig until 1912, when he won a bamboo fly rod for writing an essay in support of Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose candidacy.

I remember that bamboo rod well. Each winter, Dad scraped the varnish and silk thread off each section, re-cemented the fittings, then rewound the silk wrapping. I held a spool of thread while Dad turned the rod in his fingers, creating a narrow band of colorful silk. He then chose a different color, and continued wrapping until the entire rod was alive with red, green, yellow and blue silk. Six coats of varnish sealed all this color, and the rod was ready for spring. When he wasn’t working on his fly rod, Dad spent hours tying flies from bits of feather, fur and thread; or making leaders from spools of catgut; or gluing patches on his rubber waders. These memories come to mind whenever I watch fishermen today. My balcony overhangs the Kootenai River. The “blue ribbon” Kootenai draws anglers from around the world. The world-record rainbow — a 33-pounder — was taken 15 miles upstream from my home in Libby, Mont., seven years ago. If the fishermen are skillful I enjoy watching them, but it is easy to spot the heretics who come to defile my father’s sanctuary.

Infidels come decked out in $100 fishing hats, $200 shirts and $400 waders, proudly displaying designer labels. They slap the water with custom graphite rods costing a thousand dollars and use titanium reels costing the same. They slip and stumble and nearly drown when their chest-high waders fill with water. And they fish in all the wrong places, artlessly flinging expensive flies into sunlit eddies on hot afternoons when fish rest in cool shadows.

These dilettantes fish for sport, not food, and their “politically correct” sport amounts to torturing fish. They kill nearly every fish they hook. When a fish bites, these tyros rear back on their poles, tearing away parts of their quarry’s jaw and lip.

If they accidentally land a fish, they jerk it onto a gravel bar and let it flop around on the hot rocks while they grope through Velcro-flapped pockets in search of the latest Abercrombie & Fitch gadget for removing a fish hook. They finally rip the hook loose and fling the fish into the river on the theory that the shock will revive it. The dying fish floats downstream belly-up until found by an eagle or osprey.

In 1981, Dad came for a visit — his last. He was 85 that year and too infirm to fish. We sat on the balcony and watched a New Jersey motorhome park on the riverbank. Three intrepid sportsmen donned the latest fishing fashions and waded out to a gravel bar. We watched as they hooked and threw several good-sized trout back into the river.

Finally Dad asked, “What are they doing? Why are they wasting those trout?”

“They call it catch and release,” I said. “They don’t want to eat them; they think fishing is sport. They think they are saving fish.” Dad watched for a few minutes. “But they are hurting them. ... They are torturing them. ... If I did that, my father would have horsewhipped me.”

So would mine, I thought.

He blew his nose furiously, wiped a tear from his cheek, and went inside.

The author is emeritus professor of theatre at Eastern Washington University.

Jun 09, 2007 08:58 AM

While Irle White is certainly entitled to his view that catch and release fly fishing for sport is morally wrong because it "tortures" and "hurts" fish, he is ridiculously wrong in his belief that it is far more morally correct to catch them, kill them, and eat them. He is certainly free to malign the yuppies with their expensive stream gear, and I side with him as he laments their lack of care in the proper handling of fish. But to assume a self-righteous attitude in favor of "catch and kill" is repugnant. The trout in the Rockies would quickly be exterminated if his view prevailed. Moreover, the sportsmen he disdains are the backbone of watershed conservation support, championing clean water and adequate streamflow for all freshwater aquatic life. Trout Unlimited is in the absolute forefront of practically every conservation battle. While Mr. White may not appreciate the sporting aspect of "torturing" fish, I would argue that a long heritage of American sportsmen dating back to Teddy Roosevelt is the sole reason why Americans have the public lands and wildlife habitat that remain today. Mr. White's weepy sentimentality over the good old days of his father's fishing ethic to kill and eat his catch, which he still shares, is a relic of the same era when bison roamed the plains by the millions. They certainly weren't caught and released, were they?

Jun 11, 2007 11:55 PM

I don't think White called ALL catch and release fishing torture, KM, but rather that which is improperly done. I think you misunderstood him.

Jul 02, 2007 11:39 AM

I applaud Irle White for this beautifully-written piece. I am not a fisherman, nor am I a hunter, but I am not against the practice, so long as the fish or game population remains healthy. I also acknowlege the fact that America would have far fewer wild rivers and streams, and far less wildlife habitat, were it not for the millions of dollars generated by hunters and fishermen over the last century.

Anyone who hunts or fishes should consider it a privilege, and most do. It is also a skill, and should be taught and learned correctly. You don't shoot up a deer with a machine gun, (like that idiot from SFW who riddled four coyotes with a spray of bullets from his AR-15) you drop it with one rifle shot, after learning how to stalk and shoot properly. In the same way, people who fish should learn how to safely catch and release their quarry--it's not too much to ask.

Aug 05, 2007 09:51 AM

Socratic, please re-read the piece. The author plainly states that fishing for sport is a sin and catch and release is torture.

Oct 12, 2007 04:47 PM

With all due respect Mr. White, this is some seriously sanctimonious drivel you've produced. I wonder how you can so cleanly slice lines between fishing for sport ("amusement") and fishing for food? Your world is apparently a very black and White one (pun fully intended).

Tell me, when fishing, did your father ever actually enjoy what he was doing? Or was he taking it all so seriously that there was no room for enjoyment? My hunch is that even when he was fishing strictly for food, your father probably greatly enjoyed what he was doing - the selection of just the right deception from his fly box, the placement of it on the water, the take, the fight - in other words he was enjoying the sport of it, Mr White, at the very same time that he was intending to keep his catch and reverently consume it. And conversely, if a person enjoys all these aspects of the sport and elects not to kill his catch, does that make him wrong, simply because he let the fish go? As you mention in your article, your father taught you how to do it correctly (well, except for the part about moving the fish back and forth in the water...), so he must have been able to see that "sport" can be acceptable, no?

To your credit, I fully agree that there are anglers who probably could fish with a greater reverence and respect for what they are doing, but this was just as true 100 years ago in the nostalgic time you so fondly reminisce about as it is today. But this is not to lump every modern day catch and release angler into the heathen fish torturer club. Take a step outside your nostalgia and your black-and-white, simplistic judgements and you might find common ground with a great number of others you so easily and tidily write off, Mr,. White.


 - Bruce M. Smithhammer