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.

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