Business of Fishing

By Beacon Staff

I watch a bit of outdoor television. “MeatEater,” is a great show. “Trout TV,” which has roots in the Flathead, is fun to watch. There are a few others I’ll tune into from time to time, but many more I’m quick to turn off.

I channel surfed into the spectacle that big-time bass fishing has become the other day. It was a months old rebroadcast of the Bassmaster Classic in Tulsa, Okla. For the final weigh in, the top competitors rode into a rabid, bass-fan packed arena on the decks of their pricy boats, towed by top-of-the-line pickups.

The fishermen and their vehicles were covered by the logos of corporate sponsors. The bass crowd is apparently a desirable demographic, if the proliferation of advertising is any guide. The dudes lipped a couple of their biggest fish and stepped toward the scale. The spectacle included disco lights and fog machines that produced a fine mist that blanketed the stage.

Competitive bass fishing is a mash up of stock car racing and professional wrestling, shoehorned into the structure of the modern reality show. In this case, producers weren’t forced to contrive some unrealistic competition to propel along the dramatic narrative. The basic structure of prize money for catching the biggest fish was in place long before someone got the bright idea that weighing bass would make compelling television drama.

Bassmaster has unapologetically divorced fishing from its food gathering core. Fishing is, after all, hunting with hook and line rather than gun or bow. Our species has been at this for a long time. But this trend of fishing for fun, not food, is a recent evolutionary development.

Recently a conversation with an art professor colleague of mine turned to fishing, probably because I try turning all conversations to my favorite topic. We chatted a bit about my hobby, and I confessed to being almost entirely a catch-and-release guy. I’m not opposed to killing trout, I explained, but I really just enjoy the process of fishing, and sometimes catching. The cleaning and cooking, not so much.

The art prof, whose family story included a commercial fishing business, said she found my catch-and-release hobby baffling, probably as baffling as I find much of the modern art created by our students. We talked for awhile, not trying to convince one another who was right, but to just explain how we’d come to differing conclusions: hers, that fishing was for gathering food; mine, that fishing was a kind of psychological refuge, almost akin to transcendental meditation. I didn’t say that. I thought it afterward as I considered all the things I could have said to make myself sound smart.

The reality is that even the meditative world of fly fishing has become commercialized. Maybe not to the degree of competitive bass fishing, but fly fishing is big business.

If you’re silly enough to doubt that, stop by the launch ramp of any decent Montana trout river at about 8:30 a.m. any day from when the high water comes down in June until low water shuts things off in August. The ramp will be crowded with guides – I used to be one myself – and their sports preparing to catch the trout of their dreams. If you calculated the value of all the gear in a guide’s drift boat any given morning you might wonder if the money wouldn’t have been better spent making a down payment on a house.

You’d be right.

In one of those bizarro world alternative realities, I’m beginning to think those walking billboards at Bassmaster may be closer to the fundamental core of fishing than any of us hoity-toity fly anglers.

The dude who won in Tulsa picked up a check for $500,000. That’s a serious hunter-gatherer providing sustenance for his family.

You can put a lot of fish sticks on the table with that kind of cash.

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