I’m not oblivious to claims that my preferred style of fishing is rather odd. I fly fish, almost exclusively for trout, but that’s not the odd part.
The odd part is that I release almost every trout I catch. They number in the hundreds, maybe more than a thousand, though there were the drought years when the twins were young so I doubt I’m there yet. Regardless, I bet I could count the number of trout I’ve killed since I started fly fishing in the early 1980s on one hand, and have fingers left over.
I was in my early 20s when I learned to fly fish. I was mostly self-taught, but magazine articles, videos and the mentorship of a handful of local fly fishing club members helped out. Like many of you, I was largely full of doo doo when I was that age. The rational world was largely defined as things I believed. Everything else was nuts. And to a degree, I still think that way. It’s just that now I realize the rest of the world isn’t simply dithering about, lacking only the needed moment of insight so they could start “getting it” as well.
I realize now everyone is waiting for everyone else’s aha moment, and in the meantime it’s important we all figure a way to get along despite differing perspectives.
What’s that got to do with catch-and-release? Well, when I adopted this approach, I assumed the light bulb would soon blink into illumination as everyone saw the light.
When it comes to releasing trout, most folks largely have. It’s not that they’re all following me, though I’d like to think I swayed a few over the years. And catch-and-release has become fly fishing orthodoxy. There’s an entire Montana fly fishing industry that relies largely on this ethic to maintain its sustainability. There are so many people fly fishing Montana rivers these days that if we were still judging our success by the weight of a stringer at the end of a float, those rivers would be largely fishless.
But we’ve reached the point where folks who want to catch and kill an occasional trout are considered politically incorrect, shunned for simply taking the blood sport of fishing to its logical, and in many instances, entirely appropriate conclusion.
After the 30-plus years that followed the catch-and-release revolution, I found it refreshing to hang out and fish with the Trout Slayer this summer. Where my impulse is always release first, Slayer has a more complicated point of view. His first impulse is “Can I eat this fish?” followed by “How should I cook it?”
That was his approach in late spring. We were on the Yellowstone River, targeting predatory channel catfish. River cats can be another breed altogether. These fish aren’t the bottom feeders of yore.
We fished cut bait in eddies and slack water where creeks joined the river from the south. The river and creeks were all on the rise, however, due to recent rain. Wherever those big cats were, they weren’t bothering our drifts.
But goldeyes were. I knew nothing of these shad-like fish before I hauled the first of the day to the bank. That goldeye went in the bucket, intended for cut bait. Then we caught another, and another. The catfish were ignoring us, but the Trout Slayer recalled an old recipe for smoked goldeye he wanted to try, and suddenly our fishing expedition had a new purpose.
My family’s photo albums are filled with my ancestors holding up stringers of trout. That tradition largely came to an end with my generation. The photos now are of soon-to-be-released trout.
I’ve grown to treasure those old photos, as well as those trip-salvaging goldeyes. Sometimes you just need to eat a fish.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.