To the best of my knowledge I’ve never broken a fish and game law. And I write it that way not because I have, yet hope to avoid a perjury charge in case this column is ever entered in as evidence if I find myself on trial for poaching, because it’s possible I might have inadvertently failed to pinch down a barb while fishing a water requiring it, or some other relatively minor mistake.
Like most hunters and anglers I pay attention to game laws and follow them. If I disagree with a regulation, I don’t consider breaking it a form of civil disobedience. If I don’t like a reg, my responsibility is to get it changed.
I did, however, participate in a form of angling civil disobedience once a few decades ago. Back in the 1980s I often fly fished on the Owens River in California’s Eastern Sierra.
Frustratingly, trout season on the Owens ran from April to October. But we all knew that large rainbow trout moved out of Crowley Lake into the river in the winter, staging for a trip upstream to spawn later that spring.
Unfortunately, the Eastern Sierra Trout Opener was considered sacrosanct by the business folks in the region. They didn’t want to do anything to weaken that iconic opening day event.
Then some renegade fly fisher reread the fishing regs and realized that while trout were out-of-season in winter, there was no closed season for perch and chubs, all of which occurred in the river. I suspect this fly fisher had a Treasure State connection and was familiar with Montana’s river whitefish season and how it allows trout anglers to extend their fun year round.
So one winter we all headed out to fly fish on the Owens before the season opened, releasing any trout we caught. And we caught a lot. My best day ever on the Owens was one of those late winter days, drifting blue-winged olives through trout filled runs.
Game and Fish had caught on to our scheme and a warden showed up to check for licenses. We were all legal and kept fishing.
The state later amended the regs and in the process opened up a handful of trout waters to off-season catch-and-release fishing. It remains extremely popular and has extended the profit-generating season for fly shops and associated businesses in the Eastern Sierra.
And while that might sound like a form of civil disobedience, it really wasn’t. We were instead being precisely obedient to the law, in a way that ultimately led to the law being changed. That all made sense for anglers, the business community and the resource as well.
If that’s the worst episode of previous outdoor “lawlessness” I can recall, then obviously I’ve never done something as unambiguously wrong as poaching game out-of-season, or without a proper license.
I know people who have, but I’m not talking about recent, reportable offenses. Instead, these are decades-old stories from folks who, in a different era, sometimes killed game beyond their limit or out of season, because if they hadn’t there wouldn’t have been food for their family to eat.
I’ve never faced a similar circumstance, but I’d like to think I’d be an efficient poacher if I had hungry babies at home, but nothing to feed them.
Most understand that impulse.
What’s impossible to understand is the rash of poaching cases popping up across Montana. These don’t seem to be poverty-driven instances either, as in most cases the game killed was left to rot in the field.
These poaching incidents instead seem to be simple acts of depravity from someone who gets a thrill killing. It’s simple cruelty and bloodlust.
It has to stop. The sooner these perpetrators are brought to justice, the better.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.