Life, Death, and Catch & Release

Wherein an experienced and erudite fisherman shares his wisdom from over 60 years on the water, which is essentially this: lose the attitude, pal, and eat a damn fish once in a while.

Let me begin by assuring the wary and seasoned fisherman that I do not intend to insult anyone’s intelligence by presuming to add my secret release techniques to those that can be found on most of the 57,000 websites now available. Nor will I lament the fate of the fish with missing eyes and deformed maxillaries, scarred from being caught and released repeatedly. What I wish to share with my fellow outdoor enthusiasts is the wisdom I’ve passed on to several generations of young men and women I’ve taught to fish, including my own children.

Hunting and fishing are, and have always been, the activities of predators. Wild animals aside, our own genetic history can be traced back to those first hominid carnivores who crossed continents in search of game animals, which they came to regard as kin and sacred totems. This activity constitutes the behavioral pattern of predation, which is accompanied by a heightened state of awareness—a keen agitation caused by the release of neurotransmitters in the autonomic nervous system. This same state animates both predator and prey. Although we are technically omnivores, I doubt that our forbearers became intensely excited about finding wild asparagus or experienced an adrenaline rush upon encountering a nice patch of mushrooms. In short, if you hunt and fish—no matter how elegant your gear or how poetic the language you use to describe the experience—you are engaging in a behavior of predation.

Hunting and fishing are, and have always been, the activites of predators.

I’ve known many violators who plundered prey, and I must confess to having been addicted to this same ferocious rush some 60 years ago when I was a boy in northern Wisconsin. Monster muskies were my prey; I hunted them in vast weed beds with hardwood crank baits, bucktails, and big sucker minnows. I sold the largest to owners of local bars where musky guides and tourist fishermen congregated after a day of musky hunting. They were sold “under the counter” to unsuccessful clients so they could have trophies to hang in their dens in the Chicago suburbs.

   fishing catch and release outside bozeman

The worst case of plundering I know of was a few years ago in Alaska, when a fellow snagged 40 reds and shot the same amount with a pistol. He was headed home with his pickup full of salmon when he was arrested. His only defense was, “I couldn’t help myself.” The second-worst case of frenzied fish-killing happened several years ago at Canyon Ferry. I was near the mouth of Confederate Creek, casting streamers for big rainbows staging for their spawning run. I watched a warden arrest a group of boys who were wading up the creek, wildly whacking rainbows with baseball bats and stuffing the dead fish in gunnysacks.

Poaching is an unconstrained, exaggerated form of the same pleasurable rush of emotion that motivates every seeker of prey.

This outrageous behavior is an unconstrained, exaggerated form of the same pleasurable rush of emotion that motivates every seeker of prey. Again, this pleasure derives from the arousal of the sympathetic portion of the autonomic nervous system, resulting in an intense state of alertness, increased heart rate, rise in blood pressure, and increased blood flow to the muscles. Hunting, sex, flight, and fear all engage the autonomic nervous system and threaten to put us on auto-pilot—unless we impose some rational control. It is a definite high, which can become addictive. If left unchecked, and combined with the arrogance of men of little substance and narrow experience, it can result in the abuse of all the fish and game in creation—much like it did in Montana at the turn of the 20th century, before modern fishing and hunting laws were enacted.

I’ve fished with two species of anglers. One is the anthropoid-ape bait fishermen who are very up-front about the rush they experience in the encounter with their prey. For them, the adrenaline is as addictive as crack cocaine. The other species, the fly fishermen, represent the true, modern hominids who are more highly evolved. They have acquired more finely developed linguistic skills, and have fashioned a system of communication about fishing so complex that it raises to utter perfection the notion of fishing as a metaphor for the metaphysical. This refined fisherman presents the enterprise in a philosophic context where fishing becomes an altruistic endeavor of man imitating nature and beholding the universe itself in “every refractive glide of water,” as Tom McGuane has written somewhere. No one in this class of fishermen would admit to any motivation related to baser instincts. However, when they feel the electric jolt of a trophy fish surge through their wrist, they are as transported by the experience as a drug addict. This is not a casual comparison. A neuroscientist colleague of mine assures me that cocaine and adrenaline stimulate the same neurotransmitters.

fishing catch and release outside bozeman

Both the bait fishermen and the fly fishermen talk of “fighting” the fish and coincide in their concern about size. Have a conversation in a fly shop with the young guides sporting shop-logo caps, quick-dry pants, and lightweight, high-tech fisher shirts, and you’ll discover they’re just as addicted to the excitement of the hunt as the Alaskan who filled his truck with salmon. They talk casually of catching 30 and 40 fish as if the whole point is to prove one’s prowess in terms of numbers and size. The standard graphic in brochures depicts a grinning fisherman holding a trophy fish by the tail with the other hand gently cradling its belly, the fisherman poised to release the fish to the pristine environment from whence it came. Were the camera to zoom in for a close-up, we might see the deformities caused by previous catches and releases. But this seldom happens—closer scrutiny could reveal that this exploitation of another species for ego, fun, and profit is not such an innocent enterprise.

When it comes to the recounting of the moment of truth in the hunt for fish, all fishermen speak with the same animation as the plundering violators. Regardless of which species of predator one might be, the successful act of predation is accompanied by the same visceral sense of energy we’ve inherited genetically from our hunter-gatherer forbears. The only difference between a fish wounded by a hook and an animal wounded by an errant arrow or bullet is that the former is released by the hunter and the latter is left to escape on its own.

The fishing industry goes to great lengths to prove that fish do not feel the pain felt by the mammals we hunt, though they are both injured by our acts of predation. In both cases the prey brings to bear all of its physiological resources upon the goal of escaping. The levels of plasma cortisol and lactate become as dangerously elevated in fish as they do in humans under severe physical stress. It’s a dramatic death struggle with potentially fatal consequences, even after the trophy is released to the pristine waters of the brochure.

To put the catch-and-release experience in perspective, imagine sprinting around a quarter-mile track straining against a hook embedded in your jaw, then being wrenched underwater and held there for 30 seconds. The gentlest release back to the surface would hardly negate the trauma of the overall event.

I recommend we release fish with a ritual sense of reverence, recognizing that we too shall become deceived by the clever artifices of the world and struggle to regain our lives. 

Unlike hunting, fishing enacts no ritual recognition of the parallels between the human and animal worlds. The congratulatory high-fives, the posing and picture-taking take precedence over the actual release of the fish. It is merely released carefully so it may be caught again. A ritual, however, is an act that renews and strengthens our beliefs in the order of the natural world. The remarkable behavior we engage in when we hunt wild places prefigures our own sense of where we fit in the natural order of the universe. Casually tossing a fish back into the water and immediately seeking the next—perhaps in a string of 20-25 for the day—fails to address these ideas in any meaningful way.

When releasing a fish, I suggest a fisherman feel in the pulse of the fish his own pulse. The myths of preliterate peoples reflect the oneness of the fate of man and animal. I recommend we do the same and release fish with a ritual sense of reverence, recognizing that we too shall become deceived by the clever artifices of the world and struggle to regain our lives.

This is the contextual framework in which I hunt and fish and practice the techniques of catch-and-release. It is also the perspective that shapes the advice I give to young people who would become fishermen. Fishing is not frivolous sport, not a flippant act of mere harassment. Rather, it is a way of bringing ourselves into harmony with the nature of our universe—and it begins with recognizing our role in the drama of predator and prey.

Do this: take one good fish from each stretch of water, recognizing the predatory impulse motivating your behavior. Come to grips with the essence of the hunt and learn how to quickly and mercifully kill the fish you have stalked. Understand the physiology of your quarry and acquire the skills to make the precise strokes of the knife that releases flesh from bone. Learn how to care for the flesh in the field and how to prepare the meat for the ritual act of consumption.

Claude Levi-Strauss has observed in The Raw and the Cooked that in the native mythologies of the New World, culinary operations are mediatory rituals between life and death, as well as between nature and society. It is this act of consumption that binds you with the drama of life and death implicit in your act of predation. Hunting and fishing take place in a natural environment governed by dynamic and complex forces—more enduring and constant than the brief span of our passing.

I have no patience with so-called fishermen who would not deign to consume an occasional fish. In refusing to do so, they deny the very nature of their act and convert the life-and-death struggle of their prey into mere sport for their shallow pleasure.

Do not abuse your quarry by becoming so addicted to the physical thrill of the hunt or so driven by your natural inclination toward hubris that you boast of the 40 fish you released. Remember that all 40 have been wounded and struggled to be free, as you will one day. Remember too that some will die from the trauma in spite of having been posed with for trophy photos.

If you truly grasp the meaning of your stratagems for stalking fish, you will admit to the hunter in you and grant a deserved dignity to your prey rather than treat it as a meretricious trophy for your pleasure and profit. This is not behavior worthy of any species in the long and complex chain of predation. Thus I end my advice and submit the wisdom of these reflections to the judgment of the fair-minded readers who wander rivers in search of the meaning of their lives.

Jack Jelinski is a Professor Emeritus at Montana State University.