The Magazine

Impaler of Fish

Jun 11, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 37 • By MATT LABASH
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In our over-eroticized culture, it is common to hear people rate their enthusiasms by saying they are "better than sex." I reluctantly volunteer that information about fly fishing. For I like "spawning" as much as any non-fisherman--more even. But unlike fly fishing, it's a hard activity to perform outdoors for 12 hours straight without the police getting involved.

Like most fly-rodders, I religiously practice catch-and-release. I don't kill fish not only because I like them, but because eating them would mean fishing had a point. And the very point to me of fishing is its pointlessness. Unless the point, if there must be one, is catching fish.

Mind you, I'm not some precious trout teapot, who thinks I'm only fishing if I'm standing in some pristine freestone stream chasing finicky rainbows and browns. I like fishing too much to discriminate. I keep a rod and waders in the car to fish whenever it's appropriate, and even when it's not. In addition to rivers and lakes, I'll fish cemetery ponds, strip-mall retention basins, and have even dodged errant drives at golf course water hazards.

If there's water with fish in it, I'll try to catch them. And when I do, I release them to get caught again, or to carry on with their lives (they probably prefer the latter). There's a natural condescension, of course, that catch-and-release fishermen feel for their low-sloping forehead, meat-bucket-filling brothers, who show up to the local fishing hole, disgracing fish by catching them on PowerBait that looks like pink gumballs (a food not found in nature). More egregiously, they are keeping my fun. If we were playing basketball together, I wouldn't pop the ball at the end of the game. Or, to put it in terms they'd better understand, if we were watching NASCAR together, I wouldn't put their big-screen TV in my trunk at the end of the Dodge Avenger 500. If they're that hungry, I like to tell them, then go down to the Waffle House when they're done fishing.

There's a reverse elitism too, however, practiced by the meat-bucket mafia, perhaps best exemplified by the writer John McPhee, an avid shad fisherman. In his otherwise excellent book The Founding Fish, he dedicates a whole chapter to the bent logic of catch-and-release fishing. Without the consummatory act of eating the fish, the thinking goes, you are merely torturing it, causing it pain for no reason other than your sadistic pleasure, making the act of fishing, as they say, a jerk on one end of the line waiting for a jerk on the other.

There is something nearly poetic about holding a wild creature for a moment, only to let it go (you can't do that with a bear). But it is true that no matter how conscientious a fisherman you are--how fast you are on the set to make sure fish don't swallow hooks, how gently you cradle them on the release--you are, at bottom, impaling fish in the mouth for fun. You can deny it if you prefer (I do, since I believe our capacity for self-deception is what separates us from the animals), but that's what's being done. That said, McPhee might go easier on the self-congratulation since I suspect if the fish got a vote, it'd much rather be returned to its friends and family with a lip piercing, than be basted in herb butter, covered in breadcrumbs, and served on a bed of risotto.

But what animal-rights types always miss in these debates is the fish themselves. They are not blameless. The reason I catch fish isn't that I'm such a smart guy. It's that I'm satisfying their own blood lust. Every time they rise to smite my Black Gnat or viciously hit my Clouser Minnow, they are committing an act of cold-blooded life-taking. Or at least they think they are. The fact that the gnat isn't real doesn't matter. When Dateline NBC does child predator stings, the gentlemen who walk through the door with six-packs of Mike's Hard Lemonade and love's pure light in their eye don't actually get to have relations with 12-year-olds, but they go to jail nonetheless.

I like to think I perform a similar function. I don't call myself a hero--that's for others to decide. Still, I can't help but feel I'm less an impaler of fish, than a valiant defender of the Black Gnat. I'm stopping those murderous bluegill, bloodthirsty bass, and homicidal trout before they kill again. Actually, I'm just letting them off with a warning in the hope of rehabilitating them. Perhaps they will learn from their mistakes, and take up more peaceable, civilized pastimes, such as eating phytoplankton, or catch-and-release fishing.