Catch and release is a difficult thing to explain to someone who has never thought about catching a fish with a deliberate plan to release it. Opposable thumbs and a three-pound brain have enabled us to invent spectacular and efficient ways to feed ourselves, and some people can’t understand why other people use those methods to play with their food.
I have fished for as long as I can remember, and during my formative years I never released a fish. I sometimes threw the small ones back—in the most literal sense of the expression—but I never released them. I learned to fish from my mom, and because she grew up poor during the Great Depression, a lake for her was like a grocery store for the people with money. It was a place to get some food.
One of my regrets as a father is that I haven’t fished more with my boys. This, I tell myself, is because the bugs usually bite more than the fish, because the gratification is rarely immediate, or because fishing is simply boring for them, but I know it is possible, and maybe even likely, that I just haven’t tried enough. Although I have tried.
When the boys were small I’d sometimes paddle them around their grandpa’s lake, and if the crappie or bluegill bite was on, they’d catch fish. If the bite wasn’t on, which happened often, they’d get bored and I’d let them paddle around in circles until they got tired, then I’d take them back to shore.
Sometimes I’d get the idea that they might like to fish the way I fished, so I’d invite them to some out-of-the-way spot. I once took Matthew to a place that held a seemingly endless supply of crappie, and he caught a fish on nearly every cast. With a focus and resolve for feeding the family that would have made my mom proud, he filled a bucket with enough fish to feed the two of us, his mother and his brother, and then we walked the mile back to the car. Maybe a mile each way was too long to hike for someone with short legs, or maybe the mosquitos bit him more than they bit me, or maybe a seemingly endless supply of crappie sometimes ends, but, for whatever reasons, we never went back.
We didn’t release any fish that day, mostly because releasing a fish that didn’t deserve to be thrown back was still outside my comfort zone. At some point, though, I noticed that many of the fly fishermen who I admired did something incredible when they caught a wonderful fish. They didn’t put it on a stringer or chain, they didn’t toss it in a cooler, they didn’t smack it over the head and put it in a creel. Instead, they handled it gently—or not at all—and let it swim back to where it came from. Simply put, they let it go for the sake of letting it go.
I remember the first time I tried that. I caught a trophy-sized largemouth bass while casting poppers on my wife’s family lake. Just like my heroes, I gently removed the popper from the great fish’s jaw, admired its color and size, and imagined the fish swimming back into the darkness to patrol its section of lily pads, chasing away pike and eating every bluegill that was stupid enough to drift into its territory. Then I took it back to the farmhouse and we ate it for dinner. The boys said it was delicious.
Eventually, though, I found peace with the idea of releasing a fish that I could otherwise take home to show off and eat, and now I release nearly every fish I catch, but I don’t resent the people who keep their fish. I’d prefer for them to leave the fish in the river for me to catch, but, if it’s legal for them to keep the fish, then the decision is theirs. And that’s the way I’ve tried to teach it to my boys.
One early summer evening when the boys were still small, I’d heard the walleye were biting on Portage Lake, so I talked them into an afternoon outing in our boat. I bought some night crawlers and we motored to what I believed were the most likely spots. The action was slow, of course, so I replaced their rigs with some Mr. Twisters and we headed to a place I knew would hold some smallmouth bass. Once I had them casting and retrieving over a rocky drop-off, I made a cast with my fly rod. The popper landed, the ripples settled, I gave it a twitch, and a smallmouth levitated from the bottom and engulfed my fly. The kids hollered and hooted every time the fish jumped, and when I landed the fish my oldest son Daniel lifted the lid to the live well and said “throw it in here.”
“I’m going to let this one go,” I said.
“Why? I want to eat that one,” Daniel said.
“Here’s the deal, guys. When someone catches a fish, they get to decide what to do with that fish. If it’s a legal fish and they want to keep it, then they can keep it. That’s their choice, not yours. Same thing if they want to release it. It’s their call.”
“But why don’t you want to keep it?” Daniel asked.
“Because I always let the smallmouth bass go. When I want to eat a fish, I go after the walleye.”
The boys cast a little more, but neither was able to bring up another smallmouth, so I turned on the electric motor and told them to let out some line and we’d troll along the drop-off and see if we could get something that way. About the time they had both lost interest, the line peeled off of Matthew’s reel and his rod bent hard from a snag or something.
The something was a pike that, at times, threatened to pull the little boy’s slight frame over the side of the boat. I’d adjusted his drag to a light setting, so it took him a long time to get the fish close. When he did, I netted the pike and removed the hook, and then Matthew said that he wanted to hold the fish. When his hands had a firm grip on the fish, his brother opened the live well and said “throw it in here.” Matthew walked away from the live well and toward the side of the boat where he lowered the fish as close to the water as he could and let it go.
“Matt, why did you let that fish go?” his brother asked.
“I don’t want a pike. I’m after walleye.”