Catch, Release, and Fishing Pharisees

[In the book, the following contemplation picks up from a preceding conversation with Moon]

I thought about Moon's former comment concerning catch-and-release. That's what I call, promotin' 'em. But I realize some people are hungry and can use 'em. Me too, sometimes.

I realized something considerable, something more than popular views of catch-and-release was in play. Moon’s view of catch-and-release is nuanced depending upon his own immediate circumstances and the circumstances of others around him, some of whom, might be hungry.

Moon has always admired and respected every fish caught, a prize to be utilized in the best way possible. Over the years, poor and elderly received Moon’s ‘fish-gifts’ like packages from St. Nick on Christmas morning. The gifts spread general good cheer and helped hungry people eat. Moon’s fileted fish always came special delivery wrapped in a story about generally where and how they were caught.

I attribute my view of catch-and-release to Moon’s lessons and example over the years. Early on Moon taught me the importance of conservation. When we fished smaller ponds or lakes and happened to be doing particularly well, he always said, “Shane, we need to leave some of these fish for seed.” If he wasn’t going to eat the fish himself or give them to someone, he put them back. Moon has released more fish than most fishermen have caught. Many more.

When I was little and before I could understand, I strongly objected to releasing any. Why would anyone go to all the trouble, experience the mystery and thrill of pulling a fish from the water, only to put it back? Throwing any back seemed nonsensical, a violation of basic common sense. No amount of reasoning, explanations or conventional wisdom worked with me about why we should release a single one. “We need to put some back so they can make babies so there will always be lots of fish.”

Wailing, crying and stomping to strengthen my argument, “There are already lots of fish, let the ones we haven’t caught make the babies!” Moon consoled me by personifying the fish and giving it a name.

This here is George. Shane, say hello to George. See he’s a boy, this is how you can tell. We are going to clip a little bit of George’s pectoral fin so we will recognize him the next time we catch him. Then we can congratulate George on how big he’s grown. Say goodbye to George."

“Bye, George.”

“Let’s see if we can catch another one and name it Fred or Susan”.


So, sometimes we kept a few, sometimes we kept more than a few and sometimes we didn’t keep any at all. As a result, at an early age, I developed a healthy skepticism for catch-and-release purists. Maybe a bit harsh, but I refer to them as fishing Pharisees. Tighten your waders, the water is about to get deep and murky!

Howell Rains, former executive director of The New York Times, is a passionate advocate of total catch-and-release. I love his book, Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis but in it he speaks of ‘fish hauls’, ‘fish-killers, and ‘the redneck way’. According to Howell's description Moon is a fish killer, a hopeless disciple of the redneck way. But I call Moon's philosophy of catch-and-release "the modified redneck way." Moon has always provided fish for the many poor and elderly living in and around Ackerman, who could not otherwise provide the tasty morsels for themselves. It can be argued fish and other forms of wild game still hold important significance as primary food sources for the nation’s rural poor. It's easy to toss them back and chalk it up to conservation if you know that evening you will be dining on whatever you please.

Howell also explores the relationship between ‘fish-killing’ and social class. In 1986, The New York Times sent him to London to do a story on fly-fishing. Howell says, deeply rooted in the British class system is the difference between the ‘remorseless fish killer’, actually referred to as ‘redneck’, and the affluent, who he refers to as ‘Tweedy Gents’. In London, Raines was shocked when he watched a Tweedy Gent kill a fish and put it in his creel. For Howell, a class inversion had taken place right before his eyes.

To be fair, Howell Raines remains staunchly consistent in his advocacy of total catch-and-release and denunciation of the redneck way. I like people who stick to their convictions. However, according to his description, keeping just one fish puts you on the stringer with all advocates of the redneck way. The spiritually enlightened throw ’em back, every single one. The Tweedy gents should know better, the doubly predestined redneck poachers, hopeless. With a little more catch-and-release-gospel, it should be possible for the Tweedy Gent to climb Jacob’s ladder to the heaven of the spiritually enlightened. Like a nuclear winter, if we turn the poachers loose, we’d have no more fish. The enlightened need to preserve as much habitat and fish as possible to protect fish populations from the unwashed hordes of barbaric poachers.

I have to say, if keeping just one fish places me in the social cast with the 'poachers of the British Isles' so be it. My choices are limited. Should good sport fishing only be available to the privileged and spiritually enlightened with the finest gear who control access to private streams and lakes? Do they own all God’s water and all God’s fish? By what right do they? Is North America truly the home of the free and the brave or the land of freedom and posted signs for the privileged? Are the privileged really preserving the land and fish for future generations, or hoarding both for themselves? I do know one thing, total catch-and-release isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The White Pelican

The White Pelican is a magnificent, protected bird. A mature adult stands four feet tall with a nine-foot wingspan! Like manmade gliders, the beautiful white birds soar in formation on warm wind currents as high as 10,000 feet above the earth. Magnificent, beautiful, awe-inspiring, but the White Pelican consumes an average of four pounds of fish per day during a lifespan that can reach thirty years. If a pelican’s fishing remains consistent, one pelican consumes 43,800 lbs. or twenty-two tons of fish in a lifetime!

Put another way, if every fish averaged a half pound, they ingest 87,600 fish before they go the way of all the earth and they absolutely love trout! White Pelicans go fishing every single day and there are many more pelicans than anglers. Suppose the average angler keeps 20 two-pound fish per year. Over the same thirty years, the fish killer would harvest and consume 1,200 lbs. of fish, slightly more than a half ton.

Who are the advocates of total catch-and-release kidding, themselves or the pelicans? Who’s more important, people or the damned pelicans? We better all get out there before the pelicans get all the fish and there’s none left to release.

Is there another way? A way between fish killing and thoughtful conservation? Might there be ‘red-neck’ conservationists in the world who abide by limits and care for public lands and healthy fish populations, a determined medium between private land ownership and public land access for the common man? And what about Lige Weaver who just needed something to eat? [Not readily understood without reading the book!]

The Miracle Mile

Several years ago, I went fly fishing with a good friend to the famed Miracle Mile on the North Platte River in Wyoming. We left Denver early, stopped off at the West Laramie Fly Shop to get licenses, the latest fishing report, a bacon and egg biscuit, and to add a few hot patterns to our arsenal.

That day the fish were big and hungry. We landed fish after fish--rainbows, cutthroats and browns. Finally, I pulled an evil stringer from a pocket in my fly vest and tied a healthy specimen to my side. My fishing friend looked at me like I’d just brazenly broken one of the fishing ten commandments. When I kept the second one, he looked at me like I’d murdered his mother. I wanted to preach a fiery sermon, but I knew it’d be pointless, so I reluctantly joined the ranks of the “catch-and-don’t release-all-of-them” outcasts. I carefully packed my two beautiful trout on ice in my small zip topped cooler.

Hungry, headed back to Denver, we stopped off at a good restaurant. We scanned the menu, my tweedy clad friend ordered the cedar plank grilled salmon, as my two hefty trout slumbered in their cold grave in the trunk of the car. When the waiter placed the steaming salmon in front of him, I thought, “Someone somewhere had to kill this fish and it was probably raised in a pen and fed tainted feed, laced with hormones. It made me wonder if growing numbers of people don’t even realize where food comes from in the first place. Even vegans eat plants that must die for the vegan to live. I told you it was deep murky water!

As I munched on my mushroom and swiss burger, my poor friend, proud as peacock to be a card-carrying member of the catch-and-release crowd, oohed and aahed about how tasty his store purchased salmon was. The dining experience was nice, but I wondered if my friend would even know what to do if he ever decided to ‘kill’ a fish. Maybe with available technology, one day we might figure out how to mix up some chemicals with the essential amino acids, vacuum seal the mixture and scarf it down on the run. I suppose we could save trees because we’d no longer need dining tables or china cabinets. How many people spend time planning an exquisite meal, carefully placing their best tableware, considering appropriate beverages, creating the perfect mood, seat their guests and then just sit there and stare at the food? Not one guest ever ventures a sip of wine or bite of the delectable food. Then the host announces, “Let’s go out for dinner.” That’d be grossly unnatural, halting a natural sacramental process meant for consummation.

I had plans for my fish. I was going to honor God’s fish, and them me, by participating in what they were designed to do in the first place.


Furthermore, ‘fish-hauls’ are always seasonal. No matter how hard you work to catch fish, there are cyclical days of feast and famine built into the very patterns of the moon.

In Braiding Sweet Grass, Robin Wall Kimmerer eloquently describes the production cycle of pecans and hickory nuts. An accomplished forest and environmental biologist, Kimmerer understands the boom-and-bust cycle of pecans and hickories known as mast fruiting. Robin’s native fore-bearers learned the cyclical pattern, gained the wisdom, and stored the nuts that sustained them for generations through boom and bust.

Nature, food shortages and hunger have ways of teaching lessons that abundance can’t provide. ‘Fish-hauls’ are seasonal, and we have the technology, it’s called refrigeration, to preserve some of the catch for winter days when no man ‘fisheth’, except Minnesotans. I tend to have a more epiphanic experience dining on a fish in January that I pulled from the water in July than one I bought in the frozen food section at the local grocery store. Why? I’m closer to the actual living and dying of the fish I caught, touched, admired and sacrificed than the one I purchased from the shelf at Kroger. I’m many steps removed from the living and dying of the Kroger fish. One fish is cloaked in mystery and helps me better understand my hallowed place in God’s universe, the other not so much. In case you’re wondering, I do sometimes buy Tilapia, raised somewhere in a pen in Indonesia from a frosty ben at the local Safeway and it tastes good, but it’s not the same. Something feels right about acknowledging I’m a dependent creature of the fertile earth, the sacramental nature of all things, the large scale dying in order to live. From where does my bread originate in the first place?

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When I first penned Moon and Sunn I included a truck load of chapter endnotes. I felt I needed to verify just about every historical detail of the entire book! After endless research editor Bobby Ha