Monday, November 10, 2008

My first trout on a fly in 10 years

I went up to the Nissitissit River today to do a spot of fly fishing.  It was a perfect fall day, maybe a little late in the year for indian summer but very nice nonetheless, in the low fifties with a modest breeze and a cool, bright sun staggered with erratic racks of clouds.  After I entered the woods I couldn't quite decide whether to leave my sunglasses on or off, and so they went on, then off, then on, then off throughout the morning.  The water was clear and low for the most part, showing the muted colors of the stream bed: golden, quavering yellow beds of sand, flinty gray outcrops of rock, dark green trailing beds of aquatic plants and clear brown water stained of a million decaying leaves.  

I fished a stretch that winds through a Massachusetts  wildlife management area, and though it was far from any reasonable standard of wilderness, once I was on the water I saw nobody else, I heard no cars, I heard no planes.  Which was nice, especially as it had been awhile since I fly-fished a river for trout, and being a self-conscious sort of person I appreciated the seclusion to practice my art.  I was rusty, definitely, having trouble with my back-cast snagging in the omnipresent overhanging branches, losing track of my slack line pooling at my knees, throwing knots amidst my fly, weight and strike indicator, fumbling with knots, dragging my nymph unnaturally through the water, making unnecessary false casts over skittish fish; you get the picture.  But it was very pleasant and peaceful despite several moments of frustration.  

I even caught something.  I fully expected to get shut out, but after about an hour I fished up through a short stretch of pocket water and hooked a beautiful, 14 inch brown trout.  It took a size 14 beadhead squirrel-tail nymph, a nifty little fly.  It jumped several times, coming downstream, almost running through my legs as I frantically tried to strip in the excess line, but somehow the hook stuck firm and I recovered to quickly pull it into my hands.  I let it go after a second or two of appreciation for its beauty (this was a catch-and-release only stretch of river).  

There is a powerful spell in fishing. Being out on the water, amidst nature, near to something as unknowable and mysterious as this underwater world, an ecology apart, yet engaged with the activity of knowing something of this place, confronting it, interacting with it, is a deeply rewarding activity that prods at many parts of our psyches (for some of us, at least; I know plenty of people endlessly bored by fishing).  Our curiosity and wonder at the endlessly intricate and varied workings of the planet. Our culture, the traditions, stories, strategies and tools that we develop to survive.  

In these crazy modern days I think it gives us something like a correction, a reestablishing of basic connections with nature and survival that we evolved with, yet have grown to a place where they are largely hidden from daily life (though still essentially there). For most people, in this culture at least, it has grown into an art form, a recreation, a philosophy rather than any kind of essential activity of survival. In myself, I'm afraid that the post-modern state of fishing has led me to some ethical uncertainties.  When I was younger I pretty much bought into the whole 'catch and release' philosophy, which to be fair is an essential management tool for preserving a resource like trout from the ongoing pressure of an awful lot of recreational fishermen.  But though there are different opinions regarding a trout's perception of pain,  it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are putting these living creatures through an unpleasant ordeal just for our own fun, and putting them at some risk of life as well from injury or exhaustion.  I guess I think that fishing for food is really more acceptable, as long as the habitat can support it.  

It's kind of like my thinking regarding zoos. From a reserved, rational perspective, I disapprove of the capture and incarceration of these animals just for our own amusement, yet the impact they can have on children's hearts and minds is enormous, and for many city kids, the only way they have to easily experience something of the natural world that takes them away from the little they know and encounter in their daily lives.  

Fishing did something like that for me when I was young, and it still does something important for me now.  Exactly what, I'm not sure.  I just know that I'm not ready to give it up.   I'm not too greedy; I'm usually satisfied with just an hour or two of fishing, and if I catch my dinner in the first half-hour, well, there are other things I can do with my time after that.  After all, I've usually got my binoculars with me; I can always go birdwatching.  

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