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Saturday, July 12, 2003

We must decide how to live


I have figured out how to fall asleep in the little kayak. To maintain stability, it's best to sit with legs extended, which puts the body in an upright position. The back of the cockpit is the backrest. But I've discovered that by stretching one leg until the toes reach the end of the space in the bows, and raising one knee high out of the cockpit, I can slip my fanny down from the seat, rest the back of my head on the backrest, and snooze safely, so long as I'm not on water with too much fetch (room for strong winds to create serious waves) or shared by motorized craft -- especially vee-hulls riding low in the water.

I was snoozing thus on a wilderness lake, miles from nowhere, when a 15-inch rainbow trout, a male with strong September-like shoulders, hit the imitation nymph trailing at the end of my 4 lb. test line. A bit disoriented, I remembered in time: vacation, trail, boat, lake, fish, set hook, commence reeling.

I set the drag to let the trout run around a bit and tire himself out.

While this was going on, I noticed movement in the corner of my eye, and, after securing the trout, investigated by means of my 8X monocular (made from half of a cheap pair of mini-binoculars that were falling apart). The activity turned out to be of a pair of otters, swimming leisurely from one cove to another, alternately sounding and breaching like tiny, furry whales.

I like otters, though I realize I'm in competition with them.

Fishing, once a necessary art, is fast becoming a luxury which in many areas, the natural world can no longer afford to have us pursue. Wild fish populations are melting away. The causes are difficult to discover: climate change, agriculture, forestry, urbanization, dams, commercial ocean fishing, introduction of non-native fish species, and high-tech sport fishing pressure.

I do fish. Beloved likes to eat them, and so do I. So we add them to our diet of home-grown tomatoes, broccoli, and apples. But I can avoid bothering the wild poulations. The high-altitude lakes where I have been pursuing this vanishing art once contained no fish at all. The Eddeeleo lakes, for example, were named for Ed, Dee, and Leo, three Forest Service rangers who packed in Eastern brook trout to those lakes by mule train in the 1920s. Since then, many such lakes have been visited, some of them many times, by trout-laden helicopters. Some of these lakes are quite remote, and getting my kayak to them means considerable exercise. It also means, often, meditative solitude, an aspect of fishing that is threatened by the advent of gasoline powered boat motors and sonar.

Dame Juliana Berners, an abbess in England in the fifteenth century, established non-commercial fishing as an art and sport, and at the same time a means of "communing with nature":

For all other maner of fysshynge is also laborous and greuous, often makyng of folkes ful were and colde which many tymes hath ne seen cause of greate infirmities, but the angler maye haue no colde nor dysease nor angre, but yf he be causer hym selfe, for he maye not lose at the mooste but a lyne or an hooke: of which he may haue store plentye of hys owne makynge, as thys simple treatyse shall teache hym. So then hys losse is not greuous, and other greefes maye he not haue sauynge but yf any fysshe break away after yt he is taken on the hooke, or els yt he catch nought whyche is not greuous, for yf he fayle of one he maye not fayle of an other, yf he doth as thys treatyse teacheth, but if there be nought in the water, and yet as the least he hath his holsome walke and mery at his ease, sweet ayre of the sweet sauour of the medow floures that maketh him hungry. He heareth the melodious armony of foules. He seeth the yonge swans, herons, duckes, cootes, and many other foules with their broodes, whyche me semeth better then all the noyse of houndes, the blastes of hornes, & the scry of foules, that hu[n]ters, faukeners, & foulers ca[n] make. And if the angler take fyshe: surely then is there no ma[n] meryer then he is in his spirite. And who so wyl vse thys game of anglyng: he muste ryse early, which is profytable to man in this wyse. That is to wete, most to to the health of hys soule. For that it cause hym to be holy, & to the helth of his body for that it shal cause him to be whole.

This is the fishing I look for, knowing that it is disappearing from most of the places I can reach; knowing that wild fish of the size and fighting qualities I remember from my youth are now reserved to people in faraway places, such as the Alaskan Aleuts, whom I admire and whom I wish well, and to the rich, who can hire airplanes to get them to such places, and whom I do not, especially, admire or wish well.

Not even the oceans are immune to these changes. In many places, such as Newfoundland, entire communities have been forced to turn their back on their first love, the fishing trade, and turn to oil exploration or cab driving to get by. A recent study of catch records shows a ninety percent drop in population of the large sport species: swordfish, sailfish, and marlin. Tuna are appearing fewer and smaller in the nets each decade.

Do the otters know what's in store for them? Do we?

There are, roughly, two large groupings, or rather a large group and a smaller group, of sport fisherfolk.

The large group, numbering in the millions in the United States, tends to prefer spinning reels, baits and lures, sonar, GPS, beer, and large, fast, and loud boats. Among these are many who will keep all the wild fish the law allows, and some others who will keep wild fish the law does not allow.

The smaller group prefers, indeed religiously and perhaps self-righteously, fly reels, artificial flies, barbless hooks, expensive vests, wine, and perhaps a float tube. Among these, many look with murderous disdain on any who do not immediately and with infinite tenderness de-hook and release all fish. They regard themselves as conservationists, even environmentalists, though they somewhat woundedly resist the arguments of others, such as animal rights advocates, who would ban fishing entirely.

Bass tournaments are perhaps the most visible instance of sport fishing's excesses. Tournaments are catch-and-release, perhaps to appease their critics, but the fish undergo a lot of stress in being caught, tanked, transported, weighed, measured, and dumped by people in a hurry. Lakes and reservoirs where these tournaments take place are sometimes littered for days afterwards with hundreds of dead and injured fish, much more than the cormorants and ospreys can deal with.

Meanwhile, the Orvis crowd are stressing fish too. Some released trout die, many are damaged, and all of them have had the fright of their lives. Why terrorize them if you're not going to eat them?

The moral implications surrounding catch-and-release mirror those of many environmental conundrums. The issues around fishing are a microcosm of all the issues: do I drive to the mountains to fish, lowering my blood pressure and improving my quality of life, or save the gas to conserve fossil fuel and reduce global warming? I suspect the math is beyond most of us, perhaps all of us. Quo vadimus?

"Where are we going? And why are we in this handbasket?"

But to live is, some day, to die, regardless. For each of us, we must decide how to live well.

When I fish stocked trout, I'm consciously looking for a fish I'm comfortable regarding as food. I have an at-risk cardiovascular system and the doctors have told me to eat fish. I catch trout, clean them, roll them in corn flour and Italian seasoning, fry them lightly in olive oil, steam some zucchini and make a quick garden salad of home-grown lettuce, cherry tomatoes, beet greens, bell peppers, spring onions, and garlic blossoms. Serve with a glass of well water with a sprig of mint in it. It is my offering to Beloved for the grinding work that she does, five and sometimes six days a week, in social services.

The otters reach shore and clamber, to my eye amusingly, up through the sedges, disappearing among the willows and blue huckleberries. I turn to the task of snapping the rainbow's neck and backpaddling to sunward, my shadow following me, like that of a hunting water-strider, across the bottom of the clear lake, twenty feet below.

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