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  • March 1st, 2019

no fish were harmed in the writing of this blog

By Joel M. Vance


The great movie “A River Runs Through It” was on television the other night and, as usual, I had to watch it. But, as usual, I waited for the closing credits in order to yell at the television set when the disclaimer at the very end popped onto the screen “No fish were harmed or killed in the making of this movie.”


“What’s the matter with you people!” I screamed, amid a flurry of epithets. “What if Jesus, instead of feeding the multitude with the loaves and fishes, had caught and released the fish, leaving only loaves?” According to Matthew in the Bible Jesus fed a multitude of 5000 people with two fish and five loaves of bread. Ignoring the fact that they must’ve been awfully big fish, Jesus also said and according also to Matthew, “Man does not live by bread alone.”


Today, the politically correct mantra—not according to either Jesus or Matthew— is “catch and release”. It’s considered the sporting thing to do. And even if the honorably stupid disclaimer in “A River” were not enough, the producers felt obligated to add that Norman MacLean, the author of the book from which the movie was made, and his family ate the fish they caught, but that today’s fly fisherman release the fish they hook and land.


As I was simmering down from my outrage at the movie’s disclaimer, I remembered the words of Norm Strung, my late friend, mentor, and hero who lived on the banks of Cottonwood Creek, a trout stream outside Bozeman, Montana. Norm once invited me to fish in his little stream for brook trout. I said something about whether I should release the fish I caught and Norm said, “keep ‘em. We eat ‘em.” And keep them I did, and we ate them. They were delicious.


I have nothing against the concept of catch and release, except when it is carried to the extreme. We are predator animals and fish are prey. Fish constitute the healthiest wild food available to us predators and there is nothing more agreeable to the human digestive system than a fish diet. Ignore for a moment, the reality that all too often fish are contaminated by human waste product and therefore are not as healthy as fish that have not been poisoned by mercury, pollution or any of the myriad contaminants with which we have adulterated the natural world.


Understand, I have no quarrel with the concept of catch and release. There are circumstances under which not keeping fish to eat is admirable and necessary. If a fish population is imperiled there is an obvious need to conserve. Years ago, my wife, Marty, and I rafted the Grand Canyon and fished along the way. Somebody hooked a humpback chub on a fly. It’s an endangered species, not really an edible fish anyway, and we immediately released it. But a teenager on the trip caught a large rainbow trout and Norm Strung (the very same eat ‘em Strung) baked the fish at our gravel bar campsite that night and we all shared in eating it and no one gave passing thought to the idea that the proud kid should have released the fish. It was delicious.


For me the highlight of the “River runs” movie was near the end when the Brad Pitt character is fly fishing, hooks a mammoth rainbow trout, manages to hang onto it as he is washed through a series of rapids, and returns triumphantly holding it up, to show his father and brother. The balletic symmetry of the fly line as he lays out a long cast is beauty to behold. It even was the illustration for the movie’s promotional posters.


But Brad Pitt had nothing to do with that memorable cast. It was dubbed in by Jason Borger, the son of famed fly angler Gary Borger. Brad Pitt may be able to charm the ladies, but Jason Borger charms the fish. Anyway, I have been a fly fisherman since my teenage years when my father, for some reason, (a lifelong angler, he tended toward casting reels armed with 20 pound test braided line) acquired a Shakespeare fiberglass fly rod and a desire to learn how to use it.


Fiberglass long since has been supplanted by carbon fibers and other exotic materials far superior to fragile fiberglass. Traditionally, anglers used split bamboo rods that today cost more than the national debt and now are far more suited to museums than they are to rough handling on blue ribbon trout streams. You are most likely to see an angler armed with a bamboo fly rod gently releasing the fish he hooks and also using barbless hooks to boot.


I learned to fly fish after a fashion, using that fiberglass pole that had all the resiliency of a reinforcing rod. Let’s say that over the years more than 90% of the fish I have caught have been bluegills or other sunfish or occasionally largemouth bass. That is my father’s legacy. There is a photo of him on the shore of the Macon Lake with his fiberglass rod pitching a popping bug to the edge of the shoreline weed bed. He was fishing for bluegills. I came to trout late in life and with better equipment but bluegills remain my favorite fish, both on the end of a fly leader and sizzling in a frying pan.


It’s not difficult for me to catch and release trout because I’m not overly fond of them for eating. Salmon, however, are a fish of a different flesh color and one of my long held dreams is to fly fish for salmon in Arctic waters where they proliferate. I have caught salmon but always on casting rod and reel. I did fish for Atlantic salmon in Maine on one of the legendary salmon rivers there where anglers sit on bankside benches like substitutes on an athletic team waiting to go into action. The active angler has a certain amount of time to fish before returning to the end of the bench and the first substitute angler jumps into action. My time in the water, while it was exhilarating, was fruitless—although I did see a silvery fish leap clear of the water in midstream, a sight to set my sweetbreads thumping.


And I did partake of a glorious Atlantic salmon dinner at the home of Jim and Sylvia Bashline who had caught the fish during one of their many trips to Canadian salmon waters. Jim invited me to loft a fly into the fabled trout waters of Spruce Creek, a few feet from their home in Pennsylvania and I made one cast. A hefty trout (Jim scattered food on his stretch of stream which did tend to keep the trout at home) smashed into the fly at the end of Jim’s borrowed rod and, as if I were setting the hook in a 12 pound channel cat, I snapped the fly off. “Well,” said Jim, “Time for a before dinner cocktail.” And that was the end of my fly fishing on one of the fabled chalk streams beloved by equally fabled angling writers. Back to bluegills for me.


Fly fishing can become as complicated as quantum physics if you let it. My dad was content to learn enough about it to place a popping bug delicately enough to tempt a bluegill (and there is nothing delicate about bluegill fishing–a bluegill in the mood will hit anything thrown in the water short of a concrete block). But the Salmonid family angler can become so consumed with the arcane aspects of the sport that he or she will learn enough Latin insect names as to become qualified to conduct a Catholic mass.


My guru along those lines is the late John Voelker (whose pen name was Robert Traver), a wonderful writer and author of “Anatomy of a Murder” and an avid trout angler from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (known as a Yooper) whose advice on choosing a fly was that he invariably used “a little bitty brown thing.” That attitude puts a hex on Hexagenia and the myriad of other Latin names for insects. Limit me to one all purpose fly, from bluegills to tarpon and I’ll choose a woolly bugger. The most delightful variation of this universal bug imitation is the charmingly named Bitch Creek nymph.


Once I spent an entire day drifting the Madison River casting a Bitch Creek nymph, letting the current carry it theoretically past thousands of trophy trout. I caught exactly one fish–a whitefish with a mouth turned down, looking remarkably like a muddy Missouri River sucker. If only I had one of those little bitty brown things!


Some trout anglers claim you only need a number 12 Adams while others swear by a Royal Coachman as the go-to fly of choice. My late friend, lefty Kreh, possibly the greatest fisherman in history, invented what has come to be called Lefty ‘s Deceiver, a fly so versatile it will catch everything (including, in my case, my right earlobe).


All these flies have one thing in common.  They have hooks. Some purists use barbless hooks which allow easier catch and release than barbed ones. And that brings us back to “A River Runs Through It” (the movie, not the book) which the producers in their wimpy disclaimer were quick to assure us did not use hooks in the fishing scenes; instead they carefully tied fishing line to the lower lip of the supposedly hooked trout under the watchful supervision of the Humane Society.


Obviously us fish eating anglers have been doing it all wrong. Instead of using a fly line tipped with a barbed hook, we could have been learning to lasso fish.  So, in a sort of piscatorial rodeo, we could cast a lovely fly line over a feeding trophy trout, gently tighten the loop around its lower jaw, carefully (without in any way injuring the fish or offending the Humane Society) play it to the net, admire its sleek symmetry, murmur an apology to Norman MacLean, and offer an uplifted middle finger to the Humane Society.


And then take the fish home and eat ‘im.




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