As I write this morning, the official low temperature in Omaha was 15 below zero just an hour ago. Our area lakes have been covered in ice for more than a month now. From my perspective -- that of a fly fisherman -- ice constitutes an ugly, intolerable, and impenetrable scab on what otherwise are perfectly good bodies of water.
My inability to fish reduces me to thinking about fishing, or to be more precise today, thinking about how I think about fishing. It’s been an evolutionary process. As the child of children of the Depression, I was raised to catch as many fish as I could, clean everything I caught, and make sure nothing ever went to waste. The concept of “catch & release” wasn’t just foreign to my late mother, it may have been extraterrestrial. Why would anyone in his right mind throw away perfectly good food? Essential elements of my parents’ fishing equipment for their annual salmon fishing trip to the Northwest were a Coleman stove, canner, jars and lids.
I shared her point of view into my early adult years, basically keeping every fish big enough to clean, unless the catch turned out to be too few for a meal, or, I’ll confess, unless I was “too tired to clean only a couple.” Still, I appreciated the concept of “wanton waste,” at least to the point of feeling guilty about not eating something I’d caught.
“Catch & Release” didn’t become a common practice at our house until our children became proficient at fishing. I’d had enough evenings cleaning 50 crappie at a time and had no wish to repeat the feat. Conservation, I learned, is sometimes served by laziness. And I considered myself a conservationist and “good sportsman.” I faithfully bought a license each year, never (well, rarely) intentionally broke any regulations, and raised my kids to do the same.
One of the tragic ironies of fatherhood is that you have more time to devote to fishing once the children are grown and gone. No little league games, no after-school and weekend jobs, no high school clubs and activities. But no kid to take fishing. She went off to college, he went off to the Army.
I continued to fish on a semi-regular basis, but it was a solitary pursuit. None of my friends or co-workers fished much. Other than one-day deep sea fishing excursions on vacation, my wife showed no interest. Then seven years ago, on a 4th of July trip visiting friends in Steamboat Springs, the son of my wife’s best friend introduced me to fly fishing. It was a revelation, an epiphany, a life-changing experience. I caught my first fish on a fly rod! It could be done! After 50 years cranking spinning reels, I felt like a grade schooler learning to fish for the first time. Fly fishing was a whole new world for me – Terra Incognito -- and I didn’t have a guidebook or a map.
So I set out to learn, and the process of learning has changed the way I think about fishing. I began to buy books about fly fishing and picked up glossy fly fishing magazines off the news counter. Most, thankfully, included a strong conservation message that advocated catch & release.
The biggest change in my thinking, however, came with the discovery of a community of like-minded Nebraska anglers. For several years, our state’s fish and wildlife agency, the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, had sponsored a series of online forums for anglers and hunters. When the state cancelled this service, a group of lay volunteers created its successor, the Nebraska Fish & Game Association (www.nefga.org). Like its predecessor, the NEFGA site emphasizes a mix of practical fishing experience and science-backed facts about fishing. Nearly all of the participants endorse and practice a “selective harvest” philosophy in their fishing, which in practical terms means returning 10-inch bluegills and their superior genes to the lake to breed and to be caught again while harvesting 8-inchers for the skillet.
I’m now a CPR (catch, photograph, and release) fisherman, and I’ve come to appreciate the importance of swift, non-traumatic release. TV bass fishermen who bounce their catch off the expensive carpets of their boats infuriate me, and elevate my already high blood pressure.
Because of friends met through the website, and our shared common interests and outlooks, fishing is no longer a solitary activity for me. In 2003, I fished alone at least 90 times. Last year, probably 75 of my 120 fishing outings were with friends made through the online community, including such people as Bruce Condello, the originator of this website, and Teeg Stouffer, the national director of Recycled Fish. I think every angler, young or old, needs to read and affirm Recycled Fish’s “Stewardship Pledge” (http://recycledfish.org/home/wp-login.php?action=register) before wetting a line.
Becoming part of the NEFGA online community also led to volunteer activities, including active participation in Nebraska’s certified youth fishing instructor program (http://www.ngpc.state.ne.us/fishing/programs/aquaticed/#youth). I have no grandkids of my own (there's still hope!), but there’s no reason I can’t share the vicarious thrill of helping someone else’s grandchild catch her first fish. Especially when I was the one who showed her how to bait the hook.
Instead of a solitary activity for a lonely senior citizen, fishing has become a central element of my social life. And my wife always seems pleased to see me leave the house...