This really is a fishing essay, but it comes wrapped in layers. Let’s begin during the course of a do-it-yourself Dall sheep hunt on the North Slope of Alaska’s Brooks Range. It’s hard to go wrong in a setting like that.
Friends and I had hunted the same location for years, a challenging spot even back when we were young and tough. I’d faced more intimidating sheep country farther south, in the Wrangells and Chugach, but I’d never worked harder or burned more energy than I did on the North Slope. We wanted to camp in a specific location that always held good rams, but reaching that spot required a 26-mile hike from the nearest gravel bar where we could land an airplane. There was no trail, and the route required multiple tricky river crossings. Because of the complex logistics, we didn’t like to go for less than two weeks, which meant stretching our food supplies to the limit even with 75-pound packs. Fortunately, one of us usually killed a ram even though we were hunting exclusively with longbows. Dall sheep is delicious, and the more of it we ate in spike camp the less we had to pack out on our backs.
But not that year, when Doug and I went by ourselves. That year, we never saw a legal ram. Snow accumulated relentlessly, temperatures plummeted, and the hunt turned into a survival exercise. We hoped to shoot a caribou calf for camp meat, but the great herds had already passed eastward into Canada. The best we could do to supplement our diets was to shoot a few ptarmigan with our bows.
By the time we decided we needed to pull out, our food supplies consisted of a small plastic bottle of olive oil and a packet of salt. Food is usually a low priority in true wilderness survival situations, but years earlier I’d learned to expect losing a pound a day on backcountry sheep hunts even in optimal conditions. This trip was far from optimal, and calories in hadn’t come close to equaling calories out; we needed some fuel in our gas tanks. At least the skies cleared as we finally broke camp, allowing us to start walking beneath some gorgeous Arctic sunlight. Hiking down a tributary creek toward the main river, current gathered progressively beside us until we reached a confluence large enough to form a real pool. When I climbed out on a rock to study the water, I discovered it was full of fish.
I may have never been a Boy Scout, but Bush Alaska taught me to Be Prepared. Buried in my wilderness survival kit I always carried the means to catch fish—on flies no less, because of their trivial weight. While I dug out my gear, which consisted of nothing more than a small spool of tippet and a half dozen generic patterns, Doug started whittling on a supple willow branch that was about to become a fly pole. The fish were small Arctic char, no more than 10 inches long, but a dozen of them charged the fly the instant I dangled it over the water. They must have been as hungry as we were.
In no time, we had a little plume of smoke rising from a fire beside the stream and a dozen char brushed in oil, lightly salted, and spitted on branches like hotdogs at a picnic. For the next hour, we took turns catching fish and eating fish, probably consuming 3,000 high quality calories apiece. I didn’t realize how much our starvation diet had affected my performance until we loaded up and started back downstream. All of a sudden, I felt as if I had wings on my feet, all courtesy of a pool full of char and the few ounces of tackle I needed to catch them.
Catch and release, hell, I thought as we trudged onto our makeshift airstrip in the twilight where we’d left ourselves a stash of goodies. Unless an Arctic grizzly had robbed our cache, we had a six-pack of beer in the creek, two packages of jerky in the bushes, and real fly tackle with which we could catch all the 10-pound char we’d ever need from the main river.
I have been fly fishing wild waters for over 60 years, which either makes me either a Tribal Elder (the honorable interpretation) or a curmudgeon (no comment). During that time, I have seen a remarkable number of trends come and go, some important to the future of angling and others trivial in the big picture. One of the most interesting concerns the catch-and-release ethic.
When I was a kid, we killed and ate most of the fish we caught. We just hadn’t thought about it much. It was all we knew. Absent the Internet, outdoor television, and all the other now-ubiquitous modern communication aids, I had to figure out my own opinions about fish and fishing. I began constructing what one might call an angling ethos in high school, after my family moved West and we started to fish for steelhead. These sea-run rainbows are delicious, and if a clipped adipose fin marked one as a hatchery specimen, I bopped and ate it without guilt. The wild fish, however, were too beautiful, too precious, too rare. I haven’t killed one in over 50 years, even when it was legal for me to do so as an Alaska rural subsistence resident (yeah, right… but that’s another story).
My support for basic catch-and-release principles extends to almost all of my recreational fly fishing, but my reasons derive from wildlife biology, habitat health, sustainability, and the future of angling—not from what I can only describe as the political correctness that so often seems to sustain it now. Rare wild fish in readily accessible waters, like steelhead, certainly deserve to be returned to them. But Moses did not carry a catch-and-release edict down off the mountain engraved in stone, as many contemporary anglers—particularly those new to angling in general and fly fishing in particular—seem to believe. Hatchery fish? Cut them up and make them into soup. That’s why they were stocked. A trout bleeding from the gills after inhaling a streamer? Don’t kid yourself. An alien, introduced lake trout gobbling native cutthroats in Yellowstone, or a non-native smallmouth pounding salmon smolt in the Pacific Northwest? Releasing those fish is more environmentally irresponsible than knocking them on the head. Catch them, kill them, eat them, and don’t lose any sleep over it. In fact, challenge yourself to embark on another intellectual and corporeal journey: learn to see fish as food, again.
True wilderness angling—deep in the backcountry, not just a few hundred yards from the nearest road—poses its own dilemmas. We all love wild, native fish whose ancestral genes have never been transplanted or manipulated inside a holding pen. Those fish inspired the catch-and-release ideal. They have individual value, and once their genes are lost, we may never see them again. Despite the obvious validity of these concerns, they need to be tempered by objectivity and common sense. Was killing and eating the mess of char Doug and I consumed in order to fuel the final stages of our return to civilization a biological problem for the species or the North Slope environment? That’s really the fundamental question at the basis of every decision to release or retain fish.
The answer in this case: no. Based on extensive personal experience in that area, I consider it unlikely that any fish in that headwater drainage had ever had contact of any kind with another human being. Given that we all have to eat something on expeditions like that, is it really more responsible to raise a hog in Iowa, grind it up into a can of SPAM, fly it all the way to Alaska, and eat it, or to consume a few wilderness fish instead? I’d call that a legitimate example of rural subsistence fishing. Despite my cynicism about abuse of this Alaska political designation—and my refusal to take legal advantage of its provisions even when I was entitled to do so—the concept seemed to work under the circumstances described.
In fact, that concept has worked for me in numerous other wilderness locations around the world: rivers flowing north to Canada’s James Bay; the coastline of Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk; northern Australia’s Arafura Sea; Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. All of these places had plenty of fish. What they lacked was people, which is actually what made them all so special. Those demographics combine to make human activity by occasional visitors largely irrelevant to the immediate health of fisheries. We all have to eat something during our travels, and sometimes the most responsible choice is the fish on the end of the fly line.
Let us also not forget that this publication’s title is MeatEater, not MeatCatcher or MeatReleaser. There will always be room for healthy, natural meals in the outdoors. Obtaining and preparing the ingredients represents an essential aspect of the hunter’s world—and, in the right circumstances, the angler’s as well, even when dinner comes attached to the end of a fly line.
I find the MeatEater emphasis on wild fish and game as a responsible food source particularly refreshing now that so much of the mainstream outdoor media seems obsessed with horns, antlers, and trophies. I enjoy hunting large, mature animals, and I’ve shot my share. However, I was raised in an outdoor family that valued wild fish and game as food above all other considerations. During my early childhood, if my father knocked down a grouse, he wouldn’t think of leaving the area until it was resting in his game vest. (Since we had excellent bird dogs, unrecovered waterfowl and upland game were rarely a problem.) If I got careless and left a deer liver behind us in the woods, there would be no peace until I’d hiked back and retrieved it. Studies consistently show that the non-hunting public (which will ultimately determine the future of hunting) views hunting more favorably when we extend the same concern to those deer livers that we do to the antlers growing on top of the animal’s head.
MeatEater is concerned with angling as well as hunting, and fly fishing in particular enjoys a prominent place in the agenda. How do we reconcile an appropriate emphasis on the superb food value of wild-caught fish and game with a segment of the outdoors community that often questions the propriety of eating recreationally caught fish? It’s not that hard as long as one recognizes certain basic principles. If you and other anglers on the same waters retaining a fish for the table poses no biological threat to the resource, it becomes an individual decision. Not sure? Read the fishing regulations, or even better, ask a biologist. The rules are carefully crafted to balance harvest with ecological considerations, and you’ll find that fisheries managers in many places actually encourage anglers to remove fish to prevent overcrowding and balance the ecosystem.
I’m certainly not advocating dragging coolers full of fish home to molder under freezer burn before they pass their “serve-by” date. But a silver salmon taken from an Alaska stream in the fall is going to be dead in a matter of weeks no matter what you do, and if you don’t eat it, a bear or an eagle will. There is nothing wrong with taking a fresh one home for dinner. It’s what meateaters do.
Feature image via Bryan Gregson.