Saturday, February 16, 2008

Why Fish?

People often wonder why people fish. Some know people fish for food and for a living, in boats that go into the open ocean and are gone for six months. Other’s know fishing as sitting in a boat on a lake with a good beer or book. Some see fishing as a way to get in touch with nature. I think the hardest fishing for people to understand is catch and release fishing. I’ve had many people look at me in bewilderment when I answer their question of what I do after catching a fish with “I let it go.” Many can’t fathom why anyone would want to spend hours pursuing something just to let it go. This story is about how I came to be a catch and release fisherman.

First off, I don’t even like to eat fish. When I do eat them they are either in stick form or ordered at a seafood restaurant, which I rarely visit. I’m not against anyone eating them. I just never found them to taste that good. There was always a moral growing up to only kill what you’re going to eat. This motto would be another motivation factor of catch and release. I grew up learning what I like to call the old school of fishing. This includes a spinning rod, most likely a zebco or something that has the actual reel covered up and casting is all about pushing and releasing a button to let line out. I was about 8 when I first learned and my relatives or whoever was nice enough to take me did all the rigging of line and hooks for me. The bait of choice was usually night crawlers. I learned at a young age how to cast. I was notorious for not leaving my bait out a very long time. I always wanted to reel in my line after 5min. I never remember catching much. All I can remember about my early fishing days was that I enjoyed it. My mother had some friends that had a ritual to go to the sierra’s every year. They invited us to join them.

Lee Vining

I still remember seeing the creek in the Lee Vining camp ground. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. Huge tall pines and beautiful crystal clear water. All of my previous fishing experience had been in lakes. I was so eager to get started fishing that I ran to the water with my pole in hand. I still had everything rigged up for a lake. I went to cast in the creek and my line shot across the 15ft wide stretch of water into the bushes on the other side. I ended up just snapping the line. I ran back to my mother and had her set me up with a hook to go out and try it again. I didn’t have any luck for the rest of the day. I watched some other kids camping with us catch fish. It looked really easy. I started to feel stupid for not being able to catch one fish.

The stock truck came the next day and everyone in camp was on alert. People scrambled to spots where the stock driver dumped a net of trout into the stream. My mom grabbed me and took me over to a pool that had just been filled with freshly stocked trout. There were at least 4 other people around this pool. Everyone was trying different things. I was armed with a treble hook and the bait of choice for the sierra’s; Patzke’s red fire balls salmon eggs. I remember seeing all of the fish just sitting there schooled together but none were taking my eggs. My mother explained to me about how the fish were stunned from just being stocked and it was going to take them time to get used to the new water. It wasn’t long after she said this that the fish started to investigate the baits around them. People started to catch fish and one fish instantly grabbed the eggs. My line jerked and I knew for the first time and could see that I was connected to a fish. I freaked and handed the pole to my mom. She was surprised and didn’t know what else to do but reel in the fish. I was mad because I felt she caught the fish and I didn’t. She gave me the pole back and asked me to try again. Of course my next 50 casts yielded no fish.

The next few days were a cycle of me snapping line in various parts of the creek and going back to my mother to have her re-tie on a hook. She was finally fed up with this and rigged my line with a swivel that had a type of safety pin at the end so you could use hooks that already had a leader with a loop end. This worked great. I’d carry packs of these around.
I watched a guy fish a run one afternoon and he caught about 6 fish from one spot. He was using live crickets. He was very nice and talked to me even though I was probably annoying him. I didn’t know it at the time but I was learning. Use other people to find locations of fish. Don’t pass up a spot later just because someone found it first. Be polite and don’t disturb the water while someone’s fishing it. If you pass that spot later and no one’s around, throw your line in. I remember thinking to myself, I’m coming back here tomorrow morning when no ones here. Sure enough the next morning I grabbed my pole and took off for that spot. I was so eager, I made sure everything was set. I dropped my line in the water and watched my eggs disappear. Then I went to reel in, felt a tug, and I knew I had a fish. I was so happy I caught a fish but didn’t know what to do with it after I caught it. So I did only what I knew. I took the fish still on the line back to my mom. She unhooked it and told me if I’m going to catch fish I needed to know how to unhook them. The fish count increased with each day. I was taking each fish I caught back to camp to put in a cooler. Eventually, I was given a satchel that doubled as a creel. It was so weird to drop a fish in and feel it flip against my side while I cast for another trout. After awhile I would start to get numb to the feeling.

I still wasn’t as good as the other kids camping with us but I knew I was getting better. I also loved fishing the streams in the sierra’s because of the scenery. To this day I can remember things that are like no place I’ve been since. Hiking next to the stream you have to navigate boulders, logs, roots of trees. You enjoy views of valley’s and glaciers. The water is so clear you can see the fish you’re trying to catch. This gave you an advantage, you could see how they reacted to bait and lures. You started to learn a trout’s behavior. I never noticed then but I know now, that I used to watch trout and search for them as much as I’d fish for them.
One of the kids in the camp received a fly rod and was using it for the first time. I was really intrigued at how the line moved threw the air. It was almost hypnotizing. This kid was not much older then me so I started to wonder if I could learn how to do that. What happened next is the reason to this day I always wear a hat when fly-fishing. This kid was casting when all of a sudden he let out a scream that sounded like he was being murdered. First his dad ran over, then his mother, then more people. I found out later he had gone to do a forward cast and got the fly stuck in his head. He had to be taken to the hospital and they cut the hook out there. He came back to camp with a inch square of hair missing. I decided then fly-fishing probably wasn’t for me. Little did I know it would become an addiction later in life.

The Family

My family has always gone to the Sierra’s. Not consistently, but they all have had plenty of experience there. My grandfather would take the family to Tom’s Place and Rock Creek. The next few years after I was 11 my mother would take us camping with them. My family is pretty competitive. There was never that much trash talking in the beginning of a camping trip. Though it didn’t take long for people to start asking how many fish did you catch? Then it turned into to a full-scale competition of who can catch the most fish. A tradition started, whoever caught the least fish had to clean everyone’s catches. This competitive nature resulted in some serious massacres. The limit in the Sierra Nevada at least when I was fishing was 5 fish over 10inches. I remember fishing with my uncles. I caught my 5 and went to watch them fish. I remember them catching 5 but they kept fishing. Then kept asking each other what was the count? They went to fill their coolers with water and I remember them saying “what are we going to do with 22 fish?” Even at a young age I knew there was something wrong about that. I could also see my uncles realized they had not gone about things the best way either. They really didn’t care about the fish but they knew they had done something wrong.

My grandfather has always preached respect of nature. Maybe not in his exact words but when he talks about animals and the circle of life. I have always felt he spoke of a connection with everything and respect should be given. He was really into Native American beliefs. I think this is where he got his point of view. I have many fond memories of fishing with family. We’d go to Crawley Lake, Twin Lake’s, Tom’s Place, Rock creek or remote creeks off the beaten path. I learned many fishing techniques and also learned many things from my uncles. When I was about 14 my dad bought me a pair of waders. I was notorious for losing hooks. I would go threw 25 hooks in 3 days. My uncles would get so mad at me and give me a hard time about it. Eventually one them fished with me and made me get snagged hooks out from under the water. I always had a fear of the water. I never liked putting my hand in the water where I couldn’t see. Usually that would be a place where your hook would get stuck, in fast moving water or under a ledge or roots or a rock and I’d just snap my line. I was afraid something in a place I can’t see might bite me. Not a fish but something un-discovered by modern science. Something no one else seemed to understand. To this day I still don’t like to put my hand where I can’t see what’s going on. It took me a while to venture far with my waders on. My mother had always talked to me about under toe and getting stuck under logs and drowning. I always was paranoid of this. It took me a bunch of trips and fishing with uncles to finally get over this.

My family eventually started to go to the same creek in the Sierra’s. It started to be a guys trip. The men of the family would get together to fish, tell stories and cook good food. I really loved this annual event. I became super familiar with the creek and would find the same holes to be productive year after year. I kept running into the occasional fly fisherman. The technique looked so enticing but I was catching plenty of fish with how I was fishing. I was getting used to my waders and was learning how fish and use pockets of water. I also learned the advantage of waders and how to get to places. My skills were coming together. I was catching tons of fish. So many that I was going way over my limit and had to let them go. This is where my next step towards catch and release came. My uncles would give me a hard time but now I realize their hazing helped me to be a better fisherman. One uncle nicknamed me “lunkhead” for the way I waded. He would tell me he could hear me coming from a mile downstream. He would get so mad because I’d spook fish he was trying to catch. This really made me pay attention to my wading. Another uncle would laugh at my tag lines I’d always leave after tying a hook on. He’d always say “you have so much tag line you look like you’re trying to tie a leader or something.” I was and am pretty lazy. When I’d tie a hook on many times if there was a long tag line I’d just leave it. If I never caught fish with a long tag line I probably would have been cured of that habit. I still caught fish. My uncles also taught me about getting to the places where no one usually goes and try the spots that no one usually fish’s or doesn’t bother fishing. Many times I’ve caught a fish 2ft from shore right under a bank I was standing on. Or 3ft from the tent I was camping in. People so often overlook great spots on streams because they feel the water is too shallow or some place might be over fished or the spot looks to likely to get your hook snagged. This is my advice. Take that chance on a spot that looks great but has huge snag potential. What’s worse? Losing a hook, or catching a trophy trout? You might get lucky and pull out the trout of your life.


When you catch a fish with a treble hook and bait 90% of the time the fish swallows everything. So lets say you caught your limit, what do you do? At a young age I didn’t think much about the fish so sometimes I’d just tear the hook out of the fish. This would result in ripping half the fish’s stomach out in the process, or I’d just cut the line and leave the hook in. Even when I’d let a fish go after doing this I knew the chance of survival wasn’t good. The fish would swim sideways or upside down. Some wouldn’t have the strength to swim against the current. I started to talk with more fishermen and many would give me a hard time for leaving the fish in the creel after catching them. They would say I should put them in water until I cleaned them or slam their head against a rock to kill them right away. I watched someone do the rock slam one time. It looked so brutal I could never see myself doing it. I started to put fish in a bucket or leave them on a stringer in water and drop them from place to place, then I’d talk to people who thought that was even worse. They’d talk of it as slowly suffocating the fish. All of this thinking made me start to look at the fish more like a living thing instead of a prize. I started to really care about the fish I caught. The squirming fish in my creel started to really bother me, instead of me ignoring it a few minutes later. I would make sure they were put in a bucket then cleaned right away.

Some of the relatives that camped with us would only use lures. I talked with them one day about why they did this. They told me one reason was bigger fish were caught, another was the fish were easier to release. The fish would never swallow the hook. This would stop you from destroying their insides when releasing them. I started to fish exclusively with lures. I would only resort to bait when I was desperate. This honed my fish finding skills even more. Most of the water in a glacier fed creek is not ideal for lures. Lures are heavy and the creek bottoms were mostly cobblestone type rock with moss and twigs embedded in between. Add to the mix stumps, logs and tree branches underwater you have snag city for lures. This made me really sharpen my casting accuracy and take advantage of water where I could fish lures. I caught less fish but the fish I did catch were many times larger. Also I found I could release the fish and they seemed less stressed. Occasionally I’d have a problem removing the hooks and would mess up a fish’s mouth or I’d land the fish improperly bouncing the trout on all the boulders and other debris on shore. Most likely the fish would die after release. I slowly learned what not to do. Many times if I knew the fish wasn’t going to make it, I’d keep it. The only problem with that is I’d have to find someone who’d want it. Most people didn’t want them unless they were cleaned.

I didn’t mind cleaning fish. Most fisherman have never seen actual trout eggs. They are pretty neat to see. They look nothing like what most people would imagine. Cleaning fish is a effective way to see what trout are taking as well. In the old days people would catch fish and instantly slice their stomach open and check for what the trout was eating. Eventually some people that would camp with us were fly fisherman. I would talk with them all the time about fly-fishing. They would always come back with less fish but all of their fish were alive and well when released. I had to admit that attracted me. I was still too caught up in the amount of fish caught and the size to try fly-fishing. As the years went on I talked with more fly fisherman. I started to read occasional articles about it. I started to try flies on my spinning rod. I could hardly ever see fish taking the flies but I would catch fish occasionally. Stocked trout in the sierras are pretty ignorant. They like drag, you can drag a fly back on the surface and entice hatchery trout from all directions. Also, in California they do not stock browns and brookies like they do in other parts of the US. If you catch a brook it will most likely be in a high up glacier fed lake or a finger off of a main creek. The brook trout are tiny averaging usually 4-5inches. The browns are beautiful but not much bigger. In some lakes they get to huge sizes in the double-digit pounds. In the creeks you’re lucky to ever catch one over 12inches. If you get in certain elevations you can catch Golden Trout. These are very pretty fish. I’ve never caught one over 6inches. After research and compassion for trout I started to really work on catch and release. I would use lures only. I eventually bought a fly rod and used it half the time. I didn’t really know what I was doing with it. It was a 9ft 5wt. I didn’t know what that meant when I got it. All I knew was it was way to long to do a decent cast. The flies I used were attractor dry fly patterns. I would catch fish rarely. I would get so frustrated I’d usually go back to using my spin rod with lures. I eventually put the fly rod down and just lure fished. I became a snob to bait fisherman. Thinking, that was for people who didn’t know how to fish. I liked the challenge of lures.

I fished with lures and flies off and on for about 10yrs. I bought a fly rod and would fish with that for awhile, if it didn't produce fish I'd switch back over to lures. I started carrying a net because I knew it was better for the fish when releasing them. So much damage is done when a fish bounces around on the bank of a stream. I started to read more books about fly fishing and I moved to North Carolina 3 years ago with at the time my fiance. I moved to a small town called Boone. There was really nothing to do there but fish. Once you get to real mtn communities you'll find true fly-fisherman. I mean people that have been doing it since they could barely walk. They tie their own flies, build their own rods, and know every nook and cranny of a stream. The experience they have is priceless. They've seen the streams at their best and worst conditions. It's hard to find these guys and when you find them it's hard to get any fishing advice from them. Getting the knowledge they have takes a lifetime and it's understandable why they want to gaurd it. It's the edge they have. I hope to be one of these guys someday.

To be continued......

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