WARNING: The blog post that follows contains opinions of the writer and is designed to prompt thinking and “a look in the mirror”. You have been warned, read at your own risk.
Although there is no closed season for fishing in Nebraska, and in fact I have fished open water several times after my last ice fishing trip a couple weeks ago, one could say that we are on the eve of the 2012 open-water fishing season. Spring is the most popular time for folks to grab a fishing pole and bait and head out to fish, so I believe this is a good time to put in words some thoughts that have been swimming around inside my head. In the past few weeks I have done quite a bit of traveling around our great state and during those drive times I do a lot of thinking. One might surmise that I do a lot of thinking when I am fishing, and that would be true, but my thinking while on the water tends to be focused on finding the fish, figuring out what they are doing, and catching them. When I am driving is when I do some of my “deep” thinking. In fact I have even been known to have conversations with myself during long solo drives. Just a couple of weeks ago, on the road between Thedford and Hyannis, I had a spirited discussion with myself on the use and application of 1/2-ounce spinnerbaits with single, silver, Colorado blades versus 1/2-ounce spinnerbaits with tandem, gold, willow-leaf blades.
But I digress. . . . How do I put words on paper that match what has been finning around in my head? (Actually, that is kind of a scary thought. . . there I go, again I digress)
Why do you fish?
Now, I could trot out stacks of research papers that address that question and the motivations of anglers. That research always shows that motivations like “getting away from it all”, spending time with friends and family, enjoying nature and the outdoors, etc. are important reasons folks go fishing. Usually research shows that catching fish or catching big fish is an important motivation, but usually less important than those social and emotional reasons I just mentioned.
Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after. ~Henry David Thoreau
Much of the research on what motivates folks to go fishing concludes by lumping folks into groups based on different motivations. I suppose that is fine, but I always feel a bit uncomfortable with those groupings because I talk to a lot of anglers and although there are similarities between all of them, there are differences too. Each angler is an individual and each individual has different motivations. So, to say this motivation or that motivation is important may help us understand large populations of anglers, but it does little to help us understand an individual who is talking to us face-to-face.
I can also tell you that anglers tend to mature and progress through phases. Again, I hesitate to generalize and lump into groups, but there is some truth to it and it helps in understanding motivations. I am also betting you will see yourself in one phase or another or perhaps somewhere in several phases. What are the phases? Well, we all start at a point where we are learning the basics and are thrilled just to catch a fish. Eventually, we learn a thing or two and begin to experience more success. At this point catching, and usually keeping, a “limit” often becomes our primary goal when we hit the water. Many anglers advance beyond that point to a phase where they regularly and consistently catch fish, and many times at this stage of development anglers become practitioners of catch & release. At this stage anglers often specialize and one particular species may become the target of every fishing trip and in particular the catch & release of large specimens of that target species. The next stage in the maturation of an angler can be one where an angler branches out to try different things, new waters, different species, new fishing techniques. At this stage the catch becomes less of a focus because the angler knows the catches of fish and big fish will come; the enjoyment lies in the process, in the learning. In addition, at this stage anglers often give back to the sport by sharing their success and experiences and gain as much satisfaction from helping and watching others catch fish as they do catching fish themselves.
Why do you fish?
What really got this question running through my mind are comments that I continue to hear from some anglers. Especially this past ice-fishing season, I again heard from some anglers that it was not worth driving out to the Nebraska sandhills when they would be able to keep ONLY 15 panfish per day. I try to listen to every angler I talk to, especially the ones that have complaints or concerns, and that is where it is important to try to understand individuals. But, I have to admit I have a hard time understanding that complaint–for me, it is worth the drive to the sandhills every chance I get just to be there and to have the opportunity to catch, and release, a trophy bluegill, yellow perch, pike or largemouth bass. I could not care less that I could keep ONLY 15 panfish and in fact seldom keep any fish, even yellow perch, when I make one of those trips.
Why do you fish?
Apparently my reasons are entirely different than those persons who complain about being able to keep ONLY 15 panfish per day. Now, I am not going to tell you that my motivations or attitudes are more pure or that I have somehow arrived at some higher plane, but I am going to challenge you to look in the mirror and ask yourself why you fish? And I am going to suggest that in the examination you might learn something about yourself and how to be a better angler.
I am convinced that some folks never progress beyond the point of “catching all they can, and canning all they catch”. Is it all about harvesting enough to make up for the money invested in the fishing permit or fishing trip? Does the fishery resource really owe it to you? Do you fish for recreation or subsistence?
Why do you fish?
I am going to go further off the edge and suggest that the “pioneer”, conquer-and-harvest mentality actually retards some anglers from becoming better anglers, from learning how to be more consistently successful, from catching more and bigger fish. How can I say that? Does not a person fish harder when they are trying to fill their belly or to fill their freezer? No, I do not believe that is the case at all. I believe it is actually liberating to come to the point where you are not compelled only to go out and bring your limit back home. I will even suggest that a person can actually enjoy the experience more and learn more from it by just going out and catching fish, just catching them for the fun of it, by fishing just to catch them and turn ‘em loose, by fishing for a big fish just to catch it and then watch it swim away. There are times when I actually fish longer and catch more fish because I release them all instead of catching my limit and heading for the fish cleaning station. When the motivation is not the harvest of a limit, there is more opportunity to ponder the process of finding fish, understanding them and figuring out how to catch them, especially the big ones. There is more appreciation for the fish, more understanding of them and how they survive. There is more appreciation for the unique creatures that they are.
Why do you fish?
On the eve of the 2012 fishing “season”, I challenge you during one of your drive times or perhaps while you are on the water to ask yourself why you fish? Ponder where you are as an angler and ask yourself if you would like to progress even further? Would you like this to be one of your best fishing seasons ever? If so, how can you make that happen? If you do not already do it, I challenge you to fish less for the filling of the freezer and more for the catching. . .and releasing. I challenge you to try it and see if it does not give you an entirely different perspective, and if it does not propel you to a whole ‘nother level of understanding and ultimately fishing success.
No, I am not saying that every fish you catch must be released. Some of them, because of regulations, will have to be released, but I am challenging you to release fish that you ordinarily would not have released before. Yes, we should maintain a tradition of harvesting some of our catch; we should occasionally keep enough fish for a meal of fresh fish. But see what happens when you put less emphasis on filling the freezer and more emphasis on catching. . . and releasing. Especially see what happens when you selectively harvest those species and sizes of fish that can withstand the harvest and release the rest. See what happens when you snap a few photos and turn the big ones loose, yes, even big panfish.
I know some of you are rolling your eyes and are thinking that I am preaching my catch & release and selective harvest philosophy again. I know some are skeptical because I continue to hear the comments and complaints. I keep coming back to it because catch & release will be a part of your recreational sport fishing experience, I can guarantee it because in many cases regulations will require it. I am also convinced that more anglers voluntarily practicing catch & release and selective harvest will be good for our fisheries and can result in better quality fishing for all of us. That is why I will not let this go, and I will keep coming back to it.
So, think about, why do you fish?