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Catch & Kill & Release

Back in the spring I was paddling the shallows, casting into likely spots to see what kind of fish I could get into. This pond – a slow part of a river, actually – holds largemouth, smallmouth, chain pickerel, yellow perch, stocked trout and salmon, and a handful of other species. I had already landed a large pickerel and a number of perch, but larger fish were elusive. In this situation it is always and only the fault of the lure, so I decided that after one more cast I would switch to something larger. This would, of course, elicit strikes from the larger fish I had been presenting my paltry offering to already.

One more cast. Famous last words. For many anglers they mean a few more hours on the water past the point when good judgement would have had them home. For a few, it is the cast from which memories are made. “Then he hit,” you brag, “on the last cast of the day.” Incidentally, you probably made a few more casts. But what is a little embellishment between fishermen?

For one golden shiner, “one more cast” wasn’t just a phrase. It was a death sentence.

At this point in the story I have already tipped my hand. A fish died. That, both in context and in a vacuum,  is  a sentence that sends the online angling police after you these days. The shedding of innocent golden shiner blood? Too much to bear. Capitalizing on the tragedy with pictures and jocularity? Atrocious.

Let me explain.

I wasn’t fishing for golden shiners. I don’t know anyone who does fish for golden shiners. Golden shiners are the fish you buy when you want to fish for other fish. This little guy must have had an appetite, the self confidence, and a level of aggression that  was bound to get him killed. The little streamer (some sparsely tied bucktail that one uses when he or she wants to feel authentic fly fishing in the north woods) was way too large for this shiner. To be  honest, the color pattern was awfully reminiscent of a young golden shiner. So go ahead and add cannibalistic  infanticide to the list of this particular fish’s less-than-savory character flaws.

Again, it was the last cast with this small streamer. Just to be sure. Normal cast: to a submerged pine tree. Normal retrieve: steady strips. The kind of cast that is effectively cleaning off the fly for repositioning in the fly box.

Then it hit. I didn’t set the hook exceptionally hard. If anything, a soft six-weight makes setting the hook hard impossible. I’d like to see the bass tournament guys lay into a fish on a nine-foot, medium-action rod. They’d probably have to do a quick backwards somersault to generate the same torque that they normally achieve. So my hook set was not at fault. But, it was hard enough to set in motion the near-instantaneous series of events that follows:

I set the hook, and immediately there was a lack of resistance. Not the absence of weight necessarily, rather that awkward sensation of free fall that triggers the brain to think that some motion is impending. That is when I saw the shimmering flash heading towards me. A flinch sent my head downward. It was all about self preservation. But it positioned my gaze right between my knees at the top of the blue plastic kayak. This is where it landed.

It landed with a soft thud, the kind of noise one would expect a dead fish to make. And dead it was. The chain of events fortuitously allowed me to focus on this golden shiner from the moment it entered my craft. No fin flick, no eye roll, no slow arching of the spine. Dead.

What happened?!? How does one catch a dead fish?!? What is wrong with this pond?!?

Then I saw the hook. I’ve hooked fish in bad places before. Deep hooks, hooks through the eye, even treble hooks all over the mouth. Messy circumstances, to be sure. But this golden shiner, in all of his impetuousness, struck my fly  with such force that he brained himself. Right up and out of the skull, just behind the eyes. Killed the little fella instantly. I like to think he didn’t feel any pain. One minute he’s thinking he gets a nice meal, the next he’s in fishy valhalla.

This can happen in fishing. It isn’t just unavoidable, it is inevitable. So you get a free meal. Unless it is a golden shiner. Then you still “release” it. Let it flutter down to Davy Jones’ locker. Unceremoniously, because it is a golden shiner that you just killed in medieval fashion… what else are you going to do? Just paddle away, whistling and acting like nothing happened.

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