This is one of my favorite trout pictures.
I caught this brown trout in the highest reaches of a Pennsylvania limestone stream. This fish was remarkable for its color. This fish was exciting due to its relatively large size. But this fish was most special because it was caught in a place where most trout had been pushed out of. Development and poaching had taken their toll. The big browns had been displaced.
I’ve always loved the stream. To catch this fish, in this creek, at this time, was exciting.
The fish came from alongside a submerged log to sip a tiny midge. In the tight, brushy water, I knew immediately it was a good trout. I quickly netted the fish, laid it in the streamside grass, removed it from the net, and snapped a picture. Back the fish went into the water, and back I went to fishing.
That night at home I looked at the picture. I wasn’t on fly fishing social media. It was just for me. The digital photo quickly became the background of my desktop computer. The colors, the proportions, even the symmetry of the image’s composition captured my experience and that trout.
Even without social media as a teenager, I was generally aware of best practices when it came to fish handling. In the 90’s, there were plenty of magazines and Trout Unlimited meetings to pass on key principles. The fly fishing community was starting to see that stewardship entailed more than simply catch and release.
So, I did my best. Barbs were usually crushed on my hooks. Fish weren’t held out of the water for unnecessary periods of time. And I never grabbed trout with dry hands or beached them on dirt.
As was the case with the aforementioned brown trout, I’d sometimes put a fish on damp grass for a picture. Fishing a lot of spring creeks, there was almost always wet vegetation nearby. Plus, it wasn’t every fish. My conscious was never bothered, let alone seared.
Fast forward a few years. Right before I launched Casting Across, I had gradually immersed myself back into fly fishing culture. Blogs, YouTube, and Instagram had erupted in the years I’d spent as an angling nomad. All of the clichés, initiatives, and hashtags were immediately apparent.
Consequently, the last thing I wanted to do was look like a slack-jawed yokel by putting that brown trout picture on my website or social media accounts. It absolutely wouldn’t be worth the accusations. I saw what happened. Pictures of fish in a wide variety of scenarios led to calls of ignorance, selfishness, anti-conservationism, or whatever the web-righteous could muster with a few taps of their thumbs.
Some pictures were absolutely deserving of a reprimand. Others were a little questionable. Regardless, the tone and rhetoric were shocking.
So, the image hasn’t ever been on the website. Even though it’s one of my favorite trout pictures.
Shame is a funny thing. It certainly has its place. Even in the sub-culture that is fly fishing, there are some faux pas that need to be addressed. We should be thankful that snagging, wading through redds, and illegal activity are well policed by the community. Redirection, done wisely and with the appropriate tone, can act as encouragement or deterrent.
What about when the redirection is done in a comment online? When the white knight of the voiceless fish rides in, and without context lambastes his target with great vigor? What is accomplished when a new angler is told off? What is the net effect of a “I bet it was belly up downstream” on someone’s feed?
At the end of the day, where should the shame really fall?
Proper fish handling is important. Even more so than convincing all manner of anglers that catch and release is necessary at times, communicating the undeniable grey areas of handling fish takes work. After all, we’re talking about fishing. The whole point is to hook and reel in a wild animal. Admittedly, the best interest of the fish would be to not bother them at all.
In lieu of advocating that all fly fishers take up golf, the reactionary fervor might need to be tempered a bit. Drive-by lessons in ethics aren’t going to pay off. Especially when laced with some pejoratives, such comments are a lot more like vinegar than honey. All anglers, even those uninitiated in the finer points of the pursuit, should be seen as potential allies in conservation. Allies need edification, not a profanity laden reason to stop caring about the resource.
Allies also deserve the benefit of the doubt and correction, not shame.
I saw it again. Many times, the big brown would be back sipping midges. More frequently, it’s tail or fins would be visible as they flickered out from the shadows underneath the log. The trout seemed a but more cautious in its feeding patterns. That, or I had just gotten lucky on the day I fooled it.
I never caught the fish again. Despite my best efforts, all I could do was watch it enjoy its life. And I can look at my picture.