[Adapted from “To Free a Salmon is to…, which appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of the Atlantic Salmon Journal, and was originally accompanied by photos from Jean-Guy Béliveau]
After absolutely brutal returns in the Gulf Region in 2014, mandatory live release of all salmon was extended to grilse. This measure was welcomed by conservationists, yet it has been, and will surely remain, a contentious issue. Here I want to consider one frequently invoked premise that does not receive enough critical attention in these debates: that salmon angling is only worthwhile if we can take one home.
There is growing evidence to the effect that mandatory live release is an effective conservation measure. Furthermore, in no way does it have to be a barrier to tourism and economic prosperity. Live release fisheries all over North America sustain local sport fishing economies. In the case of the Atlantic salmon, it is generally accepted that there are important spawning differences between multi sea-winter salmon and the mostly male grilse that migrate up our rivers. The former may indeed be more vital to the reproduction of the species, but the important role of grilse is increasingly being recognized. In any case, with the numbers so disastrously low, every fish that overcomes impossible odds by making it back to the river should be left to continue its spawning run. I very much hope there is a day when we can once again take home a salmon for dinner. If not in my lifetime, then perhaps in my children’s. But today isn’t that day. It simply isn’t reasonable or responsible.
It may be the case that some people fish only for retention. But is harvesting grilse so critical that people will actually stop angling altogether in light of its prohibition? I’ve spent some of the best mornings and evenings of my life slowly working pools that almost surely didn’t even hold fish. Never mind keeping one, the chances of even hooking a fish are often negligible. I know that I’m not the only one who engages in this practice, which must seem bizarre if not a little bit deranged to most non-anglers. Fishers like to catch fish, no doubt. But even more, we like to fish. Even where retention is prohibited, or the chances of a hookup are low, anglers continue to enjoy the sport. What is it, then, that keeps us fishing?
I think any investigation into this question must begin with the water itself. There is an anthropological argument that among our many differences from other primates, humans evolved — partially at least — as semi-aquatic creatures. Sustaining ourselves on the bounty offered by the water has been an important part of our evolutionary history. Sport fishing of all sorts — if only because it returns us to the water — reconnects us with a deep truth about our species. In this light, we might do well to consider the invention of waders to be much more important than the development of carbon rods or expensive reels with disc drag. Our waders put us back in the water — literally. We feel a certain at-home-ness, a naturalness that words do not easily describe, when we are immersed in the water. Only here do we gain an acute sense of the various flows and their interaction that make up a stream, of the specific characteristics and contours of the riverbed, of the myriad ecological processes that occur on and beneath the surface of the water, and even of the temperature and colour of the water itself.
Meanwhile, there are also the things that we can’t perceive, such as the presence of fish holding in a deep pool. The unknown and unexpected elements make the water mysterious to us, and enchanting. I suspect they also account for the eternal — and often unwarranted — optimism of the angler. All these things combine to make our time on the water not merely an exercise in hunter-gathering, but a genuine and meaningful aesthetic experience. Every time we step in the water we experience and learn something new, even before we wet our lines.
The value of our time spent in nature is increasingly being recognized. Humans live in complex social structures, hold incredible knowledge provided by modern science, and benefit from inspiring technological achievements. Nonetheless, when we are away from all of these things we find not only respite from the intensity of the modern world, but also a chance to contemplate the deeper truths of our being. Henry David Thoreau wrote that “there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.”
As humans we have been endowed with powerful abilities to manipulate and control nature to our own ends. But it is also the case that there is more meaning to be found in simply learning from nature, from experiencing what it can offer us. There is a great deal of magic in simply trying to attune oneself to the complexities of an ecosystem. Its rhythms, its various processes and relationships, the life that occurs at every level and at every moment, are all truly enchanting. It seems to me that those who fish for Atlantic salmon are particularly fortunate in this regard. If experiencing nature is meaningful, then angling for the most beautiful fish, that also happens to inhabit some of the world’s most beautiful places, must be especially meaningful. Rather than complain that we aren’t allowed to keep a grilse, we should contemplate our good fortune at having the opportunity to even connect with such a magnificent creature in the places it still swims wild.
The most exhilarating part of the sport can still be enjoyed even if the fish goes back in the water when it’s over. I will always remember the day I caught my first salmon. It was mid-August and some rain had brought the water up enough to get some fish moving. My grandfather and I worked our stretch of river slowly and methodically. He fished ahead of me, throwing perfect loops with his antique Hardy fibreglass 8-weight. As morning faded to midday and the air warmed, it didn’t seem like we were going to have any luck. We decided to fish one more pool. Before I knew it a feisty grilse was making my Pfleuger Medalist sing a song I didn’t know existed. Nor did I know my heart could beat so hard. After I played the fish successfully, my grandfather slapped me on the back and said, “Isn’t that the most fun you’ve ever had with your pants on?” I couldn’t disagree.
Most of us know just how exciting it is when a big, powerful fish puts a deep bend in your rod and takes line off your reel. With every cast we hope to hook something. Even a roll gets your heart going. It’s much less often, though, that we ask why it is that playing a fish is so exhilarating. It’s too simple, I think, to say that it’s the fight. To be sure, fighting such an athletic fish is thrilling. But there’s something more than the thrill, something deeper. When we have a fish on, we’re connected to something that is wild, something that is alive. Linked to a fish by nothing more than a thin line, we are all too quickly reminded of just how dynamic, powerful, and truly wild nature can be. We may eventually get the fish to a net, but at no point in the fight is that ever a guarantee. By connecting with the life of the fish, we make ourselves more alive. All the more so when the fish is allowed to continue living — to keep being wild — when the fight is over. As Harry Thurston has put it so eloquently, “It is our own spirit that is freed in the act of letting go the silver ghost.”
For these reasons and many more, it pains me that there are those who want to reduce salmon angling to fish retention. At 27 years old, I’ve fished most of my life under conditions in which live release is the most responsible option. It’s never kept me off the water. I hope some day I will be able to keep a fish for dinner, a day when the salmon runs are strong, healthy, and sustainable.
Even more than that, I hope the sad day never comes when there are no salmon left. Our rivers would still flow, and they would still be beautiful, but surely they would be less magical. Last year my first son was born and I’m already looking forward to spending time on the river with him. I can’t wait to pass on to him the tradition of salmon fishing that was passed on to me. Someday I hope he can in good conscience have the satisfaction of eating a salmon that he has caught himself. But much more importantly, I want him to learn the meaning of wild fish swimming freely, to experience and appreciate beautiful rivers and ecosystems, and to know the quiet dignity of fly angling. And for now, that means — mandatory or not — putting every salmon back.