Blood and Water
The first mottled bronzey smallmouth bass brought to hand after a long fishless winter should move an angler to gratitude and bliss. This one brings worry.
The fish was fooled too well.
Plumes of crimson escape its gill covers with every pump as it rests in the net. Despite its bulging belly, or perhaps caught up in the feeding frenzy brought on by late spring’s warmer flowing waters because of it, the bass has swallowed the fly.
Looking closer I breathe a little easier. The fish has not really engulfed the hellgramite imitation, but the fly is deep. Its hook has slipped into a notch in the left gill chamber. And that tiny, delicate contact point was where the entirety of pressure and leverage generated by a 175-pound man wielding a 9-foot fly rod had all come to bear on the now bleeding 12-inch smallmouth bass.
Smallmouth are tough little beasts. With gentle handling and careful hook extraction the bass should be fine. But after more than a minute of slow and soft maneuvering with the hemostat, the hook is still there. The bass has stopped moving. It shudders and then tilts lazily until its creamy olive underside rides near the water’s surface. Liquid breaths come slower and weaker. Through no effort of mine, the hook finally comes free.
The blood trail that does not end at a dead deer’s snow-white belly hairs glowing in the dark autumn woods. An errant shot that leads to the struggling flight of a wild turkey escaping my leaping grasp and fluttering across a greening hollow never to be found. The frantic scrambling scurry of a fox squirrel into a knot hole after my .22 bullet has broken its lower spine but not its will. All of these failures as a predator are part of my history as a predator. Just as the bobcat and coyote so often draw blood but not a meal, so do I.
I can’t fathom a guess as to whether bobcat and coyote also deal with the mental anguish and guilt of inflicting pain without ending it. Though, I reckon it is only my privilege as a predator who hunts even with a full stomach that affords me this contemplation.
While killing personally is how I get my meat, too, unlike my wild felid and canid kin I am fully, painfully aware of my imperfections. And my risks—which barely rate as risks at all—are only that I might have to barter for meat that someone else has procured and often by means considered unsavory for the thinking, tender carnivore. I don’t have to go all out, endangering life and limb for hunks of bloody protein. I won’t go hungry if I fail. My ease of living can be traced back to ancestors from eons ago swinging through trees, looking for ripe fruit equipped with a mental map passed down from generations before. Then they took those gifts—the intellectual and the physiological—in an apex-predator direction once they dropped to the ground and stood tall on only two feet.
But these planet-ruling endowments have also burdened me with a full awareness that my decisions radiate beyond just me. My decisions bring pain, suffering, and death to those creatures who never left an existence I can’t even imagine anymore. Despite my hand-wringing, I’m at peace with this balance. Pain, suffering, death, and digestion is the way of the world. If I choose an active and direct role in the circle while blessed with powers incomprehensible to those whom I pursue in order to make them my food, emotional turmoil for my actions and errors seems a pittance.
But I don’t fly fish for food. I don’t catch bass to eat. Which raises the question I’ve been asking myself for a while now. Why do I fish?
There is not one folded memory of a time when I did not fish. Family legend says I was holding a cane pole before I could walk. Fishing is as much who I am as my spiraled fingertips and cornbreaded voice.
But “this is what I’ve always done” is the lamest and laziest of reasons to do anything.
If I brought the smallmouths home with me and filleted their bodies, separating pastel flesh from their stone-colored skin and scales their suffering could be justified. If they joined the venison and turkey in my freezer as sustenance earned rather than bought my fishing is validated. But smallmouth bass in our Ozark creeks, like so many other species in so many other waters, likely wouldn’t be around today if everyone fished for this one “right” rationale. And outside of this oldest of reasons for anything the arguments are leaky at best.
The tightest is a too-on-the-nose analogy of connection, a tethering to my person and place, to who I am and where I’m at in a sense galactically larger than tradition. I want to wade into the waters and know them in ways only found through submersion. I want to seek out the wild, entice it, feel its writhing rhythms pulse through thin line. I want to know it as prey because I am predator. But without consumption, without this final consummation, the act is hollowed. Is it really knowing?
Outside of these oh-so-human longings for a relationship with what we have lost, I’ve got nothing. If you’re looking for an argument as to “why” I catch and release fish that paints me as fishing for anything other than a dim attempt to fill my empty soul, it’s not here.
I often wonder what kind of terrible god I must be in the eyes of the smallmouth bass. What must they think of me, if they think of anything except survival, as I pull them struggling and gasping for their very lives from the cool waters and into thin air only to look upon them with some wonder, ponder on their beauty, and then set them free so I can do it again? The blue heron and the otter capture fish with righteous purpose, the same righteous purpose I claim with a killing weapon in hand as I seek out the feathered and the furred. But my purpose is so ill-defined for the bass. I wonder if my actions are defilement.
Regardless of those convictions, I’m still peddling the wares and reasons to hook and play with these magnificent and precious creatures. It’s how I make my living. And I’m still fishing myself. I am both self-serving brute, running on instinct unleashed and unrelenting in the streams, and a soul tormented by what he is, trying feverishly to right his wrongs even as he wrongs again.
Even my best efforts leave a wake of wounded. Usually it’s just a sore mouth and exhausted body. But sometimes it’s blood in the water. Sometimes my actions lead to dead fish.
For more than 20 minutes I nurse the little smallmouth in my little net, righting and nudging and doing all that I know to do, when an idea comes to me. So I stick my thumb into its mouth and grasp its sandpaper bottom lip. It responds, as all smallmouth always do, by claiming its freedom, by fighting, though, feebly. It responds with resistance. I let the fish rest and then do it again and again and again, and each time its efforts grow stronger. The smallmouth’s last surge sends it backward over the net and into the slow currents near my feet. It gathers itself for a few seconds, pectoral fins undulating faster and faster, then shoots for cover under a boulder. The fish is alive because submission is impossible for the smallmouth.
I stand in the creek awed, as I am every time, by that fierce and unrelenting wildness that I want so badly to find within myself. My lack is not a defensible cause. But in my heart I know this is one reason why.
I retie the fake hellgrammite and splash through riffles to the next fishable water unsure of my motivations, suspicious of my justifications. I wonder if I am a good man but then realize that no such thing exists in the creek or anywhere outside of our made-up human world of right and wrong. But the made-up human world is my world and given all that I know, does catching these fish purely for my own selfish reasons make me a monster? Catch and release or catch and kill, I’m already a monster in the eyes of the bass just as the blue heron and otter are. Monster that I am, I still long for belonging.
The scriptures say that Jesus walked on the water, above it and the fishes, separated from it and them by his divinity. But I want to be in it, to become part of it. I think of how the water and minerals that make the creek and the fish are the same water and minerals that make me. I seek the sacred through the sensual. I find the sacred through immersion.
Sometimes, as I stand waist-deep in the gentle flow and shadows swallow amber light, a stillness settles over the hollows. In those quiet moments the call to singularity becomes nearly irresistible. With a soft bubbling voice it invites me to wade in deeper and dissolve, transform, transcend in the tumbling turquoise and green. But my time to deliquesce has not come just yet. So I search with line and hook for that something ineffable, hoping to touch the indefinable for one holy moment.
Even as the conflict rages in me with every cast and every gasping fish brought to hand, I think this is my why.