“We have made the natives set up and take notice, I have really caught a trout, and Edward has enjoyed real fishing. Now we can go on our way.” Margaret Gehrke, Grand Lake, Colorado July 24, 1917
I am working on a book project that has me thigh deep in the camping and fishing practices of the early 1900s. Edward and Margaret’s travels and triumphs over trout are well documented in her journals and as I find so many parallels in their wanderlust with our own, a striking difference that I wrestle around is the taking of fish. The “Red Letter Fishing Day” that they experienced that July day in 1917 was the first day of twenty two years of catching many, many trout together. There are days Margaret reports in excess of twenty fish dangling from Edward’s string as he comes back to camp, and there are days she is exasperated at the thought of eating one more trout. But he keeps catching, and they start handing trout out at campsites like excess firewood. Only on a rare occasion do they appear to temper catching to what can actually be eaten, and releasing them doesn’t seem to come up. Fishing was sport and fishing was keeping.
So here we are almost one hundred years later, having swung the other way. Guilt trips over keeping a fish are much more common than a stringer bursting with spotted beauties. We had to make a change to preserve fish stocks. It’s easier to understand limits and release practices when you see how it used to be. Setting bag limits based on the fish populations and sustainability is necessary to prevent stripping ourselves of our muses that keep us out there throwing flies at water. Always releasing, however, goes too far the other way and diminishes a significant part of the biology and nature experience we seek. For me it has to be a balance–mindful of the ethics of the particular stream, the size of the fish in my net, and the ability to take the gift I’ve been given to the campfire or table. I’m not out there for maximum numbers of inches or tails.
I’m grateful to Ed for his enthusiasm for fishing, and to Margaret for sitting beside the lakes and streams with her journals recording the fish tales. I am also very glad he didn’t get all the trout out of the Gunnison River when he passed through the neighborhood in 1929. I love the fact he and I can share a river all these years apart.