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Catch-and-Release: Tending Toward the Light

Posted on September 23 2008

It was Sunday afternoon, and the bait buckets swung in the outgoing current from long nylon ropes. All fifty feet of the fishing pier was filled with anglers offering everything from cut mullet to bacon to live shrimp, hoping for anything that might bite. Jacks occasionally drove in to massacre the baitfish attracted to shadows, and my son jumped up and shouted whenever the water started to churn.
After about two hours of catching everything from pompano to pinfish and even a ray or two, we saw a man with an oversized rod bent almost double. This kind of thing always attracts a lot of attention on a pier. He soon brought a large black drum into his partner’s long-handled net. “Wow!” said the kids on the dock. “That fish is well over 30 pounds,” proclaimed the daily dock expert. (It was about 18.) “But they get kind of wormy, so check his gills and see.” A couple of minutes passed as the catcher and the crowd scrutinized the fish and determined that sure enough, it had worms. “You’re not going to let it go, are you?” someone yelled. The catcher smiled uncomfortably but said nothing. “Hold him up, I’ll get the camera.” Minutes passed while the friend took photos, first with man holding the fish, then with the man holding the fish with his kids, then with the man, the kids, and his other friends.
Then, with a sheepish grin, the man took one last long look at the fish and dropped him off the end of the pier. No doubt he felt he was doing something magnanimous. “We’ll catch him another day,” someone observed. It was, to all appearances, a “waste-not, want-not” moment, as close to sublime as pier fishing gets.
Of course the fish was dead by the time he was released, and I had to explain to my son on the way home why fish require a lot more care if you want them to survive. “I know, dad.” I put myself in his place and tried to see what happened through his seven-year-old eyes and realized that he knows a lot more about catch-and-release fishing than I ever did at his age. He doesn’t mind using live bluegill to catch bass, and he kills redfish for dinner, but the fish he doesn’t kill he releases in the water, if he can. He understands something that I didn’t discover until I was in my teens: that there’s a kind of bargain we agree to in exchange for having the chance to fish.
Renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell got it closest to right, as far as I can tell, as anyone. He said that everything we do has a negative impact on someone or something. What’s important, he noted, was “tending toward the light.” The ethics of catch-and-release strike me as a matter of degrees. Even degrees of separation, if you will. The closer you are to your catch — the more you know about how they live, what they do — the more inclined you are to be a careful custodian. If you’re a dad fishing on a pier with your kids on a Sunday afternoon and catch a whopper and let it go, you’re tending toward the light too. The kids will learn. It’s a matter of degrees.
As for the rest of our Sunday, my groans about pier fishing were repaid as we walked through our garage and by the skiff. “Let’s go out on the boat tomorrow, dad. We see so much more.”

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