Ask Matt Labash

Ask Matt Labash: Meaningless charades, fish Abu Ghraib vs. fish Dachau, and why we fish

Matt Labash Columnist
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Hey Matt, you gone fishin’ or what? – Andrew

If only.  I’ve just been slammed at my day job.  We had 17 birthday parties in one weekend.  Somebody left a “Baby Ruth” in the ball pit. And the zipper on my Chuck E. Cheese costume got stuck.  I was trapped in it overnight.  Even after several showers, I still smell like Canadian bacon, sweaty toddlers, and stale urine. (I needed the fluids.)

I sincerely apologize for my several week absence.  But I wanted to see if all of our hearts grew fonder.  Since they haven’t, let’s just go ahead and press on with this meaningless charade.

Matt, I am also a catch-and-release fisherman. But sometimes I feel like I am just torturing fish for my own pleasure.  Perhaps I should fish to harvest a few for the dinner table and leave the rest alone. Torturing a fish with a fly, to experience the fight of a dying creature, then returning it to the water (where it is going “WTF!?!”) seems a little weird to me. I am much more comfortable catching, keeping and eating a fish, from a philosophical perspective. Is the sport in tricking the oft-caught fish?  That seems strange and overly technical to me, and is why I prefer wild fisheries – at least I have the virgin experience.   Hunting Creek near me, say, seems like someone’s backyard trout zoo.  But isn’t it even weirder to go after wild trout because they haven’t been caught before?  I want a fish that still fights because it doesn’t know it’s getting released?  I’m starting to feel a little like John Wayne Gacy here… The more you think about it, the more (maybe) you should eat what you catch….see John Hersey’s “Blues.” Hunting makes more sense than catch-and-release fishing.  Sorry… – The Cool Refresher

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy your eat-the-whole-buffalo-I-yearn-to-be-one-with-my-prey speech. But save it for your Robert Bly drum circle, you fierce fanged man.

Maybe I should eat what I catch?  I catch somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,200-1,500 fish each year. If I ate even half of what I caught, I’d have such severe mercury poisoning, that the only work I’d be suited for would be as a neon sign or a rectal thermometer. Is it fair to extrapolate from my numbers?  No, I’m like a child prodigy –  Rebecca Black with a fly rod.  But not even considering commercial fishing, there are roughly 30 million sport fisherpersons in the United States alone. So just imagine if they all kept a tenth of my take. You wouldn’t have many fish left to kill. Because they’d not just be taking out the fish that they killed, but taking out the future fish that the fish that they killed were unable to reproduce (female largemouth bass average 4,000 eggs per pound of body weight).

You do, however, pose an important philosophical question: why do we fish? Particularly when we don’t keep them.  There are several answers to this. For one, it’s a good excuse to get out of the house and to buy lots of gear. For two, the solitude fishing affords is probably better company than most of the company you keep. For three, how am I supposed to know?  We just do. Sometimes it pays not to think too much about the things we enjoy doing most, because when you actually break them down to their component parts, it can totally ruin the experience. Have you ever thought about how you look during sex? Don’t. Or you might never have it again.

But let’s be completely honest. Catch-and-release fishing, for all its airs, is at heart, low-grade torture from a fish’s perspective. I personally like to think that it helps me appreciate wild things, that it draws me nearer to creatures that I would not get to appreciate otherwise, since catching and releasing black bears, for instance, really isn’t in the cards.  From the fish’s perspective, however, I’m fairly certain that they’d be quite appreciative of remaining unappreciated, rather than being yanked by their lip to my hand with a woolly bugger.   So is catch-and-release fishing noble? No. Not really. You are feeding a different kind of appetite besides that of your belly’s.  You are scratching your predatory itch, participating in a blood sport, without all the gory inconvenience of the blood.  In some ways, it’s a coward’s way out.

That said, for the creel fisherman to pretend he isn’t doing the same, and then some, is abject hypocrisy, bordering on willful stupidity.  I don’t mind if people eat what they catch (in moderation, where whatever’s being fished for is plentiful). I do, however, mind when the person keeping fish lectures me, the catch-and-release fisherman, as though he’s the one actually doing the fish a favor.

Obviously, throughout the ages, people fished to eat. And for much of history, they had to fish to eat. Nothing wrong with that. (While I have killed fish before, I don’t anymore. Because I enjoy catching, rather than killing, and I have other food options.)  But your average bubba heading to the local stocked stream to take his five tank trout with pink gumball PowerBait usually has an array of food choices available to him as well, as the prodigious gut peeping out of his Git R’ Done t-shirt evidences. All the farm fish he needs killed to keep him in surplus protein already have been – at his local Food Lion.  So he can spare me the sanctimony about how killing the fish he catches for fun is somehow more ennobling than letting it go to fight another day.  If he was really just into catching fish for eating, and not because he didn’t enjoy the pursuit, why not just use a fish trap?

We’re both catching for fun, in other words. But only one of us is killing for fun. And if you really want to get into fish psychology – if catch and release fishing is, by its least generous interpretation, torture, then the moral-hierarchy question remains: would the fish prefer getting tortured or killed? If you were a fish, where would you rather live?  Fish Abu Ghraib (torture), or fish Dachau (death)?  Well, we don’t really have to guess what that answer is. Fish can’t talk, but they have spoken. For I’ve caught thousands and thousands of them. And not a one of them, when I place the fish back in the water and  release my grip, has stayed put  in my hand, begging me to put it out of its misery in Panko crumbs.  Instead what does he do?  He swims to freedom as fast as his little fins will carry him. All creatures who live, generally, want to continue living.  Except, perhaps, for Morrissey fans.  So rest assured that your “philosophical perspective” has everything to do with your comfort, and nothing to do with the fish’s.

Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” is now available in paperback from Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.

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Matt Labash