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Ask Matt Labash: Blood on his hands: Why gramps should be blamed for fishing out our rivers

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Matt, I often hear older fishermen whine that their favorite rivers don’t produce as many fish as they once did. But wait. Isn’t that a little like Idi Amin complaining about depopulation? Aren’t these the same fisherman who once killed every fish they caught? Shouldn’t we blame them for our empty rivers? Please help me assign blame where it’s due. Thanks, Kenny

Well said, Grasshopper. You’ve been paying attention when I preach the gospel of catch-and-release, a message that does not always go over so swimmingly with my conservative brethren from the kill-it-and-grill-it school (to whom I extend the culinary invitation: if you’re going to kill indiscriminately, don’t eat fish, eat me.) Make no mistake. It is a biblical injunction to respect our elders. And I do, in fact, rather like old people, even harboring ambitions to become one myself in due course, as it beats the hell out of the alternative.

I therefore will gladly listen, with deferential indulgence, to the elderly complain about any number of subjects, up to and including: hip injuries, the rising cost of prescription meds, the kids and their hip hop, and the abomination of the invaluable Spotify music service only allowing people to sign up through diabolically evil Facebook accounts (forgive me — that last complaint was mine, since I am an old soul, and am thus in training to become a whiner in my senescence.)

That said, as per your suggestion, let’s put the blame for depleted fisheries where blame is due: on gramps. For if there’s one complaint I won’t suffer through in silence, it is when older fishermen gripe that we just don’t put up the same kind of numbers like we did in the good ‘ol days. Yes, I’ve noticed. And I wonder why. Recently, I watched an excellent, scarcely-seen documentary called “Rivers of A Lost Coast.” Not only did it relate the tales of fly-fishing gunslingers like the late Bill Schaadt, a Mad Man of the River who was so eccentric that he used to tie flies with blades on the hook in order to cut the lines of rival salmon snaggers. But it also a story of decline, how majestic Northern California rivers like the Russian and the Eel and the Smith, once so thick with salmon and steelhead runs that you risked getting knocked into the drink if you waded through the riffles, finally turned into ghosts of themselves. Men who caught 200 steelhead a year in the ‘50s through the ‘70s are now lucky if they see even one after fishing hard all season.

There are, of course, plenty of contributing factors to this sorry state of affairs: from floods to droughts to logging to damming. But what one consistently sees in period photos of that time are rightfully proud fishermen, standing elbow to elbow in choice holes, or casting from prams as thickly stacked as bumper cars, desecrating the scenes of their greatest catches by holding stringers of silvers and chinooks and steelies and stripers as long as your leg. All of which they greedily kept as though the supply would last forever. The fish they took that day never lived to replenish the fish that they’d have liked to keep taking home in perpetuity.

In the film, it fell to the great writer, artist and fisherman, Russell Chatham, now decades older and wiser and transplanted to Montana, where the fishing is still reasonably good, to honestly lay bare the error of their ways: “We missed it. Conservation didn’t mean shit to us. I mean it was just, ‘How many can we catch.’” And now in those rivers, there’s not many left for the catching.

It is not just lone men and their fly rods, of course, who’ve helped fish populations plummet. Commercial fishing has given quite the boost to the fish holocaust. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, entire stocks of fish have now been either dangerously exploited or depleted, from Northwest Atlantic salmon, cod and haddock, to Pacific Bluefin tuna, to Mediterranean Bonito. Everybody takes what they need. Then they take a lot more.

So by all means, go fishing. On average, I do it several times a week, catch over 1,000 fish each year, and turn every single one of them loose. But go fishing with a conscience. Or there won’t be much left to fish for. There are other things to eat besides fish. And there are other reasons to fish besides filling your belly. For as the naturalist and Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy, even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth becomes part of his daily food.”

Or if you require something earthier, there is this from Russell Chatham, in his 1976 classic, “The Angler’s Coast”: “’The coldest winter I ever spent,’ wrote someone, ‘was a summer in San Francisco.’ I wonder momentarily if this, in part, explains the high suicide rate and high alcohol intake for which the City on the Bay is known. Frank {Chatham’s fishing buddy} and I are virtually within sight of well over a million people, yet alone. We are perhaps out of step, ill-placed and ill-timed, in a sphere where cogs must mesh and all parts syncopate to keep the system running smoothly. Even within the framework of angling as popular endeavor, our methods are archaic: fly rods and rowboats. But we are touching something unrestricted, wild and arcane, beyond the reach of those who carefully maintain one-dimensional lives. I know there are people in the city nearby whose one contact today with unreconstructed nature will be to step in a pile of poodle excrement.”

On the opposite side of this passage in his book, is a photo of Chatham holding a stringer of stripers as big as suitcases, all on the way to his frying pan. He was 27 years old then. He’s 72 now, and likely incapable of taking a similar present-day photo. Proving that with age, often does come wisdom.

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