I know about all that. I had fished since I was six, mostly in the saltwater of the New England coast, almost always with my father and uncle. My father might have enjoyed fishing as sport, but I think he saw it as another way of providing for his family. We fished with heavy poles, sinkers, barbed hooks and bait. We took flounder from bays, haddock and cod from the Atlantic. We brought home everything we caught in buckets and tubs -- striped bass, bluefish, mackerel and eels. Only sharks were returned to the water, and we always killed them before tossing them back. Even when I was a kid fishing in ponds, the notion of releasing anything but the tiniest fish did not enter my mind. I brought home bass, pickerel and sunfish. What was the point of catching them if you could not show them to your parents, especially your father?
But, as I grew older, my vision changed. I wanted no part of this greed. I wanted to fix streams, not strip them. I could afford to buy trout for dinner; I didn't have to kill wild ones. For $35, I joined Trout Unlimited -- a conservation group, not a fishing club. I still enjoyed fishing, especially when it took me to pretty places with a fly rod and good friends, but I became a convert to the catch-and-release idea: Fool fish with flies tied on barbless hooks, land them, and gently release them; they'll be bigger when you catch them next year. It's what I teach my son and my daughter. They might one day see even this as a cruel invasion of the natural world. They might come to see my kind of fishing the way I see my father's and not want to fish at all. But that will be their choice, not mine.
For now, I fish. I catch. I catch and I release.
My father, of course, would never have understood this. He'd been brought up too poor to understand it, and he'd lived in a time when fish of all kinds appeared in endless abundance.
In 1971, he caught a 36-pound cod off the coast of Massachusetts. That wasn't simply a grand-looking fish that deserved to be photographed, then quickly returned to the over-harvested Georges Bank to procreate. To my father, that cod represented a week's worth of Portuguese chowder and a pile of fish cakes.
He probably would not have bothered to fish Father's Day Creek -- small water and small trout. "Dinky fish," he'd say.
But I found the place irresistible. A few times a year, I'd make a few casts to spots where experience told me I should have found a feeding trout. I found very few, and none more than 6 inches.
Finally, I decided to leave Father's Day Creek alone, making only one stop there a year.
Then in 1994, something important happened. Someone put up signs by a bridge: "These waters not stocked. Catch and release encouraged."
Apparently, the landowners had complained about the behavior of the bait-dunking spring fishermen who hiked through their woods to the river. The commonwealth had decided to stop stocking my favorite section of Father's Day Creek. And when word of this got around, the hunter-gatherers took their appetites elsewhere. Pierre said, "There's no trout there anymore," and he went off to pillage some other Pocono creek.
This meant the brown trout would be left alone. I suddenly felt, even in the height of spring, that I was the only person on Father's Day Creek. I may have been the only man who still believed in it. I had been given the privilege of watching what happens when people leave a natural trout stream alone.
Months went by, and years. The meadow trail into the woods to the river became overgrown with thorns and brush; each time I used it I had to clear it. In all my trips to the stream since then, I've encountered only four other fishermen, and they used fly rods and returned any trout they caught.
I kept notes in a fishing journal. Each year there were more brown trout in the feeding lanes of the river, and each year they were longer and fatter. In this delicate and beautiful place, progress was measured in inches.
In 1993 I caught only six-inch browns; in 1997 I caught 12-inch browns and, in 1999, I caught one at 14 inches. In 1994 I hooked only two trout on Father's Day; in 1998 I caught 10. I caught native brook trout, too, and small, stream-bred rainbows. I released them all.
This little renaissance made me feel even more protective of the stream. I made a point of never telling Pierre about the river's comeback, lest he plunder with brass and bait what had become a great river for fly-fishing.
Fly-fishing involves a lot of thinking about fish and their habitat, and many dismiss it as arcane, too expensive and too much trouble. The attempt to precisely and delicately cast a tiny artificial fly that imitates the size, shape and movement of the insects that trout crave can be a daunting exercise. The process looks to bait fishermen -- the descendant spirits of my father's generation -- like a lot of work for little reward. "All that for that?"