Monday, March 16, 2015

Why I Kill Trout

A while back I posted an article on my blog entitled “Cañones de Invierno”, which was a trip report from the cañones this past December.  In that article, I talked about catching, killing, and eating brown and rainbow trout.  I posted photographs of trout sizzling in a pan on top of a wood stove, and of those browns and rainbows grilling on top of some scraps of iron on a pile of glowing coals in an open fire.  While reading Facebook posts today, I found one where my partner on that December cañon trip, Eric Lynn, explained when and why he and I kill trout in the backcountry.  Eric, thank you for your explanation!  I’d like to expound upon what you wrote.

Eric Lynn with a brace of brown trout, ready for the pan.

I kill trout and eat them.  However, there are self-imposed limits to this, and more often than not, I strictly adhere to a catch-and-release ethic.  When, where, and why I kill trout is dependent on a number of factors.  I have chosen to live a disciplined life on many levels, and my tenkara is no different.

First, I never keep fish unless I’m backpacking, period.  I’m not quite sure why it bothers me to do otherwise, but there’s something about backpacking, spending one or more nights out in the boonies, and celebrating the fact that I’m totally self-sufficient, that makes catching and eating a trout or two acceptable.  Much of my wilderness backpacking is done to reconnect with my paleolithic roots, and I devote a lot of time practicing bushcraft, hunting, and fishing to hone those ancient skills so important to keeping myself safe and well-fed off the land.

Freshly caught trout and miso soup, cooking over hot coals in the backcountry.

Fellow backcountry hunter, and renowned hunting ethicist, David Petersen, wrote that fly fishing (which tenkara IS, in case you wondered) is little more than “hydraulic hunting”, a point of view shared with sporting writer, Steven Bodio, who Petersen quoted in his seminal book, Heartsblood.  In that book, Bodio talks about “the occasional killing and eating of trout as a means of reminding ourselves of the ancient visceral connection between human and fish, predator and prey…” 

This connection with ancient food procurement, buried deep in my genome, is important to me.  It’s why I hunt elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, dusky grouse, snowshoe hares, Merriam’s turkeys, and cottontails.  It’s also why I hunt and fish in the some of the most strenuous ways possible, backpacking and burro-packing deep into Colorado wilderness, far from any bail-out my pickup could provide.  It’s a hard life at twelve-thousand feet.

Brook trout, pine squirrel, rice, and tea.  Living off the land!

Second, the fish I kill and eat the most are brook trout, with exceptions in canyons where there are so many brown trout it could make your head spin.  The brook trout in Colorado’s streams need to be killed and eaten.  The fact that there are hundreds of miles of brook trout streams in Colorado, all filled with 7-9” fish, make it a literal buffet for the backcountry angler, since Colorado Parks and Wildlife offers liberal daily limits on squaretails.  Non-native brookies can put the hammer on native greenback cutthroats and, as nature writer Ted Williams has said (quoted by Petersen in Heartsblood) regarding the problem with brook trout in Rocky Mountain National Park, “Biologists there are trying to eliminate non–native brook trout to aid the comeback of threatened native greenback cutthroats.  Releasing a fish that needs to be removed from the ecosystem is worse than Zorba the Greek’s unpardonable sin of not going to a woman’s bed when called…”

A nice 12" rainbow from a tiny creek.  This one lived to swim another day.

Third, size matters.  I simply won’t kill a trophy trout, and “trophy” is subjective.  In the brook trout streams I frequent, a “trophy” fish is anything over nine inches.  The lower elevation semi-desert canyons I call home hold some amazingly big brown trout, and any fish there over a foot long lives to swim another day.  I’d rather chew cold elk jerky for supper than grill a ten-inch brook trout.  The big ones stay.

This one stayed in the canyon, as most of them do.

So, there you go.  That’s my take on “catch and munch” versus “catch and release”.  It’s a moving target, but it always boils down to letting the trout call the shots, and staying true to your ethics.  If those trout happen to be nine inch brookies, build a small fire, get out your grill or pan, and live off the land!