A Fishing Story of Your Own

Fishing seems to offer an endless supply of life metaphors. In A Fly Rod of Your Own, the writer John Gierach describes his approach to fishing tackle. Amidst all the shiny new gear and expensive gadgets, he reflects that sometimes everything we need to enjoy a day on the water fits into a pocket or a small tin tackle box. There is certainly a lesson here about happiness in life and this lesson can be learned as effectively out in the woods as anywhere else.

Gateway to Conservation

Like many outdoors people, fishing was my gateway into the worlds of hunting and conservation. It was the first time in my life that I deliberately engaged with the natural world and wildlife in its habitat. So I feel somewhat remiss for not having written more deliberately about fishing to this point.

My fishing career followed a trajectory that is probably familiar to many. I was about 6 years old the first time I hooked a log and was convinced I was about to become the old man from Ernest Hemingway’s famous story. I was 12 years old when I received my first fly rod and waded out into a lakeside to lose flies and tangle lines. I filled my tackle box with as many lures and rubber worms as I could get my hands on. I caught very little. At 33 years old, I caught my first Arctic char in a fiord at the base of the Torngat Mountains in Labrador.

Stories Shaped by Place and People

Fishing is often described as an art as much as a sport and fishing writing seems to follow suit. With only a passingly convincing understanding of rod weights, hook sizes, and fishing tactics, I am by no means a gear expert. So while I sometimes feel out of my element among both the artistic and technical writers, I appreciate fishing for its accessibility and its sense of simplicity that allows almost anyone to drop a hook into the water and with the correct mindset, enjoy themselves.

The cliché is true though, that a good fishing story is often about much more than fishing. Take the Montana fly fisherman Norman Mclean’s iconic story, A River Runs Through It. Montana now has an annual festival dedicated to Norman Mclean and his contributions to fishing writing and culture. Though, as the Billings Gazette explains, “Norman Maclean’s appeal goes far beyond bookworms. Instead, it could be a template for celebrating the style of stories shaped by place as much as people that won Maclean acclaim.”

Montana-based writer Normal Mclean, author of A River Runs Through It. Source: Goodreads

Nevertheless, fishing writing is a world that remains somewhat of a mystery to me. I suppose that part of the reason I have not attempted to write about fishing before now is a lingering worry about an adaptation of the Reverend Maclean’s old moral code about fishing from A River Runs Through It, that perhaps nobody who does not know how to write about fishing should be allowed to disgrace fishing by writing about it. Powerful fishing writing has the ability to bring the reader into a new place and to make one feel at home there or instill a deep desire to visit the place.

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Art, Sport, and Conservation

As both an art and a sport, fishing combines grace, excitement, uncertainty, curiosity, exploration, and the direct engagement with the natural world and its food that many of us love about hunting and other outdoor activities. As the writer and conservationist Steven Rinella has described it, fishing isn’t only about fish, casting into the water is like asking a question, and somehow an empty hook is still a satisfying answer.

But fishing is also full of ethical and conservation issues and I care deeply about the pressures facing fish and their habitat throughout the world. Freshwater ecosystems, including lakes, rivers, and streams, are some of the most vulnerable habitats to the environmental threats facing the world. Pollutants from agricultural and industrial runoff, invasive species, and the construction of dams threaten freshwater habitats and species around the world. The health of ocean habitats, including coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds, has declined dramatically throughout the world. Eighty percent of fish stocks in the world’s oceans have experienced some form of overexploitation.

North Arm of Saglek Fiord in Torngat Mountains National Park, Nunatsiavut, Labrador.

Over the last year, I have had the wonderful fortune to spend time fishing in the ocean for the first time in my life and I now fully understand the excitement of saltwater fishing. When I moved to Nain, the northernmost community on the coast of Labrador in spring 2017, I spent that entire summer fishing for Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus), the favourite fish among most people in the community and delicious table fare. That summer was a good lesson in disappointment; I finished the season without catching a single char. In addition to questioning the deficiencies in my own method and skill, the experience also made me interested in the natural history of Arctic char.

Arctic Char

Arctic char is a member of the salmon family. Char occur throughout the circumpolar north and are the most northern freshwater or anadromous fish (ocean fish that migrate up rivers to spawn in the fall). Char are brilliantly metallic on the outside and have a bright pink, perfectly flaky and mild flesh when cooked. The botanist Carl Linnaeus first scientifically described Arctic char in 1758 as a species of salmon. In 1836, Arctic char was classified as a species in the genus Salvelinus and is now the most widespread species in the genus.

Arctic char dispersed throughout its range following glacial retreats at the end of the Pleistocene. In Canada, two forms of Arctic char are typically recognized: one that lives west of the MacKenzie Delta and one that extends east throughout the central and eastern Arctic. Its range in North America runs from Maine up through Newfoundland and Labrador, across the Arctic ocean and archipelago to Alaska.

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Anadromous char live in coastal marine areas near their birth rivers while there are other freshwater populations that are landlocked and spend all of their time in inland lakes. Unlike other members of the salmon family, char do not die after they spawn. After spawning in the fall, adults will return to their ocean habitats the following spring. Char are classified as least concern by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. However, research has noted that char, as with other northern fish species, are likely to be impacted by potential changes in their environments as a result of increased temperatures associated with climate change. There is ongoing research throughout their range to better understand stock structures, migration patterns, and the potential impacts of harvest.

Fishing for Arctic Char

This past July 2018, I had the opportunity to travel to the Torngat Mountains in northern Labrador and fish for Arctic char. During one of our afternoons, we took a boat into Torr Bay, a small cove on the south side of Saglek Fiord, just outside Torngat Mountains National Park. The water in these bays is clear to a sandy bottom that slopes gradually out from rocky and boulder-strewn shorelines.

I had prewarned the other four people in the boat that if I managed to catch a char, I would do very little to attempt to play it cool and hide my excitement. We were about 100 yards out from shore and casting with spinning rods and Blue Fox Pixee lures towards shore for char that were likely feeding on small fish and crustaceans in the shallower water. The method in these regions is a very basic smooth retrieve or a slight crank and retrieve that you might more commonly use with a Rapala.

Typically not one for a grip and grin shot, but always one for an admiration of a beautiful fish shot. One of the first char I caught and in a very special place with some wonderful people. Photo credit: Kristeen McTavish

A couple of the other people in the boat started to hook fish and brought in a couple beautiful char. At that point, char had become my unicorn of the fish world, so when I felt that first char take my hook and then saw the flash of silver and pink splash out of the water about 20 yards from the boat, it was one of the most exciting moments in my recent memory and one I would relive a hundred times if I could. I don’t think we often compare the excitement and sense of achievement we feel in catching a particular fish with killing a big game animal, but I am proud to say I felt as excited at that moment as I did the first time I shot a deer.

I’m not sure if there is any science to this phenomenon, but once I had managed to catch one char, it was like the fishing equivalent of adjusting your game eye to a new place – when you finally pick out a deer for the first time in a new landscape and train your eye, you wonder how you ever missed them. After the first fish, I felt somewhat more attuned to the nuances of where to target a cast, how deep to let the lures sink, and how to retrieve. For a time in the boat that day, I almost had a difficult time casting without catching a fish and it was absolutely thrilling.

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A Fish of Place and People

Arctic char is the most fun fish I have ever caught. It’s perfect. They dive, splash, and run, allowing you to be patient and enjoy the time from hook set to landing. I was able to watch that fish fight and flash through the water as I brought it to the boat, and there was of course part of me that felt it was over too quickly. As I lifted the fish out of the water and looked at it, beneath the excitement of catching my first char was also a sense that I was a little less of an imposter now. It was a comforting feeling that, as if by catching a fish that is so appreciated here, I felt like I understood the landscape itself just a little better.

Learning how to make char pitsik (dried fish). Photo credit: Kristeen McTavish

Maybe that’s what catching fish comes down to sometimes. It’s hard to really feel like you know a place until you begin to understand its rhythms and nuances. But when we enjoy a place, we want to cross that imaginary line between looking at its pieces and seeing its whole. Maybe being successful fishing shows us that we have come to learn that place a little better, and that’s a nice feeling.

I don’t consider myself a catch and release fisherman. My motivation to fish is always driven by the desire to catch food. So I was lucky that the group I was fishing with had plenty of interest in eating char on that trip. I will gladly and humbly admit that as soon as I started catching char, I did not want to stop catching char. Every fish I hooked refilled my excitement about the feeling of catching char. Every fish I took out of the water was magnificent in its connection to thousands of years of evolutionary history and in its deep cultural significance for human communities in Labrador who have relied on char as an important food source for many generations. I am also grateful that I now have a char fishing story of my own.

At the end of the day, this is my motivation to catch fish. Here is a char stuffed with veggies and spices and baked in the oven.

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