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Photo by Hansi Johnson

It’s time for a slow-fishing movement

By Stephen Sautner

“Prob hooked 50.”

The words felt strange as I texted a quick report to my friend Dave. But it was true; I’d spent the better part of the afternoon Euro-nymphing, and the fishing was indeed ridiculous. Within the first hour, I had already hooked more than a dozen; by hour two, I lost count. Wild browns—nice fish up to 18 inches—with the occasional thick, foot-long brookie mixed in. In the evening I switched to twitching attractors in some fast runs and landed another ten or so until I finally quit at dark.

By the time I hit send, the day had basically become a blur of hooksets, thrashing fish, and rapid-fire releases. A few hasty photos of larger trout cradled in my half-submerged hand served as documentation of the day, but little else. Any poetry of a perfect cast, soft take, or arcing leap was lost in the sheer numbers.

Before last season began, I found myself with an unshakable urge to make my fishing days more “epic.” Maybe it was those ads in fishing magazines that said I needed to “Crush Variables,” or that “Failure was not an Option.” Or videos that showed cool-looking dudes repeatedly hooking-up and fist-bumping in high-def. Whatever it was, my own modest fishing success suddenly felt anemic. It was time to level up.

First, I made key purchases: top-of-the line prescription sunglasses with low-light lenses; wading boots with carbide studs that I individually tightened with a socket wrench and
a drop of super glue; a heavy-duty collapsible wading staff that came in a quiver I could unsheathe like a sword. Then I tied dozens of tungsten-beaded nymphs and CDC everything and inserted them in my fly box like bullets in an ammo clip.

I learned new super-fast knots and studied how to swap out leaders more efficiently as conditions changed. Previously “lucky” fishing shirts were replaced with camouflage hoodies so I could melt into streamside vegetation.

By opening day, I had transformed into an angler-assassin. And it paid off, I guess. The new gear allowed me to approach fish I had surely been missing or spooking, and the techniques I learned minimized wasted time previously spent fussing with fly changes or clumsily retying a new leader. By the end of the spring, I had probably caught more wild trout than in the past five years combined. From bluelines to bigger rivers, I wielded my new gear with great affect, swashbuckling through pools and runs and racking up impressive numbers. Sure, I still got skunked in tough conditions, or found risers I couldn’t fool, or casts I couldn’t make. But when I was dialed in, the fish came… and came. Gigabytes on my phone were filled with the same image of my submerged left hand holding yet another trout.

But it also began to feel a little, I don’t know… gluttonous. When fish number eight becomes fish number 28 and you still want to cast for number 48, then wake up in the morning and go for number 58, and then eventually 98, you may have crossed the threshold from gentle sport to the dark side of mindless fish-counting.

I noticed something else, too. I started catching the same fish over again. When I scrolled through images of certain trout from certain rivers, I recognized identical spot patterns from fish caught the week before or the previous month. One day I landed a foot-long brown that had my nymph still stuck in its upper jaw from a week earlier—a break-off from a double header on a tandem rig (so much for barbless hooks falling out in 24 hours). The fish stared back at me from the net, now with two Frenchies in its mouth. Its expression seemed to say: “Hey bud, what’s your problem?” That’s when I also started to feel, if not guilty, then maybe a little silly, all decked out in my angler-ninja gear, hellbent to catch every trout in the river. Twice.

Consider today’s astonishing technology available to anglers: 8x fluoro leaders, sunglasses with “sweat management channels,” satellites orbiting the earth beaming real-time data of stream levels and water temps directly into our phones. Perhaps a thousand years’ worth of instructional videos that show every fly ever tied, and every trick, slackline cast ever thrown, are but a URL away. We’ve got rods with “smooth loading, quick recover action that allow precise accuracy at short distances without sacrificing the power and backbone necessary for punching flies at longer distances through the wind.” If you can’t catch a fish with that, better take up pickleball.

So, it’s no wonder I caught fifty trout that day. It wasn’t even that hard, and I’m no Landon Mayer. I was in the right place, the fish were turned on, and I just kept catching them. It was that simple. But it got me thinking about all the other would-be Landons, Leftys, and Aprils out there, not to mention the guides and lodges all putting their sports onto “whacking days” of unlimited hook-ups. And therein lies what could be a problem: how many angler-ninjas can a wild-trout population take?

Maybe not that many. On my home waters here in the Northeast, some of the trout are starting to look a little beat up—a mangled jaw here, missing scales there. Others seem to fight timidly, as if their wildness was broken from that last release, measurement, and photo-op. And these are the survivors. I recently read a stat that said catch-and-release mortality for trout can vary from as little as one percent to as much as twenty depending on conditions. So, if you whack fifty, anywhere from half a trout to ten can wind up as crayfish food. But mortality isn’t necessarily measured in the grisly poundage of dead fish on the bottom of a river. Weaken a trout enough through rough handling or multiple releases and it may become a merganser’s breakfast. Maybe that’s why places like Labrador make you stop fishing for the day after you’ve released three Atlantic salmon (two on some rivers). They don’t want you to feed the seals.

So, what can we do? I’m not expecting us all to turn in our five weights, but as enlightened anglers, perhaps our goal should be this: use our technically advanced gear, data, and knowledge, yet collectively not catch so many trout. Instead of landing fifty, throttle back a little. Relax. Breathe. Study the river. Fish more but cast less. Let’s call it the “Slow-Fishing Movement.”

This is tough to imagine, I know. Who doesn’t want to catch every trout in the pool when the hatch is on and fish are crushing bugs on the surface? But then I think about the first modern fly angler who landed a big wild steelhead, considered it for a few moments, and then had the audacity to return it to the river. Imagine how his fishing buddies must have reacted, each of them dragging a rope stringer of dead fish. But worlds turn on such seemingly small actions. Today, if that same angler intentionally killed a big wild steelie, his friends might toss him in the river.

No numbers here. Photo by Jim Klug

That same discipline is needed to make a slow-fishing movement work. Maybe we should take a cue from my friend Dee who, after she releases a nice trout, sits by the water, unpacks a bowl from her sling pack, and smokes. Then she gazes at streamside trees, listens to the gentle chuckle of a riffle, or watches clouds float by. After what seems like a long, luxurious time, she gets up, saunters back into the river, and continues fishing. Her casts—when she makes them—are measured and thoughtful. She treats the stream like a farm-to-table tasting menu, not the all-you-can-eat buffet at Golden Corral.

Another friend told me about his brother, who’d reached a stage in his fishing evolution that allowed him to stroll to the river with a good bottle of wine and enjoy a glass or two while watching trout rise. His rod remained at home. To that I say, cheers.

Slow fishing can mean challenging yourself to only go for the best (or hardest) fish. I’ve been thinking about a well-known pool on the Upper Delaware. On a typical evening in May or June, maybe fifty sippers come out, and driftboats line up and take shots at them. I’ve joined the cue from shore and had amazing evenings of multiple releases. Meanwhile, just downstream, in a certain tailout away from the fleet, one, maybe two big browns power up from a downstream riffle and gulp mayflies against a grassy bank. When they show—and often they don’t—you can hear them slurping bugs from forty feet away. It’s a tough drift, but if you fool one there’s a good chance you’ll see your backing. Next spring, I vow to pry myself away from the more reliable sippers for shots at these mighty but mercurial fish. Even if that sometimes means never making a cast.

Another idea: ditch the Euro-nymphing and its gillnet efficiency for a day and instead swing some wet flies. Work on your midge game. Bring binoculars to watch trout rise or to look for warblers along the stream. If you’ve never zoomed in on a mayfly the moment it vanishes into the maw of a big trout, you are missing one of angling’s great joys. Plus, you might learn that they are taking #18 olives, not #16 sulfurs. Recently, I have taken to fishing enormous hair-wing spiders because violent, water-throwing takes are much cooler than another twitch of my indicator. I can probably hook ten on the nymphing rig for every one on the big dry, but the latter is far more rewarding.

As I continue considering ways to personally fish slower, I want to be clear to my fellow anglers: I am not judging. This is a philosophy, not an edict. And to those who have not yet guzzled from the goblet of fifty-trout days: Continue to fish hard and you will likely someday achieve that goal. If you do, feel free to stroll down the mountain to a gentler river, where, hopefully, some of us former assassin-types will be making slow, measured casts, or perhaps none at all.

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Stephen Sautner

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