Over My Waders


by Howard T. Walden, 2cd (from Upstream and Down, 1938)

The major virtues of mankind are ill-defined and difficult of elucidation. The virtue of sportsmanship is no exception; indeed it is the vaguest of the lot, the least amenable to definition and analysis. What is sporting to one man is gross to another. What I call sportsmanship you may call simple lust, or you may call it self-denial or asceticism.

Much has been written about sportsmanship in trout fishing; largely it has been concerned with stream ethics as a part of the ordinary code of politeness among gentlemen who happen to be for the moment on a trout stream instead of somewhere else. To weight with even more words the subjects of stream manners and consideration for the fish is only an exercise in redundancy. We all know enough to keep away from the other fellow's water, to kill quickly any trout we keep and to wet our hands before touching a trout we intend to release.

Sportsmanship implies something beyond these common attributes of decent men, and something beyond what is known as the amateur spirit. Rather it is a tenderness of heart, a sense of gladness in the happiness of a life other than one's own, including the trout's, and a sense of sorrow in all that detracts from this ideal. There are skillful amateur fly-fishermen who are brutes, professional seine- haulers who are kindly and great of soul.

Sportsmanship is not a static or permanent system of morals but rather a flexible code capable of growth, capable of advancing as men become more civilized in other ways. It has advanced a long way, if ever so slowly, since the first dinosaur was pot-shotted from above with a boulder rolled off a ledge. This progress, then, must be leading to a definite consummation. Since refinements of gear and methods tend to make the kill more and more difficult it may be demonstrated quite logically that the consummation is no fishing at all.

Sporting ethics as conceived today tolerate the killing of fish and game - in fact the kill is the core of the matter - but do not tolerate methods of killing which are inhumane or easy of accomplishment. Mere killing is not honored; skillful killing is. So in order to kill a trout or a grouse skillfully one must devise a difficult method of killing. A snap shot at a grouse in full flight, made in a split second as the bird dissolves in the November woods, is an extremely difficult way to kill that grouse. The difficulty challenges skill of a high order; the acquisition and exercise of that art are the essence of the sporting appeal of that particular kill. A big brown trout may be easy to hook with a live minnow at night but almost impossible to take with a small dry fly in broad daylight. Hence, according to the code, the latter achievement is worth ten of the former.

It is still true that men must kill, but this blunt truth is so repellent to civilized men that, though they will not give it up, they will make it difficult. To make it difficult is to make it sporting, and to make it sporting is to make it excusable. While the concept of sportsmanship embraces the act of killing it draws farther and farther away from mere slaughter. Then, in following that course, it may be argued that the true if unconfessed objective is no fishing at all. But if we do away with fishing we do away with the necessity for sportsmanship. Sportsmanship, then, must presuppose some form of the chase with capture and kill the ultimate end. As sporting ethics become more refined the actual kill must be made more difficult. As if pretending that the goal were the complete elimination of the kill we must approach that goal but never reach it. For once reached, the whole show and its reason for being evaporate into thin air.

It is a fine summer evening and conceivably he appreciates, as we do, the goodness of life at such a time. The water is warm and that outer world above the water is teeming with the choicest harvest of his year. A fly hatch is alive above the surface and he takes the clean and foreign air for its juiciest morsels. His sorties above water are made in the same spirit of physical zest as a human diver's plunges below. The man knows he will return to his world of air in time; the trout as certainly knows he will fall back into his element. It is the beckoning of adventure, the appeal of the briefly hazardous act, for each braves an element he cannot endure for long.

This fellow is a big one in the goodly prime of his career, clean and hard from a life of breasting the eternal current. But the June evenings are his restful and his playful times, that zenith of his year when food and fun are easily had. He is perhaps a little off guard as he comes up to this one, perhaps a little drunk with the rich and easy living of June. There are parallels in the lives of men: ease and luxury may breed a fatal lapse of vigilance. ... That fat fan-wing is the choicest fare of the year. He is not ravenous for it; he rolls up lazily to take it - as a well-fed man takes another tidbit that is passed to him - because it's there for the taking.

Only then, in that lazy and unsuspecting instant of taking the fly, does the shock of the deceit strike into his heart. He has felt the white pang of a set hook before; perhaps in the storage of memory the experience lives as a dormant nightmare. Now it is awakened again in this desperate panic and ends at last in an exhaustion of body, a swooning of senses and a suffocation of air as he is drawn out. If he is returned to the water he recovers slowly in some deep hole of the stream. Otherwise his life is snapped out at once or allowed to leave him in slow gasps over a stretch of an hour - depending upon his captor.

That, of course, is not an isolated fancy. It happens approximately in that detail, if my imagination is anywhere near the mark, each time you take a trout. ... Your day astream has been a good one. You look back upon its aspects of woods, water, sky, the performance of your rod, and in your creel the evidence of your success.

Some men have considered all that, and beyond, and given up fishing for the rest of their lives. An idea has caught hold of them, an irrevocable revulsion at taking a life in many respects superior to their own. An ultimatum, answerable in only one way, has been issued. These men are perhaps sentimentalists, perhaps not. They have seen a certain light, an individual truth, and for them it shines brightly and suffices.

A hundred practical arguments support the opposite view.... If I don't take a trout someone else will. The entire scheme of nature is of the hunter and the hunted, essentially a scheme of violence. The trout I refuse is the victim of the next predator, human or other....

Possibly such rationalizations have dimmed that light to my eyes. Having thought as deeply as I can into the question I can still conclude that, to me, the fair killing of trout for sport is a worthy thing.

There is no absolute answer: it is relative to the individual, and it lies deep in that subsoil of character whose many components include all experience. We can make our decisions only on such indications as we find near the surface. Conscience is the final guide. If nothing in you is deeply offended by the hooking, playing and killing of a trout you surely have a moral right, by the only precepts measurable by man, to take that fish. If the procedure is offensive you will of course drop it.

And as certainly you will renounce the whole of trout fishing when you renounce the taking of the fish. For this is the heart, and the heart cannot be cut out if the body is to live. The camera alternative - ever a popular cry to the hunters who kill with firearms - is no good, even were it practical. The sweet scenery of a trout stream, the soft orchestrations of the riffles and the wood thrushes at dusk, the utter peace of the world of the trout waters - these are but embellishments upon the central theme. Without them the sport would be a mockery. But without the heart the appendages will stiffen and die. To deny that ultimate aim of trout fishing - the catching of trout - is to deny the meaning of all that surrounds it.

© 2001 Reed F. Curry

All content copyright Reed Curry © 2006.
Cartoon by Walter Young © 1961, used by permission.