Guest Blogger: Phil Rispin, fly fisher, photographer & more, find Phil’s photography here
There is a psychologist out there whose ideas were popular in the 70’s when I was at University. His theories may still be popular but since I haven’t been to a Psychology lecture since about 1971 I wouldn’t know. Kohlberg was his name and he wrote a Doctoral dissertation in 1958 on the levels of moral development. He saw three basic levels of moral thought for each of us as individuals. The first two levels are experienced by most people and include the lowest level where as a kid anything that is unpleasant is bad or unfair and anything that is fun and feeds you in some positive way is good. The second level is one in which a person who has gone through his rebellious teenage years conforms to the societal norms and judges good and bad based upon what society says. The third and final level, requires some thought and is thereby difficult for many of us. This level involves a standard of right and wrong, good or bad that comes from a source beyond society or government. One might even consider perhaps a moral being who laid down the ground work of right and wrong at creation and is properly called God. Most folks don’t want to deal with that possibility so they like to hang around in moral level 2.
Now fly fishermen, it is said, go through a similar metamorphosis of three stages beginning with a stage where numbers of fish are important and you count each one you catch. Large quantities are apparently good and small numbers, or in the worst-case scenario getting skunked is bad. The next stage of development involves big fish, numbers no longer matter as much as size. You can tell the Fly Fisherman who has arrived at this level of moral development by the monster trout he has mounted and displayed on his front room wall and by the fact that he often fishes at night when big Browns are out hunting. One might call this the head hunting stage. Finally, some fly fishermen mature to a point in their moral development where catching fish or not catching fish is irrelevant and it’s simply being out there communing with nature giving Latin names to all the bugs, matching the hatch effortlessly and pulling fish out of the stream with out much apparent effort. When asked about how he did a fisherman at this stage will say “it’s been a beautiful day” and you won’t get to much more information out of him. He is sort of like a fly fishing Zen master who speaks in odd riddles.
My own moral development as a fisherman started one Sunday afternoon when my father returned home from a weekend fishing trip with his friends. He had a large silver sided cooler full of Jack fish, or Northern Pike if you prefer. There was such a congratulatory fuss over the quantity of slimy creatures that I immediately recognized large numbers as “good” and by implication my own efforts at fishing up to that time as “bad”. That night mom, who is an excellent cook, produced some beautiful nicely browned fillets for us to eat. But they were so full of bones the flesh was nearly impossible to swallow without also eating large quantities of bread to push the bones into the stomach where acid could take care of the problem. There had been enough pike in that cooler for us to eat fish daily all winter long but I think they ended up being fish fertilizer in the back garden as we never had a meal of Pike again. I can’t prove this but my Dad did grow an awesome very productive vegetable garden the following spring.
The experience left me with the definite belief that to be a good fisherman and meat provider for the family you had to catch large numbers of fish. I must admit that I have spent most of my life as a fly fisherman in the first level of moral development but it wasn’t hard at the time because I could count to three on the fingers of one hand rarely needing more fingers.
There is a parallel type of development that occurs that Kohlberg didn’t mention and it has to do with the expense involved in moving from one stage of moral development to another. Without quite realizing it I began to solve my problem of stalled fly-fishing moral development by buying fly fishing stuff which included a wide range of things from books with esoteric titles like “Fly Fishing Strategy and Selective Trout” or “Mayflies Top To Bottom” to new and better fly rods. I began tying my own flies and eventually began making my own graphite fly rods. In the midst of this I began to catch large numbers of trout; so many in fact that I often lost count. Most of them were small, at or below 12”, but occasionally, there would be one that made the fly rod bend deeply and provide a great deal of satisfaction.
Finally, in what seems like a long-ago summer I was fishing a stretch of the Old Man River about 30km west of the Forestry Trunk Road and was forced kicking and screaming into the second level of fly fishing moral development. There was a riffle on this stretch of the river that produced trout almost every cast and most of them were dinks with par marks still on them. I was using a Sulphur colored parachute hackled mayfly imitation in about size 16. These little guys were eager and willing and beautiful but I must say that after a while I got tired of taking them off the hook. I wanted to catch something BIGGER. At that point I started thinking about where in the stream the bigger fish might be. I cast to those spots that the books said ought to hold bigger fish and sure enough the fish that began to show up at the end of the line were 12 – 14” long. It became a game, keep the little guys off and get the bigger ones on. The action lasted most of the day in the warm sunshine and all the fish were Cutthroats. The biggest were in the 14” range and the little guys, by far the majority, were about 6” long. All of a sudden numbers didn’t matter, size and picking my spots in the stream more carefully became more important.
The next day my friends and I fished Dutch Creek one valley over from the Oldman. When my family was young we used to camp here with Blue Bronna Wilderness Camps but the logging companies had been there and they had clear cut most of the slopes down to the valley. It was heart breaking to see what used to be a beautiful place torn up like that but the loggers had left about ¼ to a ½ mile of untouched land on either side of the creek and Dutch ran as clear and as pretty as it ever had. Over the years here I had caught and released or caught and eaten many Cutthroat. Years ago, Karen had caught, for a brief minute or two, a very large Bull Trout in this creek. It managed to get off but she talks about the experience to this day. The average Cutthroat trout ran about 12 – 14” with the creek record at that time being about 17”.
We parked the trucks in some long grass on the south side of the road on a bluff over looking a bend in the creek with two of my favorite holes right blow us. We spread out on the creek and agreed to meet back at the trucks at lunch time. I was soon by myself fishing a long deep pool with a little water fall at the head of it. On the right side there was bush over hanging the creek and I cast into the space between the branches and the water with a bead head pheasant tail nymph dropper under a stimulator. The water there was slower with faster water in the middle of the pool. I reasoned that what I saw was a “Prime Lie” and should hold a couple of good sized fish. On the first, maybe it was the second cast the stimulator disappeared under the water in a way that just said “fish”. I set the hook and was into the biggest fish I had yet caught in Dutch Creek. It was about 15” long and deep bodied and healthy, so pretty I wanted it to stay a while so I could watch it. The trout obliged me for a moment or two in the eddy behind my legs then it swam into deeper water in a leisurely unhurried way. I took two more out of that hole that were just the same as the first and then I moved on up stream.
I found a pool that had at least 20 trout slowly moving in the current right at the bottom. They all looked huge to me, my imagination said “20” long”. The water was clear and I knew that the trout could see me because the ones at the back of the pack moved forward as I moved into position at the tail end of the pool. I had a terrible time finding a suitable place to cast from but eventually after standing still in the stream for a long time I cast back hand up stream and across hoping that the line wouldn’t spook the fish. One of the Cutthroats, for that is what they were, rose a long way from the bottom to take the Stimulator that I had on and he then proceeded to run all over the place spooking everything within a 100 yards above or below the pool. He turned out to be 15” long just like the others I had caught and released earlier. Nothing would bite for some time so I just sat on the side of the pool for about 20 minutes, resting the water as they say, and then got back into position again. The whole little drama played itself out again, catching releasing and sitting. I did this four times using up about 2 hours for four nice fish. It was immensely satisfying.
After lunch I fished alone again in one of the holes just below the place where we had parked the trucks. There was a deep spot where the creek narrowed between two steep banks oriented in such a way as to keep the hole in shadow most of the time. I was casting into a seam right at the top of the hole. As the Stimulator moved through the midway point of its drift a large trout came up and sucked it in. This one behaved differently from all the rest that day and jumped a good four feet out of the water three times dazzling me with its size each time it became visible. It was a treat to see this fish because as I held it to remove the hook, I noted that it had traits that belonged to both Cutthroat and Rainbows, the long red streaks of a Rainbow on its sides and the tell tail red slashes of a Cutthroat. I believe what I had caught was a Cutbow, the first one I had seen on that stream.
After that fish there didn’t seem to be any good reason to continue for the day. I had just caught the biggest prettiest fish I had ever seen on Dutch Creek and all the rest that might have been caught that day would be an anti-climax. I went back up to the trucks and enjoyed the beauty of the place, dosed and read a book until the others returned.
That day I had moved from the numbers stage to the second level of moral development as a fly fisherman.
About stage-3 or catching or not catching fish. I don’t think I will ever and I hope I never get there. It is too much fun solving the puzzles that each stream serves up to you and the measure of success in solving the puzzles is handling many beautiful fat trout and then watching him swim away to be caught another day.