Kathleen Clary Miller has written 300+ columns and stories for periodicals both local and national, and has authored three books (www.amazon.com/author/millerkathleenclary). She lives in the woods of the Ninemile Valley, thirty miles west of Missoula.
Every sport has its code of conduct, and woe to the beginner who knows not what she does in this regard while learning the technical rubric of any game. Fly-fishing is no exception; there is acceptable and not-so—the culture of the catch. Never wade ahead of someone else’s water; give every fisherperson plenty of personal space; don’t raise your voice lest the fish spook; catch and release, and to the horror of every new enthusiast: Kiss your first fish.
Before I lived in Montana and would visit Rock Creek, it didn’t take long for my husband and stepsons to bridle my braggadocio over having snagged more fish than any of them—and right out front of our cabin where, according to them, “There are no fish.” While they chose to drive miles to test their rods in some reputed deep hole filled with the biggest fish ever, I would don waders and boots on the back porch and stroll a few feet to the supposed piscatorial purgatory before me. A few hours later, I’d be back with six or seven or eight or nine to their none or one.
That’s when the grilling (and I don’t mean of fish) began.
“Did you net them all?” asked Brad who had shepherded me to the sport, pleased that husband and wife might fish together (as long as he was catching more than I).
Well, not exactly. So the first family fishing debate began: When is a fish caught? If it’s on the hook, you look into its bug-eyes, and while you are fighting the good fight to corral it into your net that it touches as its flash of fin spins in circles around your legs, and at the last second escapes your greedy grasp?
“You have to be able to eat it,” Brad stands firm in his resolve that if it’s not in the net, it doesn’t constitute caught. Wife and children vehemently disagree: We contend that if it’s on the hook and you see it as you reel it in, it’s yours to add to the day’s tote board.
Stacy Jennings, Missoula’s award-winning fly-fishing guide says some folks argue that if not netted, in order to count it as a blessing it must be witnessed. What about those of us who fish solo?
Stacy, Brad and I were on the Blackfoot floating and mending lines upstream and down and BAM! Second cast out and yours truly snagged a fat one! Brad’s usual reaction was a bit delayed, due to his not wanting to seem a poor sport in front of pleasant and professional company. At first came the genuine congratulations, followed by the other fishy question among our family.
“Was it a rainbow?” Translation: If it’s not trout, it’s not valid.
Stacy reported that it was a native species whitefish, what Brad has nicknamed “garbage.” She acknowledged existence of such heinous attitude; she has known people to toss them out like trash on the riverbank rather than release them to procreate. Manipulating a superior race of fish? Please!
The kids and I contend that red fish, blue fish, rainbow, brown or whitefish—if it swims, has gills, mistakes a fly for food and fights you like the devil, it’s a fish that counts as caught. Stacy informs that there is even a market in Ennis where you can trade your fresh whitefish and a dollar for a scrumptious smoked one. Fish or fowl fish? Which is a whitefish?
A whitefish’s lips are thinner,” instructed Brad. My first fish had to have been a trout then; when I kissed him, his lips kissed back. “Whitefish only go after the fly on the drag,” as if that somehow falls short of desirable. Why bother to tie on a nymph then? I argued. If he’s hooked he can be cooked; I say he’s caught—and counted.
That day with Stacy the count favored this fishwife: seven (six of them whitefish and a few sprung free, but if it’s on the hook and I get a good look…well, you know). Husband netted net one (counting only trout and technically landed). What will his fellow fishing friends say about that score?
Someone enlighten me. If not, I must posthumously ask Dr. Suess for the answer: One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish—pray tell, what is the rule about catching a whitefish?