What I Wish My Father Had Taught Me About Fishing

Or how modern sport fishing threatens a timeless tradition.

Published June 19, 2015
Part of our Ten Best of 2015 series

Forty-odd years ago, while aboard a fishing boat with my father on Long Island Sound, I felt a pull on my line like none I’d ever felt before. And then another. And another still. The wild world had hit my line with all its abundance. I reeled hard and with a crazy swing I swept my multi-hooked rig loaded with five big mackerel in a wide arc over the rail until the whole bloody mess landed with a chaotic thud. I had no care about what I would do with all these fish that I had killed in one haul. Whether I would eat them or bury them in the garden or feed them to my mother’s cat. What mattered was that I had caught them and they were all mine. Except for one, which had gone missing.

“Wait,” I said kneeling down and searching the deck. “Where’s the fifth mackerel?” 

“It’s right here,” my father replied from a crouching position hed assumed in vain to avoid the bombardier-mackerel in my wild swing. “Its here in my back.”

I followed my line to its end and saw that the fifth mackerel, along with a large silver lure, was indeed impaled in my father’s shoulder. He'd ducked, but I'd nailed him all the same.

“Sorry, Dad.”

“Just tell the mate to come over and take the hook out.”

This Father’s Day I find myself thinking of this scene because it pretty much sums up the haphazard way dads taught their kids to fish back when the natural world seemed rich, no matter how poor it was fast becoming. In my case it was my parents’ divorce that started the process. My father was a hard-working doctor of the late Mad Men era who logged long hours away from home. Many of the details of how to keep children productively occupied were alien to him. When he suddenly found himself with court-allotted divorced dad weekends on his hands and hours of child time to fill, he fell upon fishing like a thirsty man on an oasis. And in his little red Dodge Omni we would range the coast of Long Island, his one-piece surfcasting pole lashed to the luggage rack like a knight errant’s lance.

During these times I learned from him the basics: how to cast that mighty fishing rod of his, tie a lure to a line, jam a hook down the gullet of a sandworm. But learning to fish is not so much about one person teaching another a set of skills. Rather, it is the directing of a child to observe the ways in which nature works.

After each divorced dad weekend, when I returned to my more permanent home with my single mom in her little Connecticut rental cottage, I would seek out fish-filled water at every opportunity. Like some kind of latter-day Huck Finn, I’d hop fences to trespass on various backwoods estates and to follow rivers as they braided and splayed out on their way to the sea. I came to understand how trout take cover in the slack water behind boulders, saving their energy for the critical moment of the hunt. At the seaside, I learned that the first blooming of forsythia in springtime signaled the right temperature for winter flounder to rouse themselves from the mud. Standing chest deep in summer surf, I figured out that a brighter Moon hid the fish-spooking effects of the luminescent plankton bouncing against my line. And in the fall, I mimicked nature; tempting striped bass with the eels they naturally encountered on their migration from saltwater to fresh. Eventually, I acquired my own boat and began feeling my way around Long Island Sound’s shores alone, coming to understand the bottom topography and the flow of species in and out of that great embayment.

This was how I came to learn the scientific method. I formulated a hypothesis about a fish and its hunting behavior. I tested out my hypothesis with an experiment—a choice of anchorage, a retrieve speed for my lure, the calculation of a given depth. I then published my results in the form of fillets for the freezer. No small wonder that E. O. Wilson, Carl Safina, and many of the world’s greatest naturalists have told me of similar experiences. Through fishing, a child learns the way the world works, fish-by-fish. A more serious study of biology and ecology are natural next steps. And I can thank my father from the bottom of my heart for setting me on a course that led to a global study of fish and fisheries that is now the center of my career.

There was, however, one serious flaw in my fishing methods, something I could have discussed with my father, a psychiatrist by profession, had I thought to ask. It is, in a word, denial: the pernicious tendency of men and women (and boys and girls) to downplay or dismiss the effect “sport fishing” might have upon the greater world.

For in the modern era, when boys and girls go fishing they are not Huck Finn on a raft dipping a knotty string and a rusty hook into the water in hopes of a random bite. Today, even the smallest child can fish with technology the likes of which Huck Finn could only dream: fluorocarbon fishing lines made of polymers that render the line invisible to even the keenest of fish eyes, graphite rods capable of whipping a lure farther than rods of previous generations, sonar that plumbs every cranny of the seafloor for fishy habitat.

That I did real damage with all this newly emergent angling technology is undeniable. I can remember an evening in Martha’s Vineyard when my father dropped me off at a beach where the weakfish were so thick I could hear them rumbling, making croaking noises with their swim bladders. By the end of the night I had beached six fish—lilac and yellow on capture, dull and gray upon death. We ate, maybe, one. The rest I sold to a fishmonger for five bucks. This spectacular run of weakfish occurred for three years. Then it stopped. The same fishmonger who’d paid me a pittance for my catch later told me that weakfish had been spotted off western Africa and that clearly they had migrated to the other side of the Atlantic. No such thing had occurred. Weakfish don’t cross oceans—my fellow fishermen and I had brought about a local extirpation.

This would also happen to the mackerel in Long Island Sound. Catching one at a time rarely happens in those waters now, let alone five. And when the forsythia bloom in April, very few flounder come out of the mud. They’re so scarce in Long Island waters that scientists at Stony Brook University have found evidence of inbreeding—flounders are clinging to existence by breeding with their cousins. And lest the sport fishermen blame fish declines on rampages of the commercial sector, they need only look at the numbers. Today, the sport take of striped bass, arguably the most popular recreational fishing quarry in the United States, is more than double the commercial take, a situation that seriously imperils the fish’s future survival.

This weighs heavily on me as Father’s Day comes around and I debate whether or not to teach my own son how to fish. What I learned about nature from killing fish was profound and immeasurable. But there is not enough slack left in the world for such behavior. No room for figuring things out at the expense of other lives. And so anyone contemplating bringing another angler into the world must, by definition, consider the state of the world beyond the tip of the child’s pole.

The child you teach to fish must come to the pastime knowing the consequences of killing. The unknowing child may want to kill, for example, a really big fish, a so-called “trophy.” But trophy fish are the most reproductively important fish and, in spite of every instinct screaming to the contrary, more often than not, the big ones need to get away. Indeed, some progressive states have responded to this very sound scientific principle and established “slot limits” for fish that are big enough to have bred once, but not so big that they are critical to the endurance of the species.

Once again, letting a big fish go is a practice that must be taught and not simply learned. And it goes strongly against instinct. Yet, even if adopted, catch and release itself can cause problems. Holding a fish up for a trophy photo before it is released could have consequences we’re unaware of, but we do know something as simple as touching a fish’s skin while letting it go abrades its disease-resisting mucous making it prone to infection. These and other factors contribute to the truly shocking fact that, depending on the species and fishing gear employed, as many as one-third of all fish caught and released on traditional fishing tackle may die and not live to “fight another day” as many fishermen implausibly claimed in my youth. Yes, there are new technologies that mitigate death. There are now barbless hooks as well as “circle hooks” that lodge in a fish’s jaw rather than its gut. Both greatly improve a fish’s chances of survival. And there are “descending devices” that help return deep water fish to the correct depth thus reversing potentially fatal barotrauma that distends a fish’s organs when it is hauled up from great depth.

But even with proper release techniques, slot limits, circle hooks, and descending devices, we will still need to change our behavior by limiting what the commercial fishing sector calls “fishing effort.” In fishing, like in life, there are good days and there are bad days. And because of the increasing number of bad days in the present era, fishermen tend to keep on fishing if they happen upon a run of good luck. Even those who practice catch-and-release angling are guilty of this habit. “If I’m not killing anything,” they reason, “why should I stop?” But as the marine conservationist Carl Safina wrote me recently, “Fish are not made to have hooks in their mouths. So if we hurt these animals, we need to have a better reason than ‘just because.’” To catch something from the wild and use it for our food is, to my mind, justifiable. To torture it for amusement is not.

So perhaps it’s time to rethink fishing. No one says that a fishing trip need only be about fishing; there are other things to learn while bobbing in a boat with your kids. We can teach our children to learn the lexicon of seabirds that still plunge into the ocean’s depths, or wonder at the whales and dolphins and seals that are much more common off American shores now than when I was a child—thanks to laws that prevent their destruction. Quiet observation is a good skill to learn. And, if all else fails to amuse them, a fishing trip could wrap up after the evening’s meal has been procured. In the end, it might be better to kill and go home rather than endlessly catch and release.