Paul Andersen: Fair Game |

Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

At an Aspen Writers’ Foundation discussion of “A River Runs Through It” in June, author Terry Tempest Williams offered a moral indictment against sport fishing.

That same week, National Public Radio aired an interview with a local fishing guide who expressed his devotion to fly-fishing in the Fryingpan River. His words and affect were euphoric as he described the gratification he feels when a trout takes his well-placed fly. He quipped lightly about the ease of catching trout in what was then a seriously drought-stricken stream.

“It may be easy for the fishermen, but it’s not so easy for the fish,” the interviewer remarked, chuckling over what Williams would have considered a moral indiscretion.

I live up the Fryingpan at Seven Castles. From my home, I can see the sinuous river glinting in the sun. I hear its murmur in the still of summer nights. When I drive to and from Basalt, I pass dozens of fishermen casting in picturesque settings from the middle of the river. In past years, they would have been up to their waists in water. This year, the river barely laps their knees.

As the local fishing guide effused to a national audience about the low skill level required to hook a fish in low water, the analogy became clear: Fishing the Fryingpan this summer has been “like shooting fish in a barrel.” Williams’ moral indictment suddenly crystallized.

Fishing guides earn a livelihood taking clients out, even during drought years. I often see several fishermen per hole, or half a dozen along particular stretches of river. I wonder if this is really the experience they want. Is this the magic described by Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It”?

That book helped popularize fly-fishing into a catch-and-release phenomenon that has swept Western rivers. It is repugnant to guides and fishermen to be reminded that fish are sentient beings routinely used for sport, but they are. Williams’ moral indictment questions our treatment of all living creatures, including fish, and especially during drought conditions.

Not only are fish concentrated by low streamflows, but the water temperature on hot days can climb to unhealthy levels for trout and salmon. According to Denver Post columnist Scott Willoughby (July 7), fishermen are being advised to give fish a break this year to avoid stressing fisheries:

“Trout fishermen have been put on alert and asked to monitor stream temperatures. In some instances they’ve been asked to avoid fishing altogether. Streams have suffered the effects of too much time in the sun and too little snowpack to cool them down to the degree that trout can be caught and released without the threat of mortality.”

According to the Montana chapter of Trout Unlimited (, “Anglers should be cautious handling trout when water temperatures reach the mid-60s. It’s wise to consider avoiding waters where temperatures reach 70 degrees Fahrenheit or more each day during a sustained period. Watch fish behaviorafter you release them. If they’re sluggish or seem slower to recover than usual, they could be stressed from the effects of high temperatures.”

“As a simple rule of thumb,” warned Kirk Klancke, president of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado River Headwaters Chapter, “when water temperatures rise above 65 degrees, that’s a good time to give the fish a break.”

The Fryingpan is dam-fed, so it remains cooler than many streams. Still, the low flow is obvious to anyone who knows the river, a sign that sport fishing might not be prudent or even very sporting, especially when scores of fishermen are flailing its waters.

Reputable guides certainly know this, and I can only hope they convey to their clients the need for seasonal self restraint. The long-term health of fisheries and aquatic ecosystems is not the only concern, however. There are deeper issues.

The local fishing guide who waxed euphoric on National Public Radio said that fly-fishing provides equal parts fun, skill and reverence. Consideration also must be extended to moral imperatives about the way we treat the river and the life it contains. That lesson is perhaps the biggest catch a fisherman can ever land.

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