I killed a fish today. I didn't mean to, but it happens. (And, if you're wondering, it's not the fish in the picture, I'm not that morbid.) No matter how often I find myself at the river, no matter how many fish I successfully catch and release, it always hits me hard when I screw up.
I've been told it's just part of the game, that they're food for something else on down the chain, but that doesn't change how it makes me feel.
This morning, I went to the place where I caught a fish by myself for the first time. It seemed a ceremonial thing to do, coming back here to Montana, being home where I learned pretty much everything I know about fly fishing. I think I went to that spot to see if anything had changed - I knew that it would pretty much look the same, but I wanted to see if maybe I had changed.
My cast is better. My bug selection more intuitive. My confidence has certainly grown. I poked a few fish in the face before I finally snagged one, and he was beautiful - young, with gorgeous color.
Fly fishing is hard. It takes a while to figure out, but the learning curve is steep. Once you've got the motions and your gear dialed, it gets easy. You can fish pretty much anywhere there's water and the skill set travels - pick bugs, read water, cast, set, repeat (if you're lucky).
I admired the fish for a moment, he wriggled about, strong from a short life in heavy water. I went to remove the fly, and saw that it was caught deep in his throat, likely behind a gill.
This is when fly fishing gets hard again. When it's not just about your ability to catch a fish, it's about how you go about it and the mistakes you're willing to make. The last time I was here, I was just excited to catch one. I hadn't learned about mortality rates, the importance of a well timed hook set or our general impact as anglers on the resource. I also hadn't yet established the bond with this river that I have now. I wasn't as attached to these fish or as invested in their well-being.
I had one of two options - cut the hook off and hope it worked its way out, or try to remove it with my hemostats. I opted for the latter and told myself I'd give it one try, if it didn't come right out I'd cut the hook.
It came right out and I released the fish, relieved. He swam away slowly, and then I saw the bright red blood start to flow from his right gill. He was small, not even ten inches, and he slid behind a rock just a few feet from where I stood. I tried to cast again, but couldn't take my eyes away from the little crimson trail left by my mistake as the fish attempted to recover.
I reeled in my line and the red began to dissipate. I turned away from the river so I wouldn't have to see the white flash of belly like a flag of surrender should it float up behind me. In the time I've spent on this river and so many others, I should have returned here to celebrate all that I've learned, but I started walking back to the truck defeated and full of regret.
These are the moments that remind me to be kind - to the fish, to my friends, to myself. It was just an accident, and some people would say that it's just a fish, but to me it's a responsibility that I can't let go of. This is how the game changes, it's why it stays interesting. There is no constant in fly fishing. The variables are always fluid, and we can only do our best to stay flexible, keep learning and keep moving forward.
Some people might tell me not to worry about my mistakes, but I can't help it. I'm invested. I care too much. I'm emotionally attached. And it keeps me humble. No matter how far I travel or how much I learn, when I come back to the place where it all started, it's always the same. Sometimes we both win. Sometimes we both lose. Sometimes I wonder if it's worth it.
But I come back. I try to learn something, and keep moving forward.