Why Hunt or Fish?

Recently an interesting item in a local Trout Unlimited paper caught my eye. It was part of a report of a meeting of fisheries biologists and social scientists from Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The item was as follows: The satisfaction of trout fishing goes far beyond catching fish. Wisconsin anglers, when asked their reasons for fishing, ranked other reasons ahead of landing a trout. Ranked in order of importance are (1) appreciating nature, (2) using skills, (3) seeing trout feeding, (4) being outdoors, and (5) appreciating solitude. These anglers' priorities change as their experience increases. New anglers want to catch fish. The next angler phase is the trophy seeker. Then, the angler dwells on method. In the last stage, the veteran angler derives his pleasure from being a mentor. (As reported by Bill Walker in Michigan Trout, Dec. 1988) For many trout fisherman steeped in the tradition of Isaac Walton and the tales of Ernest Hemingway and Robert Traver, this is no news at all. But for anyone interested in understanding why anyone takes up any outdoor sport such as hunting or fishing, it does strike more than just a responsive cord. It goes to the very heart of our self-understanding as persons engaged in the process of living life. For any of us who have lived long enough and reflected at all on why we spend a spring evening on a trout stream battling swarms of mosquitoes or black flies, or why we spend hours freezing our feet, fingers, (not to mention other parts of our anatomy) in a deer blind in the middle of November, and still continue to do so after decades of such self-inflicted torture, we are probably well aware of a change in our reasons for putting ourselves through such wear and tear and abuse. When we were kids we went out and caught as many fish as we could, and as an adolescent hunter any deer (or any with horns on) would do. Not for long though! Soon we were gunning for the largest rack or angling for the biggest fish as if our very life depended on it. In some ways it did. The more fragile our self-esteem, the more we were driven to excel. But at the same time, the trophies, antlered or finned, represented more of a challenge as well, separating real sport from mere "meat-hunting" -- so much so that eventually we almost began to feel a pang of regret to see that trophy killed even while we were elated to have been clever enough to have outwitted it. But sooner or later, once this true "sporting" ethic has taken firm hold of us, then not even the trophy status means much unless the method itself becomes a challenge in itself. When a man moves into this phase, a medium size trout, taken cleanly on a dry fly (preferably a barbless one on the end of a 6x tippet) weighs in more in the satisfaction of one's mind than a lunker dragged out of its lair with a worm impalled on a gang at the end of a 20lb. line. Likewise even a spikehorn buck lured into range, arrowed with a careful shot, and perhaps trailed for hundreds of yards represents more of a personal triumph then any number of six-pointers blasted by a repeating rifle over a pile of sugar beets. For the same kind of satisfaction I know persons who long ago sold their last cartridge rifle to muzzle-loader only -- this long before the special black-powder season had every Tom, Dick, and Harry buying factory made thunder-sticks so they could find another excuse to get another 8 or 10 days away from wife and kids. But at this point, what comes next? Just bigger racks or more and bigger trout? I don't know if the fish biologists dig Erikson, Levison, Loevinger and other such professional psychologists. Obviously the social scientists who attended the meeting reported above should be paying attention to what they have to say. According to Erik Erikson, the grand-daddy of developmental psychologists, the final stages of maturity are marked by the concern for "generativity" and "final integration". The first of these two final stages (usually beginning in middle age) is not about having more children (although I know more than one fellow who in the midst of his mid-life crisis seemed to think that was what it was all about) but is more concerned with the future that is being handed on to the next generation and those yet to come. I suppose this is where the "mentor" role comes in. But I don't think being a "mentor" means that has to necessarily open a trout fishing school or teach kids how to shoot. It might also mean that we become more and more concerned with wildlife habitat and conservation in general. Or it may only mean that we take our greatest pleasure from teaching ourselves to observe and understand and live in harmony with the ways of nature. It may even lead us back, paradoxically, to merely "meat-hunting", but this time only strictly for what we need. That's nature's way isn't it? Cougars and otters don't pick bigger bucks or bigger trout to satisfy their ego-needs. They only need to fill their stomach. All of which points to a stage beyond. Perhaps few ever reach it, even if they live to be ninety or a hundred. "Final integration" may sound like a euphemism for being six-feet under, but it is much more than that. It means living an a state of complete harmony and oneness with reality. What this entails, I suppose, depends on one's ultimate philosophy of life. For a small number their view of life may include a Buddhist or Jain-like "compassion for all sentient (feeling) beings" which precludes their ever hooking another fish or pulling a trigger again. Theirs is a totally "seamless garment" view of life which virtually identifies all life, no matter how humble, as a spark of the divine. Others are less concerned about what taking a life does to the animal or fish taken than what it does to the person who performs the act. Does it degrade us to the status of "killer" on the one hand, or are we elevating ourselves to the status of "gods" who appropriate to ourselves the power of life and death? These are heavy questions -- the kind that wise old men and philosophers ponder -- perhaps made more poignant in the knowledge that our own lives have about run their course. (And while both of these views are complimentary, they should not be confused with the rabid anti-hunters or the sentimental "Bambi" crowd. These folks are either too violent or too confused to qualify as genuine pacifists in the ways described above). I have not yet decided where I stand in relation to the above. Perhaps it is way too soon to hang up my bow for good or sell off my guns, and my fly rod hangs waiting to spring into action come next April. To be consistently non-violent you shouldn't be paying others to do your dirty work. Nor do I think I'll ever become a vegetarian; besides, plants have feelings (at least of a sort) too. I look at reality and see that all living things must die and that in the order of nature, most things, be it a grain of wheat or a fatted calf, die that others may live. But I also know that if my own "final integration" is to come about, I have to most of all "die to self" or that selfishness that makes me imagine that I'm the center of my own little universe.

How I go about this, I suppose, is a matter of how I think the Almighty intended this universe to be. So whether I continue to hunt or fish in itself is perhaps beside the point. What counts is the spirit, the reasons or motivations, that impel me one way or the other, and more important still -- beyond that -- my concern and care for the well-being of others besides myself.

(Published in the North Woods Call, late 1989.)