The Littering Fisherman

If you have never seen litter along the banks of the streams and rivers you fish, you are in a very small and select minority. Some streams and rivers are inundated with litter while others are relatively refuse-free, except for the occasional piece of human detritus here and there. Wherever garbage is found along our waters, it not only degrades and damages the resource, it taints the experience we traveled there to cultivate.

Rainier Can in River
This delicious can of Rainier went back out the same way it came in.

Certainly not all stream side trash is from fishemen. But, it seems likely that much of it is, especially that which you find as you stray from the areas where waterways intersect with roads. In these places where garbage found along the water is considerably unlikely to have been tossed from a car window, the suspect sources are those who recreate along its banks. Sure, there are hikers, kids chasing frogs and other fun seekers but mostly there are fishermen. Sometimes, there's little to dispute. Litter piles where discarded beer cans and cigarette butts co-mingle with Powerbait containers and empty bags of Water Gremlin split shot leave little to the imagination regarding their origin.

All of this leaves me wondering: what relationship does the littering fisherman have with his or her stream?

To be honest, this act of contemplation comes after a spike in blood pressure, a seasoning of the streamside with profanity and a general lamentation of the state of humanity. But, once the momentary spat of rage subsides, I'm left honesty perplexed.

Whether you are talking about the Yellowstone river, with expansive tracts of preserved and protected lands extending for miles upon miles from its banks, or streams and creeks that flow through our suburbs and cities, sometimes with only a handful of feet separating their flowing waters from human development, streams and rivers are wild conduits traced through the landscape. Regardless of whether that wilderness is large or sometimes comically small, within its reaches plants, bugs, deer, frogs, snakes, fish and so on go about their business of being plants, deer, frogs, snakes and fish, uncurated by human hands.

And that matters. Or at least it seems like it must. The basic assumption I'm making is that any individual that seeks out these places during their free time places some value on their qualities. That seems like common sense. So, in turn, does it seem like common sense that those who seek out these places would want to preserve them. And I'm not talking preservation in the big-picture sense. I'm talking about preservation in its simplest sense: leaving these places as you met them so that they will call you back again. On those simple, wholly selfish terms, it seems almost impossible to conjure up the willful disregard that would allow someone to decorate the river bank with discarded tins of dip, empty fifths of whiskey and potato chip bags.

This ignores entirely what littering says about the guilty party's respect for others: that it simply doesn't exist. My gut tells me that litterers are the worst sort of people, completely unconcerned with how their actions affect others, cavalierly tossing refuse aside wherever they roam as part of some anger-fueled attempt to seek revenge for their feelings of disenfranchisement, isolation and ineffectuality. It seems likely that this lack of concern and respect for others invades all aspects of their lives, poisoning their relationships with family, friends and society at large. These individuals, perhaps with few exceptions, contribute little to the world, with the trash they litter our landscapes with being the only mark they leave behind.

But it is the selfishness of the littering fisherman that confounds the situation. Trash left behind by the river bank differs from that discarded from the window of a car or truck speeding down a highway at 75 miles per hour in that it will greet that angler upon his or her return. The littering fisherman has altered the landscape not only for the rest of us, but for him or herself.

And that's the part I can't figure out. It is simple enough to understand the littering fisherman's willingness to shit where I eat. But when you take into account that we share the same plate, shouldn't his firmly established selfishness come into play? If there was one place in the world the littering fisherman would opt not to litter, would it not be on the shores of the rivers he fishes?

Left to ponder more complex concepts such as the litterer's perception of his surroundings, his appreciation of his ability to change them, his understanding of long and short term impacts and so on, I find my self exhausted and more inclined to leave thoughtfulness behind and return to anger. It seems unlikely that the littering fisherman can be compelled to change his ways, to be cured of his sociopathic tendencies. So why bother trying to understand?

I suppose because want it to stop. Don't you?

Comments

Todd Tanner's picture

I'm guessing that most folks who litter have a different relationship with the resource than we do. They view it as a one way street - they're taking fish from the stream, river or lake, which is a real benefit to them - and nothing else really enters into the equation. They don't really care about the garbage, even if it's there the next time they come through. It's all about the fish, and everything else is irrelevant.

While I tend to be pretty reasonable while discussing breaches of stream-side etiquette, I make an exception for folks who are obviously treating the resource like an outhouse. They need to recognize that leaving their garbage on the bank, or tossing it in the river, really does cost them something. A little public humiliation is likely one of the few things that will help them to see the error of their ways, and help change their behavior down the road.

Steve K's picture

From my own observations, it is the Powerbait crowd that leaves more trash than the flyfishing crowd. However, I'd take fisherman's litter any day over the graffiti sprayed on the streamside boulders.

Ryan's picture

Well said my friend. I have often contemplated these things but realized after my anger subsided that the best course of action is to just do my best to pick up at least a piece of trash or two on my way out of the water.

Hume's picture

I find the statement following statement unimaginative: "what littering says about the guilty party's respect for others: that it simply doesn't exist". Does Chad Shmukler just somehow know this? Or expect that people reading an article about litterbugs will just nod and let it pass. I say no, the litterers that I have known care about lots of things, especially the people closest to them. But they are infuriating, because they don't see the world in the way that I do. One thing that they probably even take pride in not caring about is offending the aesthetic sensibilities of fly anglers.
I do appreciate your efforts to keep our rivers clean, and I believe it does me good to fish a litter-free river.

Jason's picture

It frustrates me when I get to the stream or even anywhere I go to enjoy the outdoors and I see trash scattered along the banks or in the water. But my question is what do you do when you find it? Do you pick it up or just leave it be? My first instinct is to pick it up, but when I am fishing I don't always have a way to cart off the trash. Are we as responsible sportsman obligated to clean up after the people who don't seem to care?

Chad Shmukler's picture

I hear you, Jason. Because I'm almost always carrying my photography equipment, I'm already headed to the stream way more overloaded than I'd like to be. Picking up significant amounts of trash not only means trying to carry stuff I don't have room for, but it also means co-mingling trash with expensive electronics.

I usually feel (without logical cause) more compelled to pick up fisherman garbage than other trash, but still can't always do that. Mono and other small trash always goes out with me.

But are we "responsible" ... bigger question. We're not responsible, in my opinion, for cleaning up after others ... but we are responsible for the streams. We should be stewards of the streams.

Cleanup visits -- trips to clean up and not fish -- are probably a good idea.

mtyburski's picture

I do volunteer work for Eagle Creek Park, where I usually go fishing most of the time and have picked up plenty of garbage. The biggest concern is plastic bags and bottles! With fly fisherman, I've noticed more caring about the environment and ecosystem than others!

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