On killing trout

Fish are food, not friends
cleaned wild brown trout
Photo: Tom Hazleton

Killing trout is easy. The actual act, at least. I use a four-inch Mora knife for all my trout work, and even its light birch handle has plenty of heft for the job. For a hand-span length trout, one or two sharp raps above the eyes triggers that electric death-shudder, the final sparks of current, and the trout is perfectly limp in hand for the rest of the cleaning process. No twitches, no gill movement, nothing. If I’m lucky there’s some wild mint along the streambank to wrap the fish in before sliding it into my creel.

But then the killing of trout is not easy. It’s a troubling contradiction. To admire the dark gold flanks of a brown trout just moments from its undercut home, with flashes of blue and pearl on its gills and the starscape of black and red spots, unique to that fish alone, never before so arranged and never again to appear — it’s hard to take all that in and then whack it with the handle of a knife. Especially after a few decades in the fly fishing world.

As a kid, I was taught that fishing is a search for “keepers.” But upon buying my first fly rod at the smartass age of sixteen, I sought out other ideas. I traded traditional hook and bullet rags for fly fishing magazines, which included no photos of dead fish and no trout recipes. Through the transition from tackle box to fly vest, I omitted the old J. Marttiini Rapala filet knife as finally as a mayfly leaves behind its nymphal shuck. I had evolved beyond it. Keep ‘em wet, I cried, pinching down all my barbs, pretending I didn’t notice the arterial blood or torn mandibles of badly-hooked fish that I insisted upon releasing.

There is perhaps no more delusional angler on the water than the one who catches and releases a hundred trout in a weekend, admonishes a worm-dunker for keeping five, and then pats himself on the back for being a good conservationist. I’ve been that guy.


I’m a hunter. I grew up on venison and have killed my own since I was old enough to do so. It’s a lifestyle that’s questioned a lot these days, and the most thoughtful dialogue on the topic is led by modern conservationist-hunter-thinkers like Steven Rinella, Hank Shaw, and others. Their work focuses on the basic why of hunting: the ethical acquisition of high-quality meat.

The concept is not new, and those guys will tell you that. It is older than humankind. So old, and so deep, in fact, that my hunting elders never really spoke of it. They grew up during the depression on the edge of the great boreal forest, and talking about meat being the reason for hunting would be like talking about oxygen being reason for breathing.

But today the world is a different place entirely and we must now talk about why we personally choose to kill animals. And think about it on our own. Challenge ourselves. And when we do, we find that it dovetails well with ongoing narratives about sustainable agriculture, landscape ecology, human health, and food ethics. Or it should.

And it’s within this discussion that catch-and-release fishing begins to lose its self-righteous shine. Conservation writer Todd Tanner says in his tense Seeking Absolution that the whole idea of catch and release “looks awfully tenuous, as if we are a legion of cats playing with a similar number of unhappy mice.” Even if catch and release was always harmless to the fish — which it is definitely not — it’s still questionable.

“At the same time, though,” Tanner adds, “I think it’s important to point out that we are cats.” We are meat-eaters, and fish are made of meat. By definition, catch and release is us playing with our food.

And fish are good food. No, not the grocery store’s dry-skinned bug-eyed farm-plumped rainbow trout, or the translucent, tasteless tilapia fillets, or the ethically-risky origin-unknown salmon. Instead consider these eight-to-ten-inch wild brown trout, lean and cold, delicious and nutritious, legally and ecologically sustainable. More than sustainable. On some streams, taking a few home is arguably ecologically beneficial.

On some streams, of course. It’s probably too obvious to mention, but not all fisheries can sustain catch-and-keep and not every angler can keep every fish they catch. Moderation in all things.

Because while food is the point, it’s not necessary to fill the freezer. To me, the act of converting fish to food strengthens my connection to the streams that I love, to my own past, to my reasons for fishing in the first place. It takes the experience beyond the technical challenge, the artistry of the cast and the flies. The blood on my hands reminds me of what’s really at stake out there. It’s never a game for the fish, even if I let them go.

So I take my little Mora knife with me on most Driftless trips these days. Bigger fish would probably require a harder hit and a bigger knife, but I don’t kill the bigger fish. I release them. I draw the line at one hand-span, one and a half years of growth. Bigger and smaller I release. I still release many more fish than I kill.

The line is arbitrary, gray. I know it. For now, I’m just trying to own the contradiction.