Stream of Conscience

There I was, knee deep in a pristine trout stream, staring at the nicely netted brook trout. I wasn’t peacefully reflecting on its natural beauty. Instead, I wondered when I would be arrested if I decided to keep the fish.

Was this a blue stream? A green stream? A red one, or black? I’m colorblind to start with, though that excuse wouldn’t swim in this river. No sign or regulations were posted where I’d left my truck parked to hike down to the river. Not that there was supposed to be a sign. That would have made it too easy for me now.

According to an old but usually reliable map, I was on the right river…or was I? I had reviewed the streams I had intended to fish in the Inland Trout and Salmon Guide before leaving home, but that was over three hours and 150 miles ago. By mistake, I had left this color coded “bible” of the new fishing rules for Michigan trout streams on my desk at home.

Now I was asking myself: Was it eight inches, 10 inches, 12, or 15, or was there no size limit at all because it was a no-kill stream? And which sizes went with which fish…browns, rainbows, or brookies? Was I now in an “artificial flies” or “lures-only” designated part of the river? I didn’t think so, but then I had tried to memorize only the one part of the guide to the river that I had intended to fish that day.

I was confused. Perplexed.  Anxious. Mad at myself. Here I was, standing in the river with a nice trout, wondering what to do next, cursing the fates that had forced me to pursue my worm-dunking on an unfamiliar stretch of cedar-lined trout stream. Others occupied the first two spots that I had mapped out in my head the night before and planned to fish today. They either did not have to travel as far or left a whole lot earlier in the morning to beat me to the water.

It used to be so dog-gone simple, I thought, as I wished vast misfortune on whoever decided to confuse me with new rules in place of what had been a very easy-to-understand set of size limits and specific stream rules. I wanted my old rules back. I wanted that comfort of old knowledge that I had been carrying and building on in my mind for all these past years of my trout-fishing experience. I didn’t want the unfamiliar, radical, newfangled, color-coded guide that the Department of natural Resources staff of experts had forced on my fellow anglers and me.

I like to fish for trout in Michigan’s streams. I like to keep and eat those trout. And I don’t violate the state fish and game laws. My mouth literally watered thinking about the taste of buttery, lightly breaded, and seasoned pan-fried trout.

The brookie swam out of my net to freedom, and I thought hard about my present predicament as I baited the hook with a fresh crawler.

 Had only myself to blame and would have to adjust to the colorful changes. After all, the DNR Fisheries Division, with all its wealth of data, knowledge, field experience, and father-knows-best attitude, couldn’t be off base. Or could it? Perhaps this was all a ploy to turn the average worm-dunking angler into a fly-flippin’, bamboo rod-toting, catching-and-releasing elitist. Perish the thought of keeping, yet alone eating, what one might catch.

That could have been the plan all along, I thought: Get the average anglers confused and they will be less likely to violate the vast caverns of regulations. They’ll just learn rules that make it safe to fish on any stream—flies only, no-kill, catch and release from the last Saturday in April (for now) through September. In fact, releasing that last brookie was one big step in that direction if you ignore the tackle the fish had been caught on. Ingenious.

I continued to fish my way upstream, but also remembered some new daily harvest limits had gone along with the new rules—slot-type limits—with wording like “no more than so many fish, so long, regardless, etc.” Then there was that stuff in bold type…probably the really important stuff that I couldn’t for the life of me remember. The more I fished, the more I knew it was likely that jail time and a hefty fine and restitution were in my immediate future.

I knew I couldn’t keep this up much longer, for the very shame of the act was bringing me to depths of sorrow. After I caught several more fish that morning and guiltily wished to keep them before releasing them, I made my way back downstream with my vast, empty creel heavily in tow. Well, at least the violation could only be for fishing with the wrong tackle in this part of the stream if it was an artificial flies- or lures-designated area (purple, red or black). I wondered, as I exited the stream, what punishment awaited me ashore.

Why did I have to be such a worrier, anyway? In 25 years of adult fishing, a DNR officer had checked me only once. But something told me that my luck had run out this time, that waiting for me—ticket pad open, forest green wool pant leg with black stripe down the side over a shined black shoe planted squarely on my truck—was my Waterloo, a Michigan conservation officer.

Well, no officer was there and no tickets were issued.

When I arrived back home and found my Inland Trout and Salmon Guide (right where I left it so I would be sure not to forget it), I discovered that the river was designated “green.” I could fish with worms and I could have kept brook trout eight inches or more in length.

A sweet sense of justification at the thought of having not violated any laws swept over me—until I thought of that trout dinner that I wasn’t having tonight and of all the concerned thoughts that dampened my time on the river. But I did learn a valuable, lifelong lesson. No, it wasn’t to remember the Inland Trout and Salmon Guide when I pull out of the driveway on fishing expeditions. But I will. In fact, I now have a copy in the glove compartment of each of my vehicles and another stuffed in the back pouch of my fishing vest. No, the lesson wasn’t to memorize the rules.

The lesson I learned was, when in doubt (or when I’ve forgotten the rules), to carry a fly rod, to practice catch-and-release only, to kill no fish even if it is over 15 inches long, and try to remember that even a bad day fishing is better than a good day NOT fishing.