The Fish I Didn’t Let Go


The sun is a low behind the hills, the fog rising on the river. It creeps slowly towards me, surrounding him in a swirl and then continuing its ascent up the Elk River. More follows like the body of a serpent. Only, its bite is a cool rush of air.

I’d come for my supper. Now, shame dangles from the stringer in two lengths of five inches and seven inches—both browns. I think to release them, one with eyes bulging from the rock that put the lights out. Perhaps something else will find satisfaction and enjoyment and not waste a life as I begin to untie the rope.

But then I stop, suddenly realizing the road I am heading down. The words that have crossed my brain spill out my mouth like an involuntary spasm. Waste. Not waste a life. Shame floods my body, making the cold water of the Elk seem distant and irrelevant.

A quail calls just off the far bank. Or is it a mockingbird? Groups of swallows sweep the river, the evening hatch underway. More fish rise to the ones that never quite make it off the ground. The cycle of life.

One time, long ago, I hastily shot a deer while heading to my stand. The shot was high and back and the deer was not dead when I approached, its body kicking and squirming to get up and live another day. But the bullet had severed its spine and only I could put an end to the struggle for a life that could no longer be.

The button buck stiffened with the second shot. I dropped the rifle and sat with his face in my hands until dark. The older men at camp laughed and slapped me on the back, but I knew it was not okay. It happens to us all, they had said. I was not like them and knew it then and know it now, again looking at the meager catch.

One of the trout is still twitching, the other lifeless and losing color. They are not much to look at really. But they are here for me when I need them. They ran to the fly and bit down on the hook and never said a word as they were hoisted to dry land. Because they know.

In the journey from the hatchery to the river, they know how the end might come and they live easier knowing the duty they may have to fulfill. Man has survived on animals since the earth cooled. Because when he died for us on that day, on this day and the many other times his life will be traded for ours, he knew in his heart that the lifeblood of man depended on his sacrifice. Only the unselfish sacrifice carried out by the deer in all its glory and athleticism, the turkey in its beauty and incomparable wariness, the trout as the most magnificent fish, or God.

Men before me knew and still some today know. And that day, with the fish I didn’t let go, I relearned a lesson in the schoolhouse with no walls. A lesson taught with unspoken truth and clarity that only the hunter and gatherer will recognize in the signs around us. It’s not about the trophy. It’s about taking what you need and leaving the rest.

I left the river that evening, my feet numb from the cold waters running out of Tim’s Ford Lake and into the bountiful Elk River. My mind felt at ease and body relaxed after the long walk back upstream to the vehicle. A whippoorwill began its melodic chant to the disappearing sun and soon another joined. Again the call of the lonely bobwhite. Life exists there.

Young trout continued hitting the top of the water down the length of the run that disappeared around a bend to the right. A loud splash and the water’s ripple shimmering in the faint evening light as a beaver dove and then reemerged.

At the small cabin after dark with the creatures of night around me, my belly not completely full but not empty either, with just enough and never too much, again thanked the fish for the nourishment they provided. As my eyes became heavy with fatigue, I again slipped back to the river in the shimmering mist to witness the cycle of life as it unfolded with undaunted determination.

We wake up to fish another day, hunt another day, live another day. And in moments of truth, how will we, as outdoorsmen and women, handle ourselves among the fish we don’t let go?

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