Fishing For The Reactionary

Direct experience with nature can be instructive and deeply satisfying, but only when there is an object and endeavor. A stroll in the woods may be conducive to contemplation, but unless one gets caught in a storm, nature is only a backdrop, or even a hindrance if the blackflies are out. The more a recreational activity approaches work, the more opportunity it presents for the coordination, struggle, and pathos that test men and forge trust.

When working with nature, errors are immediately apparent, as are skill and grace. Rhetoric counts for nothing. What matters is results. For the reactionary urbanite, fishing is an accessible pastime that can provide the kinds of logistical, athletic, and mechanical challenges that forge fraternal and familial bonds. In this atomized society, it is also one of the few deeply satisfying solo endeavors available. What follows is a practical guide for approaching the sport with respect for the prey and for the pursuer.

 Surf fisherman on Cape Cod

Surf fisherman on Cape Cod

Fishing is bloodsport. Fish are one of the healthiest, most easily prepared sources of protein and fat, and the ultimate goal of any expedition is the meals that follow. Sometime since Robert Redford’s adaptation of A River Runs Through It, western Brahmins have adopted the notion that it is nobler to torment  and maim than to kill; but true respect for the quarry as a living being or as a resource means either coming  to terms with the taking of life, or leaving it alone. It also means using tackle heavy enough to consistently land fish, and to release the undesired ones without deadly exhaustion. Respect is shown by taking only what can be reasonably consumed, and by abstaining from the pursuit of stressed populations, especially large breeding specimens. In his approach, the reactionary will appear closer to a conscientious working man than a Orvis-clad dilettante.

All fishing is local and seasonal, the locations and feeding habits of fish varying with forage migrations, insect life cycles, and the prevailing wind and tide. Finding the fish and figuring out what they are eating can seem maddeningly random, as nature’s patterns are indeed chaotic. There are patterns, however, and a good fisherman stacks the odds in his favor by drawing both upon his experience and upon local bodies of knowledge. He’ll talk to the bait shop owner, and even glean tips from charter captains (Florida and  Rhode Island) and guides (Alaska) on Instagram, a highly-competitive forum among young fishermen.

A professionally guided expedition can save a beginner hours of frustration and set him on the right track. But there is no substitute for time on the water, for getting out there before work, in the evening, or just casually noting  conditions when crossing a bridge. The eye will start to pick up hatching insects, diving birds, or dimples from baitfish, and in time, correlations will be discerned between these and the weather, season, and time of day, such that a certain angle of light, temperature, and birdsong will bring a particular bite to mind. This visceral awareness of local game is the province of a predator.

An autumn baitfish migration

An autumn baitfish migration

A novice fisherman should chose an abundant quarry that he can reasonably expect to catch, unassisted, after attaining proficiency with his tackle. In the northeast, that might be striped bass or bluefish, not bluefin tuna. Inland, perhaps smallmouth bass or stocked trout. In the south, red drum, seatrout, mackerel, or snook. Inland, largemouth  bass or catfish, or walleye and pike up north. The west coast angler has various salmon, tunas, and bottom fish at his disposal, and anywhere in the mountains, the game will be trout. Check the seasons and regulations, and then choose appropriate tackle, which should be as light as possible to land the largest specimens, but no lighter. When selecting a weight  class, the appropriate tackle scales with a power law: 4-pound tackle where a 1-pound fish is a lunker, 10-pound for 10-pound fish, and 20-pound for 30-pounders. The aim again is meat on the table, not to give every fish a sporting chance at breaking off with a hook in its mouth or dying of exhaustion.

Fishing tackle, unlike firearms, has succumbed to planned obsolescence of late, as every last brand has been acquired by some conglomerate. Manufacturing has moved to Asia, and components and design on all but high-end reels are compromised for cost over durability. However, a lively market exists on Ebay for vintage reels made in the U.S. and Europe by brands such as Penn (Philadelphia), Abu Garcia (Sweden), and DAM (West Germany), who built and marketed their products as heirlooms. Learning to clean and repair these wonders of 20th century engineering, for which parts and tutorials are available, is a reward in and of itself. That said, serviceable new equipment can be had at a reasonable price; let local dealers and online reviews be your guide. With any reel, care and maintenance is simply part of a fisherman’s discipline. Keeping it out of the sand and water is the very first thing you teach a child.

Learn the following knots and their proper uses: arbor, improved clinch, and double uni. For larger game, the Bimini twist and Yucatan. Practice each fully and test it to breaking; there is nothing more embarrassing than losing a fish to a slipped knot. As for lures, fish haven’t changed since the 1960s, and the same spoons, jigs, swim plugs, and poppers will suffice. Bait rigs should be tied as simply and with as little hardware as possible. Again, local knowledge will be your guide, as each region and subregion has its traditional techniques and favorite lures.

Fly fishing was developed for trout as a way to present a nearly weightless lure or bait, as the heavy line itself propels the cast. Keep this in mind when deciding whether it is appropriate, as in many cases its use is forced, more to suit the angler’s image than the fish and conditions. If you are after trout, or working a pond for bass and sunfish, it is a delightfully primitive way to fish, as the equipment  and technique would be recognizable to an 18th century Englishman.

Fly fishing: not much has changed but the attire

Fly fishing: not much has changed but the attire

Keep your ancillary tackle to a minimum, or your pastime will become tackle management. You’ll need needle nose pliers (forceps if after trout or sunfish), and a shoulder bag or backpack to hold a spool of leader, hooks, lures, and lead. You want to be able to move and fish with the bag on your body. Unless you are catfishing or using bait in the surf, you aren’t setting up camp but are stalking, as this is a game of pursuit more than patience.

Bluefish, an East Coast standby, caught with a 40-year-old Penn reel

Bluefish, an East Coast standby, caught with a 40-year-old Penn reel

You are reading the water, noting rocks, eddies, pools and riffles, or sandbars, rips, and troughs. You are presenting your bait or lure as near as possible to the natural prey in favor at that time and place. Hooked fish are brought to bay as swiftly as is prudent, mindful of obstacles and other lines. Legal catches are promptly bled or dispatched with blows, and are handled with respect to temperature and cleanliness.

Angling may be said to be so like the mathematics that it can never be fully learnt. – Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler

Fish with a man, and you will learn who he is though his actions rather than conversation.  Partners are expected to be ready at the appointed hour, proper equipment in hand, with a clear mind and ready spirit. At any level of skill, nature and fish can humble a man, so the endeavor must be treated with respect. It is not just an excuse to drink, nor to fetishize expensive tackle. It is a test of your organizational  and technical abilities, your knowledge of the surroundings, and your judgement. Special care must be taken if a boat is involved, as the logistics are complicated and the gravity of errors compounded.

When it comes time to clean the fish, watch a video about that type of fish, because techniques have been honed for various body shapes – steaks for some, filets for others, mere gutting for panfish. Keep in mind that the offensive taste which turns away so many westerners is the preventable result of poor handling. It’s fine to lay your catch in the grass or bury it in wet sand while continuing to fish, but fish should be chilled within an hour if the weather is warm, and immediately if hot. Fillets that won’t be eaten within a day or two should be sealed and frozen right away, while whole gutted fish may be stored three days. Fish can also be frozen whole and thawed for later butchering (my freezer often looks like a Japanese market). Also consider brining  and smoking, a technique that works well on oily fish like mackerel and salmon. A family that’s proficient in cleaning and storing fish isn’t afraid to keep a legal limit from a healthy stock, and enjoys animal protein at a cost determined by their luck and skill. The economic value of the activity makes it all the more vital – bad knots and sloppy casts cost money.

A Woman Cleaning Fish – Pehr Hilleström

A Woman Cleaning Fish – Pehr Hilleström

Fishing offers a family a way to organize themselves as a unit of apex predators with their fingers on the pulse of the local environment. Even in the North  America of 2017, the waters around major cities hold enough gamefish to provide sport and sustenance, if only because so few people are aware they exist and have the skills and initiative to harvest them.

A man with graceful mastery over game can reconnect his friends and children with their surroundings and remind them of their role as stewards of the land and the people therein. Ventures into nature become not escapes but climbs to vantage points over the community and civilization, from which its form and vigor or illness are plain. By restoring such vision, and by providing a forum for the virtuous free from the thought police and self-censorship, reactionaries can be fishers of men.

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  1. Arthur Northwode August 17, 2017 at 10:32 pm

    Great article, Alex. I look forward to seeing more articles like this on Social Matter: encouraging everyone to get outside when they can. I’ve recently got back into fishing; it’s no joke– especially ocean fishing. Hell, I was puking my guts out on my first trip back out, but the reward of pulling even small Calico bass in from the water is enough to keep even a sick man reeling.

    1. Thanks Arthur. You’re right – it’s always a thrill. BTW, I hear Bonine is better than Dramamine.

  2. Pro Aris Et Focus August 24, 2017 at 7:46 am

    I greatly enjoyed the article. I would like to take a brief moment to counter-signal, what I perceived to be, your take on catch and release fishing. Catch and release done conscientiously is no danger to the fish. As long as you aren’t wearing the fish out by unnecessarily prolonging the fight and you are attentive in making sure the fish has been properly revived prior to release, the chances for mortality are almost nil. Circle hooks almost completely eliminate foul or gut hooking.

    If you are fishing exclusively for meat you might as well give up on some excellent sportfish such as largemouth bass and, my personal favorite, redfish. Almost all trophy bass are females and good stewardship recommends only culling small males (10″ or under). If you’re fishing for meat, panfish (an underrated sportfish on light tackle) would be a far more efficient target. Most states have highly regulated redfish due to excessive overfishing in the 80s and rightfully so. They’ve made a huge comeback due to the introduction of ‘slots’ where the only legal fish are those between minimum and maximum lengths. If you’re going to target redfish, you are going to catch fish that are under and over slot. Even with conservative limits in place, I still try not to take all the legal fish I can. I’d rather let some of these fish reach the larger breeding size so that my children can enjoy this fishery. It’s not that I don’t trust my local DNR and wildlife biologists, in fact, they are one of the few government agencies I place a large amount of trust in. I’d rather err on the side of conservatism.

    My brother and I tore into a hole full of black drum last month. We kept less than half our legal limit. Why? We had enough food to feed our large family and though it was within the law to keep more fish, we didn’t want to put unnecessary pressure on this productive spot. Did we stop fishing once we’d filled our cooler. No. We were sharing a great experience and as long as the fish were biting we were going to enjoy the opportunity. It doesn’t harm the fish and provides for some great memories reconnecting with the outdoors.

    Best regards.

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