Poking The Bear

I’m not gonna lie, we knew we were poking The Bear when we tagged the photo on Instagram.

Cory Sorel
My buddy Cory Sorel with a Hill Country scrapper,
a 5-pound carp he landed quickly on a 3-wt. fiberglass rod.
Photo by Aaron Reed

Earlier, when we reached the parking area above the river, I asked my buddy Cory if he’d be interested in swapping out his Orvis Recon 6-weight for my new C. Barclay glass 3-weight for the day. It took him just a few seconds to arrive at “yes.”

The Recon is fast carbon, a lovely casting rod, and perfect for the scrappy river carp we were looking for. The Barclay is slow glass, a lovely casting rod, and perfect for everything else we might encounter.

Cory sightcasted the feeder from a boulder above the water, expertly strip-set the hook, and landed the fish inside of 5 minutes. The little glass rod was bent double much of that time, and the Orvis Battenkill II reel sang a few times, but everything worked as it was supposed to and there was surprisingly little drama.

Back at the Jeep a few hours later, with cell service, I posted the pic and tagged our buddy, The Bear. This particular angler is a well-respected carper who bridges the worlds of traditional, Euro-style carp fishing and fly fishing for carp. He’s equally adept at both and catches more fish than anyone else we know.

handling fish
Handling fish in the water as much as possible increases
their post-release survival chances.
Photo by Aaron Reed

If you’ve ever run into a Euro-carper, you know that the niche they occupy is a gear-heavy and technical manifestation of the sport of angling, involving long, surf-casting rods and bait runner reels, secret recipe bait balls (“boilies,” they’re called), digital or physical alarms to detect subtle eats and padded mats and cradles to coddle the fish once they are landed.

It appears to me that the technical arcana, as well as the reverence with which its practitioners approach their quarry, derive from an English tradition of tricking near-domesticated fish that live in the same, confined waters decade after decade. Anglers chart the animals’ latest length, girth and weight like proud parents each time they land one of the fish.

Some of these fish live in pay-to-fish ponds, others in lakes in public parks. Very few swim in free-flowing streams.

In Texas, and across the U.S., wild carp are increasingly esteemed as a game fish and more than a few fly anglers (including me) are obsessed with them. They are smart, incredibly sensitive to disturbances in their environment, omnivorous but finicky. And they pull like runaway freight trains.

largemouth bass
A largemouth bass swims away vigorously after being caught
on the South Fork San Gabriel River.
Photo by Aaron Reed

That last point is the basis of The Bear’s objection: ultralight rods just aren’t up to the task, he says, and the angler could excessively tire the fish. My counter-argument is that ultralight glass rods are simply big shock absorbers and do a terrific job of protecting tippet, allowing the angler to play the fish more confidently – and more quickly.

I recently watched another good friend take upwards of an hour to land a double-digit carp on a fast 8-weight. The 5-pounder Cory caught came to hand in – again, let me stress this – well under 5 minutes.

We become (overly) protective of the things we love, and The Bear loves carp. I get it. I feel the same way about Guadalupe bass, and Texas snook, and wild, native trout.

The tweed-and-grumble crowd begins with the admonitions to leave the stocked trout alone in the Guadalupe about the beginning of June. “Too hot!” they say. “You’ll kill the fish!”

Anglers whose streamers (intended, no doubt, for a smallmouth bass or striper) get slammed by a hungry holdover brown or rainbow are quickly shamed into silence if they make the mistake of posting a photo on social media in, say, July or August.

And what those guys say is true: coldwater salmonids are delicate creatures and not very tolerant of strenuous exercise in the Texas heat. That’s why they do not naturally occur here. And also why they are replaced in the river annually, at considerable expense, from hatchery-raised stocks in Missouri.

I know this because as a Guadalupe River Trout Unlimited member and a Lease Access Program participant, I help pay the freight.

I also am aware we wouldn’t even be doing that if we hadn’t created an artificial lake by damming up a free-flowing river and then negotiating sufficient releases to keep the water cold and flowing.

I believe every angler should treat his or her quarry respectfully, and if the fish is not intended for the table it makes good, practical sense to release it back into the water as gently as possible. I have caught the same fish more than once, in several places.

It’s a thrill to recognize a familiar pattern or distinguishing feature and to be able to say: “Hi, old friend.” Or to direct another angler to a particular location and say: “There’s a big old bass right next to that stump. She’ll eat a mouse every time.”

On the other hand, I recognize that for a bunch of guys and gals who are tricking fish into thinking they are getting a meal and instead sticking them in their faces with sharp, pointy things and hauling their finny asses up into a foreign environment … well, we should be a little more sensitive to the irony.

This, then, is the tension inherent in catch and release fishing. I’m behind it, 100 percent, and if I’m going to do it, I’m going to try to do it right – in a way that gives the fish the best chance for survival.

For bass (and snook, too, by the way), that means not hanging large fish by the lower jaw (it stretches ligaments they need to effectively feed, and they often starve to death weeks later); it means using barbless hooks to minimize tissue damage when I remove the fly; it means taking care to indeed #keepemwet and not knock any fish’s slime layer off (the slime is vital to preventing fungal and bacterial infections); it means recognizing that fish extract oxygen from water, not air, and keeping them in the water as much as possible is good for them.

It also means not playing a fish to the point of exhaustion, and carefully reviving any tired or weak fish by holding it head-first into the current or gently pulling it along in figure-eights (back-and-forth in the water doesn’t do it), until it is strong enough to kick-off, upright, on its own.

When it comes to population-level impacts, the entire exercise is mostly symbolic.

If I carelessly kill every fish I catch in the next decade, I’m not likely to empty a river, or even a reach of a river. Large-scale challenges like habitat loss, water quality degradation, inadequate baseflows, and even climate change will be the deciding factors in whether some species or populations survive.

But how you and I handle each individual fish says something about where our heads – and our hearts – are on those larger issues, and signals the importance we place on the animals and environments that provide the sport we love so much.

I think that’s what The Bear was going for, when 5 minutes after the post appeared he began commenting.

I hear ya, Bear. I really do. But I’m not giving up the 3-weight, and I’m not carrying one of those damned carp mats. Not yet, anyway.

Aaron Reed

Aaron Reed

Aaron Reed is an award-winning outdoor writer and Army veteran. He currently splits his time between his native Texas Gulf coast, where he drives a tugboat, and his home near the San Gabriel River in Georgetown, Texas. He is a founding member of the Texas Streams Coalition and has worked for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. In 2020, he was awarded the prestigious FFI Roderick Haig-Brown Award. When he is not working, chances are you can find him knee-deep in a stream somewhere around Austin, often with his wife and one or more of his three boys, trying like heck to become a better fly fisherman. His stories and photos have appeared in Southwest Fly Fishing, This is Fly, Kayak Angler, Texas Outdoors Journal, Texas Sporting Journal, Texas Fish & Game, Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine, Lone Star Outdoor News, Austin American-Statesman, Austin Business Journal, the Taylor Press, Soldiers magazine, Leatherneck magazine, Liguorian magazine, The Washington Times, and elsewhere.

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