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In The Modern World, Why Do We Hunt And Fish?

Mountain Journal columnist Marshall Cutchin wrestles with the questions of stalking animals for sport, sustenance and seeking a deeper connection to nature

Bonding in the great outdoors and creating positive memories for two lifetimes: Marshall Cutchin and son, Will, when he was young. Photo courtesy Marshall Cutchin
Bonding in the great outdoors and creating positive memories for two lifetimes: Marshall Cutchin and son, Will, when he was young. Photo courtesy Marshall Cutchin
When my son was four years old we bought him a goldfish. He named the fish “No Feet.” No Feet lived a short and worried life, made more so by the fact that my son enjoyed scooping him out of his small glass bowl and petting him. 

As a parent who had done more than his fair share of worrying and shortening the lives of fish, who was I to judge? But the day that No Feet didn’t recover from his petting was a fine opportunity to insert a memory about respect for life in my son’s brain. I’m glad I didn’t let my own history prevent me from completing this responsibility.

Wildness, which might include virtually any sense of chaos or entropy or any unexpected jolt we get from facing something that is not part of our daily surroundings, gives us opportunity to ask ourselves all kinds of questions, some pleasant, some difficult. It is being confronted by something with which we can’t immediately identify that opens up the imagination to both wonder and fear, often at the same time.

There is a thrill in stalking and gaining the upper hand on game animals that is not easily replaced in the human experience. If not a part of our DNA, then it is at least a part of an RNA expression conditioned by many thousands of years of practice. Unless we want to deepen our cycle of satisfaction and shame, we shouldn’t seek to constantly beat ourselves up for behaving like the animals we are. But nor should we be dismissive about its source. Few of us truly depend on game animals for food anymore, unless we live in a part of the world where it is a necessity.

I question myself more than ever when it comes to fishing. The older I get, the more I sense that the self-questioning is key to fully appreciating what I am doing. I question the morality of causing pain, the impact of my presence on the wilderness, the greed implied with the thrill I get from interfering with an animal's life. I doubt I would ever fish again if it didn't cause me to pause and place myself in some insignificant, unknowing role. Granted, it’s a vantage point that has to be earned. 

The best fly fisher with whom I have ever fished has never escaped a sort of avaricious need to catch more and bigger fish. But he's an insensitive moron when it comes to understanding and appreciating the wider, wilder world. Which I think has basically proven to me that if you are a fly fisher you are just a person holding a fly rod, nothing more.

It is not only right but necessary, at a time when plant and animal species and in fact diversity itself is threatened by global environmental change, that we question how far we have to go to satisfy this “primal urge,” as hunting non-apologists like to call it. We’ve set up venerable if not always perfect institutions, both ethical and physical, to help us sublimate urges like these: single-sex education, religion, employment, government. That too is an important part of the human experiment, and one that occasionally produces marvelous results.

And yet how many of us step back to think, when we hold a fish up to take a picture of it as the trophy and ourselves as the victorious angler, that we may be, at least in some ways, misappropriating that animal’s life? And how far will we take that misappropriation?

Will we leave it on our phones as a private reminder of a wonderfully challenging and rewarding day, or will we send it to friends? Will our friends send it to their friends, and will we post it on Facebook where our barely connected network identifies us through the image of a fish? What has the fish become at that point? More often than not it has become a lifeless shape, figuratively (since that’s all that matters in this moment) drained of blood and energy and any connection to its own life experience and the wildness from which we’ve extracted it. It’s lost almost all of its otherness.

But what of the urge to hunt, to fish, even to stalk wildlife with a camera or in a Land Rover? What of the pleasure of harvesting wild plants, even visiting a fragile landscape to take in the awe it gives up so easily? All of these are in their own ways consumptive activities. They all have a cost. Do we need to sublimate all those urges, or rank them by some agreed-upon measure of cost, or benefit?

A purely quantitative scale is useful, but it doesn’t give us the full measure. I think the answer to that comes in the form of humility. The moment we cease asking ourselves these questions--about what we take from the world and what we give back--is the moment we become less than we are capable of. It’s the kind of reflection that intelligent grown-ups ought to do on a daily basis.

"I question myself more than ever when it comes to fishing. The older I get, the more I sense that the self-questioning is key to fully appreciating what I am doing...The moment we cease asking ourselves these questions—about what we take from the world and what we give back—is the moment we become less than we are capable of. It’s the kind of reflection that intelligent grown-ups ought to do on a daily basis."                                 —Marshall Cutchin

Each of us has urges, some of them hardly repressible, that make us less than human if we deny their existence. And within the bounds of morality, and of species survival, or at least with regard for our freedom to act not impinging on the freedom of others, we should be allowed the joy they offer. 

As a friend said recently, “Being a grown up I can eat ice cream for dinner, but these sorts of questions often make it less fun.” But we’re not just debating excess calories. And taking the life of another animal, or causing it to at least fear for its existence, is for most of us an excellent conduit for self-doubt.

Up until the last couple of centuries, fishing and hunting wasn’t primarily a sport. But we’ve created a culture defined by the label “sportsman” that has been both celebrated and attacked from the moment it was birthed. And therein lies the problem, and perhaps an essential solution, to the conundrum of fishing or hunting ethics in the 21st century. 

Those activities that place our own egos, our own sense of relative self-worth, most at risk, have a value that is hard, if not impossible, to measure. In fact we normally avoid that depth of self-evaluation at all costs, as our sanity demands. But we have a choice about whether or not to fish or hunt, and with it comes not only a thrill that is virtually impossible to explain because it is so deeply encased in our bones, but the obligation to self-question.

This solution doesn’t fit neatly into either the pro-hunting or anti-hunting camps, and it doesn’t lend itself to an obvious role in the necessary evolution of our culture. 

But if you care about the role of fishing or hunting in the human experience--especially in your own experience--you owe it to yourself, and to the people around you who are privileged to judge your behavior, to welcome this self-questioning with humility and even reverence. 

It goes beyond the debate over whether sentient beings deserve the same rights as humans, or whether vegans and animal-rights activists are hypocrites, or whether hunting or meat-eating are examples of unnecessary human cruelty, beyond political correctness or incorrectness. In fact it goes beyond any sort of sanctimonious rationale and to the heart of the activity itself. 

"It goes beyond the debate over whether sentient beings deserve the same rights as humans, or whether vegans and animal-rights activists are hypocrites, or whether hunting or meat-eating are examples of unnecessary human cruelty, beyond political correctness or incorrectness." —Cutchin

By not embracing hunting and fishing as an opportunity to question your own motives and effect, you’re denying a large measure of their value. You’re surrendering it to a highly objectified world where its essence is judged through images shared by friends once- or twice-removed, where the semblance of wonder and fear is more important that the emotions themselves. I suspect that you’re likely also hastening your sport’s demise in a  world that is vastly different socially, ethically and environmentally than the one that sportsmen once imagined.

I certainly can’t pretend to imagine what the future of hunting and angling are in such a complex and fast-changing world. But neither am I eager to see sports that have asked so much of me, and given so much to me, slide off into our collective memory as selfish ideas practiced by selfish people.

I prefer to believe that there is a core of thoughtful participants who will elucidate a new ethic that doesn’t measure the value of an activity by the number of its participants, but by the contribution of those participants to a more meaningful interaction with wildness. And that way we can take our place, however large or small a place that is, in a future that values an authentic, passionate relationship with nature.

Marshall Cutchin
About Marshall Cutchin

Marshall Cutchin is the founder of MidCurrent, the most widely read online fly fishing magazine in the world. He also is an ardent conservationist and former fishing guide in the Florida Keys.
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