Last summer I was unexpectedly invited to fish for a week on a prestigious salmon river in Iceland. A friend had paid for the trip in advance, but an unusual business opportunity made it impossible for him to go and he asked if I would replace him. Free. I packed my gear, and roughly 18 hours after his call I was 30,000 feet over the North Atlantic headed for Reykjavik with four other men in a private jet belonging to one of them, an airplane that costs more to operate for one hour than the average American makes in a month.
My four companions had two things in common: they were wealthy and they were avid sportsmen who hunted and fished all over the world. None of them was optimistic about the future of Atlantic salmon fishing. Salmon spend most of their lives at sea, and historically they were harvested only when they returned from the ocean to spawn. Then, in the late 1950s, schools of salmon were discovered feeding off the southwest coast of Greenland. Since the fish were in international waters, they were vulnerable to the fishing fleets of all nations. Trawlers equipped with sonar and drift nets caught a large number of salmon year-round before restrictions were instituted by an international commission.
Several countries also took steps to protect salmon. During the last decade the Norwegian government has encouraged the establishment of domestic salmon "farms." In 1979 they produced 5,000 metric tons of hatchery-raised salmon for the restaurant trade. Britain carefully regulates its sport and commercial harvests and supports the restocking of hatchery-bred salmon in its rivers. Some Canadian provinces have temporarily banned commercial fishing for salmon and have subsidized commercial fishermen. Yet, despite these measures, the number of fish is declining. The man who owned the jet I was riding in—let's call him John—referred to Atlantic salmon as an endangered species, although the Environmental Protection Agency has not so labeled it. But John had been involved in various save-the-Atlantic-salmon efforts. He despised commercial fishermen and poachers who illegally take salmon from rivers. Commercial fishermen, John implied, would net salmon until there were none left to kill; and the day when there would be no salmon in the Atlantic Ocean was fast approaching. John was quick with figures to support his arguments. He spoke with conviction.
When smoked salmon was served as an appetizer for lunch. I couldn't believe it. John explained that the fish on our plates was from a 22-pound salmon he had taken two weeks earlier from Canada's Restigouche River. I nearly choked. I had never heard such castigation of river-fishing for salmon as I had in the last hour; yet here was John, a self-proclaimed conservationist, boasting of killing a creature that 10 minutes before he had identified as an endangered species. I wasn't surprised that John had caught the fish, but considering that this fish had evaded the "evil" trawlers in the Greenland Straits, cir cumvented the "cruel" gill nets at the mouth of the Restigouche, eluded the "foul" poachers who use dynamite, pitchforks and poison—a fish capable of transferring its wily genes to thousands of progeny—I sure was surprised that he would kill it.
Fly-fishing as it is practiced today need not be a blood sport. Fish will survive being caught on a hook if you handle them carefully and let them go. I told John that I had assumed from listening to him that an endangered species like a salmon would deserve being returned to the river alive. John's answer to this was a question.
"Well," he said, "don't you like to eat it?"
"Salmon is delicious," I answered, "but why don't you eat the fish that are caught commercially and allow the ones that make it up the rivers to spawn?"
"That would be pretty expensive," John said, winking shrewdly, "sort of like throwing away $100 bills." Meanwhile, the engines of John's jet were burning fuel at the rate of a dollar every five seconds.
When we arrived at the lodge we learned that the river was low because of a lack of rain, and the few salmon that were in the river were concentrated in two pools. The river was divided into five beats, one for each of us, and we drew slips of paper from a hat for our assignments. The drill was to fish each beat for half a day. then move upstream. This rotation ensured each of us equal time on the best water.
Only three salmon had been taken all season in the first pool I drew, but I fished hard all morning, casting, mending the line, casting again. While my gillie slept on the bank, I hiked downstream until, in a narrow side channel, I saw a salmon roll and caught it. This was my first Atlantic salmon, and catching it had provided more pleasure than I had ever derived from eating anything. After admiring the fish on the bank, I removed the fly from its jaw and returned it to the river alive. Then I woke my gillie, and we returned to the lodge.
John had drawn a good pool, and the results of his fishing were displayed on the lawn: three nice salmon, each more than 10 pounds. John stood nearby, recounting his morning's adventure to anyone who would listen. Then he politely asked about my morning. Did I have any strikes, he inquired. I replied that. in fact, I had caught a salmon.
All heads turned toward me as they asked in unison, "Where's the fish?"
I told them.
"Let it go!" they screamed. "Why did you let it go?"
John suggested that it had been a Palm Beach release, meaning that I had lost it.
No, I assured him, I had caught the fish. So John asked my gillie, who was standing nearby, how big the salmon was. The gillie said he never saw it; furthermore, he said he had never heard of a salmon being caught from the place I described. John appeared to be embarrassed, as if he had learned that I beat my children. It was clear to him, and to the rest of the group, that I was a liar. I had thought the era had ended when you needed blood on your hands and something dead on the ground to prove your manhood. Clearly, I was wrong.
After lunch John told me that if I didn't care to take my catch home there was a smokehouse nearby that paid $2 a pound for fresh salmon. If I had good luck, he said, it could add up to quite a sum.
I may sound self-righteous, but here is what the trip taught me.
If you are a fly-fisherman, the impulse to kill an Atlantic salmon lies somewhere amid greed, gluttony and self-aggrandizement. I have nothing but respect for people who harvest their own food, but when a man leaves his office in, say, Detroit, and plunks down $5,000 for a week of sport, then killing a fish and bringing it home to eat has about as much to do with subsistence as squeeze margarine does with hand-churned butter.
As natural resources continue to disappear during this century, a fierce battle is being fought between people who want to preserve those resources for recreation and sport, and people who think the resources should be consumed for economic benefit. It is not an easy conflict to resolve fairly. If your job depends on the electricity generated by a hydroelectric dam, a million screaming kayakers will never convince you that God didn't intend that river to be a lake.
The line must be drawn somewhere. Personally, I will not listen to any more sportsmen talk about saving African wildlife when the podium is framed by a "trophy" pair of ivory tusks. And I question the honesty of any man who dares to condemn the netting of Atlantic salmon while at the same time carrying a sharp gaff in the pocket of his fishing jacket. If salmon are in trouble, let's get them out of the delicatessens and off the menus of restaurants. If sport fishing for them is allowed, let's make it obligatory that all fish be released. During this century sportsmen have been vociferous advocates of conservation. I think it's time they learn that conservation requires more than words and money. It requires self-restraint.