Knowledge acquired over time is essential for gaining the necessary wisdom to evolve as an angler. Although wisdom can be linked to age and time, experience is the main ingredient.
I began my quest for walleyes over 35 years ago. In my early years, I spent quality time daydreaming and hoping that some day a big fish would bite my bait. I often envisioned the event, imagining how the big walleye would fight and how I would land the beast. It took several years, but eventually a big fish bit.
The walleye took the bait like most do, but the rod bowed deep when I set the hook. The drag clicked as I reeled and zinged when the big fish surged. My heart was pounding so fast, so loudly that I could barely hear my dad's fish-landing instructions. I'm guessing the battle only lasted a few minutes, but the demanding incident wore me out. Once the fish was finally nestled deep in the net, a sudden private rush of shock, pride, and relief flooded my mind.
After a congratulatory handshake and a few photos, my dad asked, "Do you want to keep it or release it?"
Release it? I had spent most of my short life waiting for the right bite, fight, and fish, but I'd never once envisioned tossing it back in the lake. "Keep it," I said with excitement.
"Okay," he said, "It's your fish and you can do whatever it is you want to do with it."
For the rest of the day, I took several breaks to admire the quarantined beast in the livewell. I also spent time thinking about the next phase of catching a trophy walleye, which was telling my mother, brother, sister, and friends about my catch. I also pondered mounting it for my bedroom wall.
"Dad, how much would it cost to stuff my walleye?" I asked.
Taking a few seconds, he replied, "Oh, I could get you a deal with a guy I know in Pierre [South Dakota], but it's still going to cost you around $250 to $300."
"Really?" I questioned. That was a pile of money for a kid on a paper-route salary. Saving $300 had taken me just about as long as it did to finally catch a fish worthy of hanging on my wall.
"Yes, really," he explained. "The taxidermist charges by the inch. You can mount that fish if you want to, Jeff; it's your fish and money. Of course, someday you may catch a bigger one. You have all day to think about it, but you'll have to decide when we get home."
The day finally ended. After loading the boat, Dad put our catch in a cooler full of ice before we headed for home. I could hardly wait to tell my family and friends about our day of fishing and, most importantly, about my big fish.
"Wow," my brother said, obviously impressed. "Are you going to mount it?"
"I'd like to," I said. "But I guess it would cost like 300 bucks, so I don't know, yet. Maybe."
My dad always cleaned the fish right when we got home. While I was twisting my big-fish tale, he was cleaning, and soon only my fish remained in the cooler. "Well, Jeff," Dad said, "it's time for you to make your decision."
I opened the cooler and gazed at my big walleye. It was definitely the biggest fish I'd ever caught, although the life had disappeared from her eyes and her fins were now limp, colorless and decaying. She was dead and lacked the elegant luster she'd once displayed so naturally— before I decided to kill her.
"I've decided I don't want to mount this one, Dad."
"Okay," he said. "It's your fish, your money, and your decision. Are you sure you don't want to mount it?"
"Yes, I'm sure."
He then said, as he handed me his bloodstained fillet knife, "I think that's a good decision, Jeff. Someday you'll probably catch a bigger one. But since this is your fish, and you decided to keep it, I think it's important that you be the one who cleans it."
No problem, I thought, unaware of the lesson being taught. I hoisted the limp beast out of the cooler and onto the cleaning table. I gripped the wooden handle of the knife and inserted the tip of the blade just behind the gill plate. The initial cut was more physically challenging than anticipated. The scales were large, the skin was thick and the meat was deep. As I turned the blade toward her rib cage, I had to use most of my strength to force the knife through each oversized rib bone. The other side of the fish took just as much time and effort. Eventually, though, two oversized fillets lay next to the long lifeless carcass and the big head. The scene is imprinted in my memory.
In one day, thanks to my dad and that big fish, I matured as an angler. The experience not only gave me wisdom, but I also gained a personal respect and admiration for all fish. Oh, like a young boy, I still daydream about catching the big ones, but today the dream always ends with releasing them. Truth is, we all need experience to evolve as anglers—aging is part of living and the time we have to learn.