Explaining the Web of Life to an 8 Year Old Boy

The rules of nature can be a complicated and cruel to an 8 year old boy. My son loves to fish, as do I, and we fish together often. I try my best to teach him the ethics of fishing and being in nature: leave no trace, pick up after others, respect all creatures, have patience and enjoy the world around you. I teach him to enjoy fishing for its own sake: it is not a contest.

And I teach him about catch and release fishing, and the most effective techniques to ensure that a fish is caught, landed, and released unharmed.

A few weeks ago while fishing the Oregon coast for redtail serfperch – a prolific fish species – we had one of those experience that at the time was horrible, but was a necessary part of growing up in nature. My son gut hooked a perch – the fish had swallowed the hook. A gut hooked fish can go one of two ways: about half the time I can cut the line and the fish will swim off alive, the hook will rust out or the fish will spit it out in a short time and go on living. The other half of the time, the fish dies almost immediately.

On this occasion, the second scenario played out. My son insisted on letting the fish go, returning it to the ocean. I tried to convince him otherwise to no avail, and then I made the mistake of letting the fish go. It was my fault, because I knew better: The fish floated side-up on the surface and my son watched in horror as one of the many sea gulls swooped in and picked up the fish, depositing him on shore and beginning to eat him.

My son was devastated. He was absolutely crushed, knowing he had killed that fish. Seeing the way that fish had died.

These are things we all struggle with as we find our place in the world. I have struggled with it myself. Here’s a passage I wrote in my fishing journal back in 2004, describing my feelings after keeping a couple of nice yellow perch for dinner and finding them full of roe:

Regret now keeping the fish, but while cleaning them I felt that I must kill and eat them to be fair, to reconnect, to understand.

I fish mostly for fun and sport and because I love being outdoors. Difficult to take life, but must to be true  to my belief that we are all part of nature, that we are part of the food chain and the web of life.

I feel sad, but fishing must be about more than mere sport: Why hook a fish, just to let it go? Catch and release is good and noble, but only if it is more than sport, only if more than philosophy and game management. You must be more connected, and killing these two perch is the price I pay to stay connected to reality and to nature. These beautiful fish aren’t here just for my personal amusement, to be caught and released. Now they will be part of me, as I have been part of them. I gave them death, and they gave me nourishment and life.

Still, I am sad.

The next day my son would not fish, but watched me instead. I caught and kept two serfperch for dinner, killing them as I landed them so that they would not suffer in my bait bucket. I explained to my son our place in nature, and I think he felt a little better seeing me take those two fish for dinner, to be caught and cleaned and eaten by us, rather than eating a hamburger at the local dinner joint.

We are going fishing this weekend, and we’ll see how things go. I suspect he’ll put the memory behind him, but I’m also sure that he’s going to want to release his fish unharmed.

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