Fish This!

Preserving the fighting spirit


"I see a red door and I want it painted black.
No colors anymore I want them to turn black." - Rolling Stones

Somewhere under the bunched-up whitecaps pushing toward Skagway's shores, a fish has escaped an untimely demise. Call it luck, dexterity, or wisdom, but somehow it managed to avoid a fate that would appear inevitable.
Whether shark, orca, seal, or sea lion, a predator has been left with an empty stomach. The fish itself may be a little worse for wear. Teeth and clenching jaws have a way of leaving a mark, and battle wounds are common for any animal who has faced the unforgiving nature of a seasoned hunter and survived.
In a blast of blood and scales certain lucky fish adapt, and learn to live another day. It is the same when confronting the hook of an angler – what fails to kill you might make you more wary – seasoned – smarter.
I have tangled with fish of this nature. Many of them have won the battle and swam away, back to their environment.
There have been moments of triumph too. I have been victorious and pulled fish from the water which bear the scars of battles passed. These fish are few, rare – and there is a certain amount of respect to be paid for anything so resilient and unique.
Fish such as these are usually seasoned opponents, and will not find the bottom of a net without a hard fight. Any such adversary deserves respect, not only for its escape skills, but because those scars make it distinctive, irreplaceable.
On occasion where I've encountered such fish, I have been proud to let them go. To me, this is part of what puts the sport in sportfishing. Other fish are not so lucky. A single blow behind the eyes ensures their destiny lay on the dinner table. This too is part of the sport.
What is it about unique objects that pique our interest as human beings? How is it possible we can find deep connections with things we perceive as extraordinary and singular?
Maybe it's because we perceive ourselves this way. We can identify with something rare because we want to believe in our own unique identity. We want to have faith we are something special, separate from the flock, individuals.
This may be why we seek out that which is rare. Ironically, the qualities which make something atypical also make it vulnerable. Fish have the advantage of living an invisible life underwater, yet the biggest of many species adorn the walls of dens, office buildings, and restaurants. No longer are they rarities – now they are trophies.
For animals and objects we can see, being rare is definitely not a good thing.
I traveled to Windy Arm on Tagish Lake over the weekend for my annual mid-June attempt to catch big lake trout. At the campsite I propped up my favorite fishing rod in a pile of rocks with a chunk of bait lying deep on the rocky bottom of the lake.
As I sat in a chair by the campfire I watched the rod; a yellow sentinel standing guard for a bite from a passing fish. Sunlight was strong on the wind driven waves, and the warmth of the sun was a nice change from Skagway's recent weather.
A dark cloud has been hanging over Skagway, both literally and figuratively. Something has cast an even blacker shade over what has been a typically dreary summer. Even the quiet solace of Tagish Lake could not erase what had been on the lips of every Skagwegian before leaving – the disappearance of the "Spirit Bear."
Biologists may argue over whether it is truly a Spirit Bear, or glacier bear, or white-phased black bear, or a plain-old black bear, but for everyone who has seen it the experience was unforgettable.
Here was a true rarity, something almost mystical, and encounters with the bear have been the talk of the town for over two years.
Many who have seen it have been deeply moved. Only the hardest of hearts could look upon it without smiling. For a few, the experience was ethereal, transcendent.
But now it appears something many held sacred has been lost. A victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time – born into a world of cruise ships, tour busses, property lines, and manufactured homes.
It is as though every future potential encounter with the bear has been stolen, and every past encounter tainted by the ugly end result.
If, and how, it met its demise is open to some debate and more than a little speculation and accusation.
Yet who among us can pass blame over the loss of this distinct creature? We all cater to the whims of the fickle and selfish nature of the tourism industry.
We sell the frontier in our tours, meals, retail stores and art. We advertise it in brochures, rack cards and the internet to make a buck – and while we may not have pulled the trigger of a rifle, more than one wild thing has been lost because of our collective carelessness.
By its very nature, the Spirit Bear received more attention than it ever should have just because it was so special. Who could resist the joy it brought to an ordinary Skagway day, lingering maybe a little too long in its company? Longer than we knew was healthy.
One could argue anything so unique is doomed from the start, regardless of its location, however this particular situation in unique to Skagway. The sprit of the bear now resides in the north wind.
Part of our community spirit has been lost. The thing that made us feel special is gone. If something rare cannot survive then it is logical to presume that we all must be ordinary.
Maybe it's not such a bad thing. In a world where originality is quickly mass-marketed and sold to the highest bidder, it pays to be just another member of the herd.
Next time we can all take heed. The only way to ensure such an amazing animal's safety is to let it go, turn away, and never look back.
The ultimate release.
If our eyes cannot resist focusing on what is rare, then maybe next time a white bear is born in Skagway, someone will have the good sense to paint it black.