I don't pretend to be a big outdoorsman. I'm just an average guy who likes good scenery.
I enjoy shooting guns, but I don't hunt—I don't have anything against people who do, but I just can't bring myself to shoot something that isn't attacking me first.
I like hiking and camping, but separately. In fact, if you ever see me hiking 20 miles to go camping you should call the police because something has gone terribly wrong and I probably need help.
I like horses, but I like almost every other mode of transportation better.
Now, fishing is a bit different. I used to like fishing on occasion, but…something happened once and…well...shit. It was ugly.
Since my newborn son will probably want to go fishing someday, I should probably go ahead a confess my sins to what ever Trout God out there hears these sorts of things before I head out on the water again and I'm attacked and eaten by a school of angry rainbows in front of my horrified family.
Here it goes…
I once played a role in an appalling and utterly pointless trout massacre, and for that I'm truly sorry.
Several years ago, I went on a trip with a few other people (who for the sake of a joyous holiday season shall remain anonymous) to a tiny lake in the Collegiate Peaks of Colorado to do a little trout fishing—it wasn't a big fishing trip, just an afternoon's diversion from the usual road trip routine of spending 12 or so hours in the car every day for a week straight.
Before we drove up into the mountains, though, we stopped at a little outdoors outfitters shop in Buena Vista where we picked up some Colorado fishing licenses and a few odd bits of gear. One of the items we picked up was some bait—a small, baby-food sized jar of fish eggs that had been dyed bright red and that the label "guaranteed" would bring in more trout than we'd ever seen in our lives.
I just wanted to spend a quiet time by a scenic lake and didn't particularly give a shit if we caught anything or not. But in the 10 minutes we spent in the store my companions had convinced themselves that they needed ALL THE FUCKING FISH, so we bought the jar and headed up to the lake.
I don't recall the name of the lake, but it was about as beautiful a setting as Colorado has to offer. It was nestled in the middle of a narrow, V-shaped valley at about 9,000 feet, with steep mountains jutting out of the lake and reaching up above the timberline. It really wasn't much bigger than a larger-than-average farm pond, but it counted as a lake by local standards and was filled with ice cold, crystal-clear water—and a lot of trout.
I was okay with just sitting there on the shore, getting a nice sunburn under the absolutely clear blue early summer sky.
It was pretty.
Meanwhile, the rest of the entourage were busy getting their fishing gear assembled and hooks baited with bright-red fish eggs, and after a little cajoling I joined them.
And sure enough, we were soon reeling in trout. Lots of trout—and if it wasn't quite as many trout as we'd ever seen before in our lives, it was certainly way more than we'd ever caught from shore.
You couldn't help but reel them in—they'd strike the moment your hook hit the water. It was almost too easy.
I caught a couple, but my cheap reel got tangled up and the line turned into a rats nest that I just didn't care enough to spend the afternoon fixing. So I shoved my gear back into the car and wandered off to take some pictures and stare at the incredible scenery, while my fellow travelers set to catching all the fish in the lake.
But the thing was that we were just there to catch and release. We didn't have the time or gear to cook anything, and it wasn't like anybody was stepping up to spend the afternoon cleaning fish.
So my friends were catching and releasing trout as quickly as their hands could get the hook baited.
After a while, I wandered back down the shore to where everybody was still fishing and laughing when I looked out and noticed a dead trout bobbing in the clear water about 10 feet out into the lake. Then I saw another, and then a few more.
Finally it hit me.
Holy fucking shit, this lake's full of dead fish!
I hurried back to the rest to tell them what I saw, but they weren't really paying any attention—unexpectedly good fishing will do that to your brain. You'll get so tunnel-visioned that nothing short of gunfire or a sharp slap to the back of the head can snap you back to reality.
Then I noticed something even more disturbing—every time they would release a fish, it would swim out about three feet, stop, and keel over. They weren't stunned—everybody fishing that day were all experienced enough to know how to properly release a fish.
No, these fish were very dead.
Finally it hit me.
Holy fucking shit, we're the reason this lake is full of dead fish!
My concern had turned to full-on panic. What the hell are we doing to these fish? What if a ranger came by to see the goddamn trout massacre we've committed?
My biggest fear became having to share a jail cell with any of these people.
I grabbed the little, now 1/4-empty jar of bait, and gingerly held it up under my nose—I'm not quite sure what I was smelling, but it was not fish eggs. Nor was it like anything that had ever been alive and/or organic, for that matter—more like the acrid smell you'd get from hot brakes on a steep mountain road. I had found the culprit—I don't know what it was, exactly, but it was certainly deadly to fish.
A quick count out on the water told me we'd killed somewhere between 20 and 30 fish with our magic dyed-red fish egg bait. I took a quick look back to my friends, chatting away and still happily oblivious to the gruesome fish massacre floating towards the center of the lake.
It was ugly.
All I could think was, "Congratulations, fellow fuckers—we have now killed more trout than we have ever seen in our lives."
For the first time in my life—after all those times I'd gone fishing over the years, in all of those different places—I felt genuinely guilty about fishing.
I also felt like we needed to get the fuck down off that mountain and back on the road before somebody came along and noticed the greasy horror show going on in that lake. Not only did we kill those trout, we apparently poisoned the little bastards—which meant that whatever ends up eating the fish could be at risk for poisoning as well.
I had a quick, chilling vision of several dead and bloated bald eagles bobbing on the surface of the lake, with a TV news crew on the shore giving a vague description of four adults in a green Ford Bronco wanted for questioning in connection to the apparent ecological disaster unfolding in the central Rocky Mountains.
It took some convincing—I don't recall anybody saying much after they finally realized what had been going on—but finally everyone piled back into the car, and we left and didn't look back. I haven't been back since.
Of course nothing happened. The dead trout were undoubtedly scavenged off by birds and other fish, or just rotted away at the bottom of the lake. The lake was undoubtedly stocked with trout on a pretty regular basis anyway, so it's not like we wiped out an entire ecosystem or anything. There were no angry forest rangers or TV news crews or dead symbols of our nation bobbing on the water.
But my God ,we straight-up murdered a lot of fish that day—and almost 20 years later when I close my eyes I can still see them bobbing upside down in the water, their little gaping mouths seeming to mouth the word "MURDERER."
Or it could be "BURBERLER"—it's kind of hard to tell because they're underwater, you know...
(Look, I would just like to say that at no point did I promise that this was a profound story full of deeper meaning. I just sort of started talking, and you followed along to this point. Caveat emptor...)
Anyway, for the sake of my son, and any of my descendants who might enjoy trout fishing, I'm asking the Trout Gods for forgiveness for what happened all those years ago on that gruesome summer day at that little lake in the mountains of central Colorado, and to please not gang up and eat me in front of my horrified family if I ever fall into the water.
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