It’s another one of those nights; quiet, cold, late and lifeless.
Angry rain releases its fury onto the tin roof of my small guide cabin and wind-strewn branches scrape the thin glass window that looks out towards the vast, dense forest bordering the Dean River.
To my left, Colby snores heavily into his blanket, his whisker-clad nose and thick furred shoulders twitching furiously as he sleeps through the storm.
I smile at him; yes, it would appear that these nights have the same effect on us all.
The welcome flicker of a dancing flame livens up even the most ordinary of glass jars and the yellow glow lights the paper rested on my lap, allowing my eager pen access to the crisp white canvas.
I gaze at the two inornate objects; both so underestimated yet both so capable. The irony doesn’t make its way past me, and I am reminded again of why at an early age I was drawn to the comfort of such tools.
As pen meets paper, a literary intimacy begins and both merge as one until the birth of a message unfolds.
In the past, I have been confined by the simplicity and politics of strict editors and conservative publications.
“April, perhaps a light-hearted piece is in store? Maybe one on gear, or presentation, or even seasons…? Perhaps you can let the pot settle for a little bit before stirring it again?”
The plea is fair, for there is many an angler that thrives on such articles, so I succumb to the unpleasant thought of stifled opinion, instead lingering on the edges of boredom while differentiating between dead-drifted glo-bugs and current swung streamers.
The truth is, there are only so many ways that this twenty-nine year old mind can phrase what has already been so rigorously explored and defined by men nearly three times my age.
Respectfully, I try to leave the technique jargoned “how-to’s” for the mechanically inclined professionals; those who thrive off the vagaries of weather data, hydrometric charts and the latest and greatest in gear technology.
I, while relatively versed in the aforementioned, prefer to flourish in the quiet satisfaction of readership contemplation and the occasional bout of reflection.
In saying this, I have been well behaved in my last two columns and I would like to redeem my “get out of jail free” card before commencing with my next dice roll in the columnist game of editorial monopoly….
Back to the drawing board. Aaron Goodis photo.
Game On: Defining the Grip & Grin…
The eeriness of the night has always been a cruel friend of mine.
It does to me what it does to Colby, and my entire brain ticks and seizures with overwhelming ideas, thoughts and dreams.
Armed with only a bedside notepad and pen, I frantically jot down my impulsive flashes and try to guide the ink accordingly across the page in the blindness of the black room.
It was a night much like this nearly one year ago that was the impetus of this very article.
I had been lying in bed below the same tin roof, sore and satisfyingly fatigued from a long excursion upriver with fellow guide, Steve Morrow.
It was the end of our season and the two of us had trekked into a long flow of water in the upper stretches of the fabled Dean River in pursuit of adventure.
Steve and I had spent the last sixty consecutive days guiding other anglers and assisting them with the stalking, hooking, landing and releasing of hot steelhead that were making their migratory journey to the Dean’s tributaries.
Through wind, rain, heat and horseflies, together the two of us had tailed more fish than we could count and the mantra of the ‘grip, cradle, lift, smile, click, “give her a drink”, release’, protocol made our personal fishing days all the more at ease when it came time to land our own fish.
As an unspoken rule, if we were within talking distance we would assist the other with a speedy release but the camera played shy, exposing itself only for the occasional fish whose girth extended our splayed fingers more so than usual.
That night, as I lay listening to the soothing pattering of rain above, I replayed the day’s events and closed my eyes to envision the green and gold flecks of metallic that shone brightly around the fire in one of the wild hen’s eyes.
To do her justice, there was simply no need for a camera. I saw her clear and vivid on the inner dark screen of my rested lids; she had made an impression on my mind and her beauty had set itself in the depths of my memory where I could be sure to visit her every time I so inclined.
Truthfully, I had always softly lingered on the minor contradiction that posed photography entailed.
Myself, admittedly no stranger to the participation of a classic “grip & grin” photo, I had the pose down to a science.
Four of my fingers would lightly cradle her slick, white belly while the other hand closed a firm grip around her sturdy, spotted tail.
Together both my hands would lift on cue, allowing the light to accentuate her bright silver scales, the water droplets rolling and teetering on her soft edges before plunging back down into the river around my knees.
The fish, safe in my grasp, awaited the greedy click of the shutter and I turned my face to the camera with a trophy smile, entranced by my jewel.
The paradox here is one that may not be the most obvious at first.
You see, for some, in that chaotic instance of camera bag digging, electronic fumbling and verbal communication between photographer and subject, it is inevitable that there is a moment of sheer splendor lost between the angler and his prize.
In a moment where a mere 30 seconds is the appropriate amount of time shared between both the ‘gripped’ and the ‘grinned’, 28 seconds of that is often spent focused on a completely separate entity than the fish… an entity complete with black dials, glass lenses and extensive light manipulation commonly known as a camera.
It’s an ironic trade off really; an unconscious sacrificial exchange between the moment of silent mental imagery and the moment of distracted, hectic poses.
Both result in a stored image…one in remembrance and one in pixels.
While I most certainly will not speak for others, for me personally, I eventually found myself dreading the water sloshing footsteps of an encroaching photographer.
In the short 30 second time allotment that I had to spend with my surrendered beauty, even the smallest of distractions became a hindrance to me, and I longed to be left alone to indulge in the uninterrupted silence where my eyes could be left to etch a permanent picture in my mind.
This said, it might be wise for me to clarify myself further. Occasionally I wholeheartedly delight in having a remarkable steelhead documented for my photo collection.
There are some fish that I quite deliberately photograph for future reflection and gratification;
Extra hefty shoulders on an early season buck, the flawless and perfectly slender doe, the dainty down-turned eye above those sharp and unsuspecting little teeth…
In such instances, whether captured by the shaky lens of my phone or by the calm fingers of a courteously hushed photographer, both respectfully grant my quiet seconds justice as they unobtrusively capture the sweet moments in a non-invasive approach, void of direction, poses or displaced attention.
The result is ideal- mental imagery paired with captured digital images, both which are romantic, relaxed, true and natural.
Some of the resulting photographs focus on the most unique characteristics of the moment; the glint in an angler’s eye, the small upturned grin of satisfaction, the blushed cheeks of both exhausted fisher and fish, the caring lift of a surrendered steelhead over a protruding rock, the splashing water from a flailing tail… each a natural marvel caught in time.
The grip and grin argument is not a new topic in the world of angling.
In states such as Washington it is even illegal to fully lift a wild steelhead out of the water before releasing it.
While the science of such impacts is still relatively controversial, it is an undeniable testament that if given one of two circumstances (in or out of the water), it is the circumstance of leaving the fish in the water that bears the least amount of risk to its health.
From mishandling, gill hangers, sub-zero weather impacts and the implications of damage to vital organs due to inexperienced, unpracticed handling, the state of Washington justified their legislation in the eyes of many avid steelhead anglers and activists.
Whilst I am positive that there were a select few who took offense to such limitations, the argument that a fish is ultimately safer in the confines of the water weighed heavier on the conservation scale, and the law was implemented.
Whether or not I can tackle the above regulation with any sort of scientific backing is a moot point at this time, but from a purely photographic perspective I find this prohibition of grip and grins quite refreshing.
The truth of the matter is that some of my favourite streamside photographs are the subtle and organic shots of half submerged lateral lines, downstream turned snouts and healthy flared gills steadied as a conscientious angler prepares for release.
Regardless, it was one year ago under that tin roof in the middle of the forest that I questioned my integrity and my reasons for striving for that perfectly posed photo.
I asked myself with all honesty, was it really for my memory?
Surely there were better ways to remember a fish than extended arms and a static smile?
Was it for a new Facebook profile? Internet marketing? The cover of the next magazine? Why on Earth was I sacrificing my time with this perfect steelhead in a state of vain?
While my guilt danced alongside the flickering candle, I made a decision that I was determined to keep.
I’d been blessed enough to have caught plenty of steelhead over the past decade, possessed enough photos in my grip and grin arsenal and certainly had more than enough desktop backgrounds to keep me enthusiastic during the slow seasons.
So in the dim light of that cabin I made the choice that I was no longer going to personally contribute to the plethora of posed steelhead photos in this very sport where industry standards have secured the glorious grip and grin as the ultimate in fishing memorabilia.
Of course, my clients would be free to do as they wished. Many of them wait all year to bring home that ‘trip of a lifetime’ photo with an ear to ear smile (and rightfully so…).
My mission was not to judge others who don’t agree with my reasoning, rather it was a mission to judge myself and put forth a personal commitment to something that I believed in.
Earlier this June I took the plunge and finally made the announcement about my promise to alter my ways.
I had more than one reason to prompt me towards such an outburst and I deemed it an appropriate subject to share.
The response was unlike any that I could have predicted.
A large majority of responders were supportive, a few were confused, and while I pointed no fingers at anyone other than myself, some were downright offended.
There were more than a few people who assumed that giving up steelhead “hero shots” meant that I had consequently given up steelhead fishing as a whole.
Naturally, this concept made me chuckle as the confusion simply fueled the fire of my point.
Is that truly what the ultimate goal has become to some anglers? A photograph?
If I can’t showcase a photo, is it implied that I will no longer be fishing? Are the two truly that amalgamated?
There were some who were genuinely concerned and even a few who kindly reached out to me to ensure that I was well and that I hadn’t been hurt by someone prior to my post.
All in all, the conclusion that will ultimately sum up this contentious viewpoint is that of a simple “to each his own” shoulder shrug and a short reflection of one’s personal beliefs.
For me, I now prefer to keep the majority of my steelhead images stored internally, yet I still thrive off watching my clients glow behind the raised silver gleam of a strong and healthy fish.
I will continue to grip and grin every permit, tarpon, fifty-plus pound Chinook and twenty-five inch thickly spotted brown trout that I manage to land, and I will do so proudly until I have caught enough of each that I can see them in the same light that I see my beloved steelhead.
I will be true to my beliefs, a fan of my integrity and a foe of my insincerities, a woman who relishes in the moment, and an angler who sees more than just a fish.
Come the day that my experience on the water holds less clout than how impressive my Facebook profile is, I will put away my rods, stow away my reels, whiten my smile and seek the ‘best in show’ award from a hobby more fixated on the brilliance of my teeth.
I can assure you; it won’t be any time soon.