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Trash on the Fly - by Tom Loeschner

Trash on the Fly

by Tom Loeschner
Images courtesy of Brian Johnson -

Departments of Fish and Game generally classify fish into two categories; game fish and rough fish, or trash fish. The wanted and the unwanted. But a rough fish was not always a trash fish. The term came about from fishermen on the Mississippi River in the 1800’s.  Skiffs carried fish by the thousands down the Big River; some were filleted while others were left rough, or not fully cleaned, having only the organs removed. While en route to the market, it was often necessary to lighten the load before the southern sun caused spoilage. The rough fish went first.  

A white sign sits by my local fishing haunt, “WARNING DO NOT DRINK, EAT THE FISH, OR SWIM IN THIS WATER.”  No one knows how fish still survive in the stagnant water below. Moss floats, dead leaves cover the bottom, and plastic Walmart bags, McDonalds cups, and broken beer bottles embellish this urban fishery. I wade through the warm swamp water, my boots sink into the mud, releasing methane gasses. Small bubbles rise up from the murk escorting scents of decaying swamp matter. Smells hang in the humid air, and I question, why am I here? But in my moment of doubt, a dark object, swimming elegantly through the shallows, approaches from downstream. She feeds slowly, tail up waving back and forth, disturbing the scuzzy surface water. Clouds of mud float around her mouth as she searches for a worm, a scud, or a clam.  She beckons me, cast. With stealth and swift execution the line is drawn, back, forward, back, forward— drop. Uncommon perfection. A carp carrot fly with a tungsten gaper hook sinks in front of her path. Wait. Wait. Wait. She engulfs— Set! 

A buzzing reel interrupts the silence of the mid-day lull on the city slough. O that wondrous sound of a zipping drag! We who fish live for it. I’m hooked in; this is trash on the fly. She swerves through the weeds of the shallows and then makes a dash across the deep channel of the slough.

 The carp is considered a trash fish. Found across America in rivers, reservoirs, sloughs, backwaters, ponds, and canals, they survive almost everywhere. Growing up to fifty pounds, a large carp can outweigh a preschooler. Vibrant colors form on a sea of symmetrical scales; gold, yellow, blue, or green, according to place and individual. Large fins that resemble Japanese hand fans propel the carp through the water with grace and ease. The carp is gentle but powerful, mild but occasionally rambunctious.  

When most think of fly fishing they usually picture crystal clear streams that hold beautiful rainbow trout, caught under the backdrop of snowcapped mountains and evergreen forests. It’s the kind of thing seen in a commercial advertising some sort of retirement investment or mutual fund. For the most part, fly fishermen don’t venture far from the ideal, God’s country, game fish; trout, steelhead, salmon. I have fished the game species. Recently however I have found my own niche in the fly fishing world stalking carp.

I don’t know why I like fishing for carp. Sure it is a challenge; they are extremely hard to catch. I spent weeks on the water before I landed my first fish; casting at shadows, pulling flies out of trees, and cursing the fish gods. The lack of participants give carp on the fly a sort of pioneering and expeditionary feel; the flies, the gear, exploring new waters. Maybe I’m attracted to the warm weather. Maybe it’s the ridiculousness of fishing for carp, or maybe I identify with the carp. I do admire her. She is unsought but flourishes. She is smart, resilient, and beautiful in her own way. Her existence spans long before my own, and she can adapt to any environment or criticism. 

The same government that labeled carp as trash fish had in fact labeled it a food fish a hundred years earlier. In the 1870’s a lobbyist for carp stoking wrote:   

“There ought to be one person in every county who would raise choice carp as stock fish to sell to others to fatten for their own tables. It would be a cheap but sumptuous food and at the same time very convenient, as they are ready to be eaten at all times of the year.” 

In response, the US government stocked America’s waters full of carp in the late 1800’s. Carp is still commonly eaten around the world, though not in America. I do not eat or keep fish. I want a relationship, a give and take. A fight on the line, a return to the water. I like to see the fish, to see carp, for what they are, not what they are classified as. It is hard to see things as they are. In the broken beer bottles a beach, in the paper McDonalds cups a tree, and in trash fish, a carp. 

Orange synthetic line changes to braided Dacron, yards and yards spool off the reel, she runs into the center of the slough. The cork grip is sensitive, I feel her every movement, the runs, dives, and pulls. It is only us. The rod and the fish are an extension of myself. My right hand fumbles with the drag as the fish moves precariously close to a submersed tree. I am too late. The fish tangles through branches but remains hooked, I do not want to lose this fish. I jump in after the fish and wade up to my armpits. Warm swamp water rushes into waders, the water feels like oil, thick. Repulsively drenched and slimy, I reach the outer bank. Untangling the line, submerged tree branches pulse against my arms with each head shake and tail whip, I feel her, on the leader, seven feet away. She is so close, but this is her water. I am overtaken. With one quick snap the line goes slack. She is gone.  



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