WHY MODERN FISHING IS CATCH-AND-RELEASE GAME

I am a statue gliding over a bleached flat, stiffened by salt and wind and sun. In the water ahead of me, a silver knife cuts the surface and in a moment I am casting from the skiff, the fly streaking through the sharp Belize sky, the blisters on my hands forgotten. Sixty feet of line and months of preparation hang in the air. I square my shoulders and flex my knees. And I wait.

Good fishing stories ideally end with a fish. But the stories have changed in recent years, the romance of fishing evolving from brutish grappling matches on the open ocean (picture the conquered marlin, mounted in mid-leap on the wall, a reminder of the strength of the contest) to something faster, more precise, yet altogether more considered.

When you talk to a fisherman, a real fisherman, you are talking to a steward of the water. He is a lover of fish. He is angry about the vast islands of plastic poisoning the sea, and about ruinous overfishing and fishery mismanagement. Most of all, a real fisherman wants fishing to survive into the next generation and beyond. That’s partly why catch-and-release practices have gained popularity in recent years: saltwater fly-fishing, a fast and athletic catch-and-release sport that seems more like hunting than fishing, is what fuels interest today. As with other sports, this one has its brash young talent, like Captain Will Benson, and its technical prodigies, like Maxine McCormick, who help define what angling means to a new generation of fishing enthusiasts.

The hobby has turned in a quick, kinetic and eco-minded direction, with amateur anglers setting off around the globe in pursuit of bonefish, tarpon, permit and more — but with plans to return home with no more than what they packed in, raising the question: What exactly are sport fishermen collecting if every fish is the one that got away?

Mike Heusner was born in Belize in 1939. He grew up fishing the mangroves and keys around Belize city with his father, using cotton handlines and a small harpoon. The local fisherman taught him techniques for trolling kingfish.

After high school, Mike traveled to California for college, where he studied environmental management. He returned to Belize in 1970, and ten years later was hired to manage the Belize River Lodge, then named Keller Caribbean Sports. A year later, he took another management position at a neighboring lodge, which then led him to start his own ecotourism and sport-hunting and fishing business. When Keller Caribbean Sports put itself up for sale in 1986, Mike got a call from the then-owner.

“He told me that he’d sell it to me for a good price,” Mike says as we motor up the Belize River on one of the lodge’s 23-foot fishing skiffs. “He said he’d give me thirty days to come up with the money, but then he’d have to sell to someone else.”

Mike didn’t have the money. The bank agreed to underwrite the purchase if he could come up with one-third of the funds himself. Mike started calling sport fishermen he knew, offering discounted trips. “I offered them thousand-dollar trips for seven hundred and fifty. Thirty days later I had enough money to buy the lodge.”

Mike had sold anglers on a lodge he didn’t yet own, but he knew the rich waters would support the business. By the late ’80s, Belize River Lodge was a premier destination for adventure anglers. But the Lodge’s early success was tempered by Mike’s growing concern about the improper management of the fishery, a potential catastrophe that could destroy the fish population and capsize Mike’s business before it could truly take off.

On the water, Mike managed the guides and the guests; otherwise, he turned his attention to formalizing conservation efforts in the region. He joined the Belize Chamber of Commerce, the Tourism Industry Association and the Fisheries Advisory Board. He lobbied relentlessly to get the three main sport fish — tarpon, permit and bonefish — legally protected from harvesting by designating them catch-and-release-only species, and brought in environmentalists and representatives from fishing gear companies to help educate his guides on best practices for hooking, handling and releasing fish.

Through his advocacy, Mike Heusner joined a long line of angler-conservationists that includes Lee Wulff, who advocated catch-and-release practices as early as the 1930s, and Lefty Kreh, the fisherman, journalist and author who educated anglers and sportsmen about habitat conservation and the preservation of fish populations until his death last year at the age of 93.

It’s an idea of fishing that would have seemed as foreign to my grandfather, peacefully bobbing for catfish on the banks of Moonda Creek, as it does to the thrill-seeking suburbanite who plays out his Hemingway fantasy wrestling swordfish on a rented day boat. It’s an idea of angling that favors skill, care and craft over chest-thumping bravado, and here in the water under the hot flat sun, I will need all three.

Tarpon have been swimming the earth’s oceans for 100 million years. They’re thick, muscular fish that developed something interesting during their long evolution: lungs, of a sort. Tarpon are air-breathing fish. In the warm, low-oxygen waters of estuaries, bays and mangroves they break the surface to gulp fresh air, using their unique air bladders to flush oxygen over their gills.

This surfacing behavior is called “rolling,” and it’s one of the ways fisherman identify where the tarpon are. My guide, John Moore, has brought us to a small tarpon spot called Sugar Boat, named after the barges full of sugarcane that pass through the channel. We spend a few minutes blind casting with sinking lines and a pattern of my own making: a white Mangum tail with a white, orange and black EP fiber body and a red eye. John sights a tarpon rolling.

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