Catch and Release

You have returned yet again to The Oregon Variations. Please do not reveal how you found this encore—a story that was too disturbing to see print in the book itself.

Copyright 2014 by William L. Sullivan.


Catch and Release

Dwindling native populations, loss of habitat, and the failure of hatcheries to produce vigorous young stock have now led to the designation of the entire state of Oregon as a catch-and-release zone for elk.

Rather than viewing this as a setback for big game enthusiasts, I think we should welcome the new regulation as an opportunity to expand interest in this sensitive brand of sportsmanship.

In my own corner of the Ochoco Mountains, elk have been protected by similar rules for years. Our ponderosa pine forests may be more open than the Douglas fir thickets of Western Oregon, and our Rocky Mountain elk are of a different subspecies than the Roosevelt elk of the Coast, but I think I can fairly offer a few pointers to outdoorsmen elsewhere who are less familiar with the challenges—and rewards—of catch and release.

Proper equipment is essential. Beginners often make the mistake of purchasing a cheap pole four inches in diameter. Only with a light, flexible rod, perhaps two or three inches thick, will you be able to feel when you have a nibble.

The line you choose is just as important. Suitable nylon cord now comes in a variety of camo tones, from the mottled green of high summer to the dusty tans of fall. Pay attention to the hue of the season! And as for weight—be a sport and restrict yourself to 800-pound-test line. I know, some of you are eager to land a thousand-pound buck. But if you manage to reel one in on a light line, you’ll never forget the delicate dance. And if you snag a 1200-pounder on 600-test line, your name could go down in the Boone and Crockett record books.

Barbless hooks are de rigueur. You’ll find an assortment at sporting goods shops and logging supply stores. Bait is strictly forbidden, so don’t even think of stopping by a riverbank to strip willow leaves into your creel. The days are long gone when kids could store bags of alfalfa in their parents’ refrigerator and put up a sign by the road, “Elk Bait 50 Cents.”

I know outdoorsmen who have devoted their lives to the art of tying elk lures. And it’s true, you can spend years carefully recreating sagebrush blooms or bigleaf maple sprouts with silk. The most effective tool in your tackle box, however, is likely to be a standard Scouler’s willow, available for $2.95 from Cabela’s. Arrange a cluster to disguise the hook, and then spray the bouquet with Elkano Verano. Internet sites tout countless other musty vegetable scents, but nothing seems to fascinate a browsing ungulate as well as the little tried-and-true spray bottle from Coleman.

Choosing a stand is an art unto itself. Seasoned sportsmen only smile if you ask them where the “bite is on.” Nor will cruising backroads in your pickup help you to understand the landscape for catch-and-release. You have to think like an elk. Tracking migration routes is only part of the game. There is an element of mystery as well. One sportsman I know claims it is pointless for him to set out unless he is wearing his lucky Pendleton shirt inside out. Call me superstitious, but I find success only when I pack a lunch that includes three dill pickles wrapped in waxed paper.

Despite these preparations, it’s all about solitude for me, and not how many elk I catch. Sitting alone on a silent  slope in the canyonlands above Ukiah, it’s enough to watch the wind ripple the tall grass, knowing I’m miles away from the worries of the world, where even cell phones can’t reel me in.

When you do get an elk to strike, set the hook quickly with a tug. Then prepare yourself for some lively play. The larger the animal, the longer it will take to tire. Because an elk’s first response is to run—often at forty miles an hour—you’ll need to spool out plenty of slack. Then slowly work the elk in until you can land it with a shepherd’s crook.

These days, elk trophies consist of iPhone photographs posted on Facebook. If you’ve caught a buck, beware that antlers often blur in photos, especially in dim light. After you’ve gotten your snapshot, remove the hook by holding the elk gently between your thumb and forefinger. If the hook has been swallowed, do not attempt to pull it out. Elk have a complicated internal system with four stomachs. Instead you will have to cut the line—although this is not a happy choice either. No outdoorsman likes to see a herd trailing nylon cords.

The greatest joy of catch-and-release is the bond you form with your catch. For an instant you become an elk, and you understand the wild and beautiful life they lead.

Not long ago my wife asked me if elk feel pain. How could I explain?

When I hook an elk and reel her in, something special happens. We play together in a sort of wilderness ballet. It’s a dance of life, full of energy. When she finally tires, I look into her eyes. And in that moment I know that she is loving this game as much as I am.