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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

A Tangled Web

Monofilament, Deadly Deceiver

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

Oh, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!
Sir Walter Scott

March 27, 2007

I grew up in the shadow of Vermont's Green Mountains, within a few miles of one of the country's premier trout streams. Whenever I got the chance, I'd cycle to a bridge that crossed the 'Kill just above a favorite pool and stop my bike in mid span. Then I'd lean out over the water, hoping to catch sight of an angler languidly casting tiny artificial flies, a supple line coiling and uncoiling behind him. The rituals of fly-fishing captivated me, and it wasn't long before I started badgering my grandfather to reveal the fraternity's secrets. He resisted initially — it was a fraternity, after all — but I wore him down, and in the end he gave in. He insisted I learn the basics of fish stalking first, though. Several months of intensive tutelage followed. We bushwhacked in to remote beaver ponds. We waded shallow, impatient mountain rills, and we fished the banks of the turbulent river flowing past Grandad's Adirondack cabin. But while he worked the water with a delicate bamboo wand, tempting trout with scraps of feather and fur dressed on hooks forged from fine wire, I dabbled heavy, barbed irons festooned with writhing worms from a short metal rod. It was more like work than play, to be honest, and my work didn't end when we got back to camp, either. The braided Dacron® line in my open-face spinning reel soaked up water like a sponge. It had to be stripped and dried before Grandad would let me put my tackle away. Even then, I still had one job left. Grandad's silk fly line was thirstier than Dacron braid, and the fragile gut leaders always needed special handling. In my role as apprentice, their care became my sole responsibility. So, for several hours at the end of each day, Grandad's yard looked like a giant spider's web, and more than once an evening thunderstorm sent me rushing out in a frenzy to gather the threads of my far-flung net before the wind blew them all away.

The nuisance of drying lines and caring for tackle almost put me off fishing altogether, especially as summer drew to a close with no sign that my fish-stalking apprenticeship was coming to an end. I was certainly no closer to learning the secrets of the fly-fishing fraternity. Then something happened that made this seem unimportant: I discovered monofilament nylon. It was magical stuff — strong, elastic, and nearly invisible. Better yet, it didn't need to be dried at the end of each outing. I began to see spin fishing in a new light. Monofilament wasn't perfect, of course. When new, it came off the reel in tight spirals, and the knots I made in it seemed to loosen almost as fast as they were tied. But I didn't mind. Monofilament spared me the chore of drying my line.

With what result? That's easy. Long after's summer's lease had run its course, I continued my apprenticeship on my own, exploring the small streams and beaver ponds close to home with monofilament on my reel. (I even ventured out on the sacred waters of the 'Kill now and then.) But a new problem soon emerged. Trees crowded close around many of my home waters. Moreover, I didn't have a boat. My barbed hooks snagged limbs with disconcerting regularity, and no matter how artfully I tugged, I often left monofilament behind. In the end, the cost of replacing lines and terminal tackle — by this time I'd graduated from bait to spinners — was simply more than I could afford. I retired my metal rod for good and turned my attention to other things.

Years passed. I bought my first canoe. I learned to climb. And then, quite suddenly, I returned to the fold. I built a Fenwick® spinning rod from a kit, fitted a Scientific Anglers™ reel, and went back to the river of my youth. It was good. The Fenwick was a delight to cast, almost as lithe and active as my Grandad's venerable bamboo. And I caught trout. Often. Yet my joy was short-lived. I released most of the fish I landed. Or at least I tried to. But the barbed treble hooks on my spinners were nasty things, nearly impossible to remove cleanly. I still snagged tree limbs, too. Soon I was seeing tangles of monofilament everywhere I looked. I couldn't pass the buck. I'd met the problem, and it was me. I decided I had to do something, and I did. For the second time in my life, I retired a spinning rod. Then I bought a fly rod and taught myself to cast. Before long, anyone stopping on the bridge above the pool would have seen a new figure silhouetted against the setting sun, her forearm sweeping up from nine o'clock to one and dropping back again, line coiling and uncoiling behind her.

Except that it didn't. Coil and uncoil behind me, that is. At least not often. Why? Because — like my Grandad before me — I'd adopted the roll cast. It all but eliminated snags, even among the tangle of toppled sycamores at the foot of the cutbank just downstream. Of course I had my bad days, too, days when a flaw in the wind would grab the #18 black gnat at the end of my leader and toss it into a thicket of branches from which no escape was possible. On those days, I walked away from the river in a funk, while the tag end of my tippet waved an ironic farewell from a high limb.

Then I met a wildlife rehabber. And she opened my eyes to another dimension of the problem. Monofilament was far more than an unsightly addition to the growing tapestry of riverbank litter. It was a deadly menace. In other words…

Monofilament Killed

So deadly was the stuff, in fact, that rehabbers grew to dread the start of trout season and the accompanying flood of casualties. The list was as long as it was disheartening. Herons hobbled by fetters of nylon. Diving ducks exhausted by fruitless struggles to free themselves. (The ones who drowned outright never made it to the rehabbers, of course.) Muskrat and beaver with gangrenous limbs, the legacy of monofilament tourniquets. Dabbling ducks with hooks speared through their bills, each hook still trailing a pennant of leader. Eagles, grounded by nylon tethers, flightless and starving. All the things that anglers liked about monofilament — its strength, its elasticity, and its near invisibility — added to its danger, as did its tendency to form intractable tangles. I took to patrolling put-ins near popular fishing areas, picking up other anglers' trash, including their discarded line. But the supply was inexhaustible. The next time I went back, I'd find more. In the end I nearly gave up. Nearly.

And just what kept me going?

A favorite phrase of Grandad's:

You Might Want to Come Back Someday

That says it all. Grandad wasn't shy about expressing his opinions. Politicians, "pointy-heads," "tree-huggers," "hippies"…he had few good words for any of them, though he gave the tree-huggers a bit of slack when I was around. But he had no good words at all for slobs. Not one. Slobs were slobs. The lowest of the low. And in Grandad's view, it was a broad church, packed with sinners. Loggers who gouged tote roads in ground still sodden from the spring thaw, leaving rutted tracks behind that were sure to turn into gullies after the first heavy rain? They were slobs. Backpackers who left half-burned garbage and charred balls of aluminum foil in their fire-rings when they broke camp? More slobs. Anglers who walked away while their leaders still dangled from trees? You guessed it — even when the angler in question was a granddaughter. It didn't matter to Grandad who the slobs were, or what stickers they had on their car windows. Rich or poor, it made no difference. They were slobs, pure and simple. And his anger could rise to any occasion. He once threw a slob's tent in a river — with the slob still in it. (He fished the tent out of the water as soon as the slob made his escape, though. Grandad was true to his principles.) But no matter how angry he got, he didn't hesitate to clean up any mess he found in "his" woods. When I asked him why anyone should bother picking up someone else's garbage, he had a ready answer: "Because you might want to come back someday." That was all he needed to say.

I got the message. I still get it. So I keep picking up other folks' trash, and I give monofilament extra special attention. If you're a paddler, I bet you do, too. And if enough of us join in, maybe someday my wildlife rehabber friends won't dread the start of trout season. Someday.

The art of angling is the art of deception, and monofilament is a valued ally. It's strong, elastic, and almost invisible. It breaks the connection between lure and angler, tricking gullible fish into believing that they've found a free lunch. But when we leave monofilament behind us, whether it's in the water or in the trees, and whether it's ours or some other angler's, we weave a tangled web indeed. The likely result? Disability and death, as arbitrary as it is unnecessary. And monofilament is forever, or near enough — unless we take the time to remove its lethal web wherever and whenever we find it. That's worth a little effort, isn't it? My Grandad thought so. And so do I.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.









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