Fly Fishing photo

I gave another elementary school talk the other day, and was once again blown away by the enthusiasm 10-year-olds have for fishing. They asked many great questions, but there was a pattern that left me feeling concerned.

“Have you ever been attacked by a shark?” (Nope… but I’ve watched them jump and thrash when I’ve fought them on a fly rod, and I’ve had them brush against me when I’m scuba diving.)

Have you ever been bit by a rattlesnake? (No… but I am afraid of them, so I try really hard not to step on them.)

What fish scares you the most? (The trout that’s rising, and I cannot figure out how to catch it… I think I’m losing my mind.)

Have you ever seen a big fish kill anyone? (No, not any people. I’ve seen big fish eat little fish, and birds, and that sort of stuff.)

Have you ever been attacked by a “river monster?” (Not yet.)

Look, I get what the show “River Monsters” is all about. I watch it now and then, and like it when I do. And I think host Jeremy Wade does a lot to show people some amazing creatures and really cool places. I’ll also readily admit that I spice up my stories with the danger sauce. People like to hear about bears, and sharks, and snakes, and wild airplane rides, and all of that. That’s a foundation of being an outdoorsman and an outdoor writer. That’s part of why we do these things. We like the thrill ride. Some of us like to ride bigger roller coasters than others.

But that’s all it really is. A ride. And when little kids’ impressions of fishing in wild places revolves around thoughts of getting bit, or attacked, or even killed, I wonder if that ultimately detracts from the real beauty of fishing, which is experiencing the beauty of Nature in all forms.

Like Jeremy Wade, I’ve spent some time fishing in places like Bolivia and Guyana. I was on edge the entire time I was there. But it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that a guy found floating in a river with his face ripped off, in the heart of cocaine country, probably wasn’t bit by a fish. Truth is, in all of these situations, the thing that scares me most is… people. People who want to do you harm. People (myself included) who make stupid decisions. I’m far more likely to hurt myself by forgetting to wear sunscreen, or drinking bad water, or sticking myself with a sharp object, than I am getting worked over by a fish. I’m more worried about taking a wrong turn from the Miami airport after I get home than I am when I’m in the jungle in South America.

If you don’t want your hand to look like this, don’t stick it in the mouth of an arapaima. Sure, marlins jump in boats and bears maul people, and sharks chew on limbs now and then. But lightning zaps golfers more than sharks bite anglers. And nobody’s making television shows like Death Bolts on the Fairway. Well, maybe someone will.

I’m not suggesting that we tone it all down. Again, I think the adrenaline factor is crucial. And sometimes, getting attention in any way possible is ultimately good for the creatures themselves. But, especially when we’re talking to kids, the predominant message should be that rivers, lakes and oceans are beautiful places with remarkable creatures, and the more you experience them, the richer your lives will be, not the greater your chances are of being attacked. And if we don’t temper the message, people like us who do appreciate the outdoors and want to see these traditions enjoyed by future generations are going to be the ones who get bit on our rear ends. But that will be our own fault.