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Pavlov's trout.

"Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after."


A lot of fishermen these days say things like, "Oh, I don't care if I catch fish, just so long as I can be out there in nature." Or, "I just like the scenery--you know, the trees, the sky . . . ." Or, "I love the sound of water lapping against the side of the boat. Catching fish is a bonus." These remarks sound sportsmanlike and ecologically responsible and so forth, but you and I know that people go fishing to catch fish.

If you really don't care if you catch fish when you go fishing, can you be a true fisherman? I don't think so. I have yet to meet a fisherman who could look me square in the eye and say without flinching, "It's true--I really don't care if I catch fish." You don't have to keep them, eat them, photograph or frame them, but you do have to catch them, at least once in a while.

So, I have asked myself, "Just what is it we true fishermen are after anyway?"

Dr. Ivan Pavlov, winner of the 1904 Nobel Prize in physiology, may have stumbled upon the very essence of sport fishing and why we all love it so. I think this footnote to the history of psychology will give fishermen everywhere something to add to those late-night campfire conversations when some know-it-all is begging to have his leader shortened.

Pavlov's experiments with salivating dogs and ringing bells proved what every camp cook who ever rang the dinner bell knows. Hungry critters come running and drooling.

The fundamental idea is that one of the ways creatures learn is through associations of one thing with another, provided, of course, the creature will stand still for the training.

Enter the difficult dog. A mixed breed, this dog was friendly and appeared no different from the others. However, when placed on the table and restrained, it whined, barked, scratched, strained, and chewed at its leather harnesses. It salivated when it wasn't supposed to. Finally the experimenters wearied of the affair, removed the straps, and placed the dog back in its cage.

Defeated by the mutt, Pavlov salvaged his efforts with what he called "The Reflex of Freedom." He knew, like researchers everywhere, that it was far better to come up with a new, never-before-described phenomenon than to admit failure and endanger his funding source.

The Freedom Reflex, Pavlov said in trying to make sense of the difficult dog, is inborn as opposed to learned, and present in all creatures. It is a self-preserving reflex and, if not expressed with vigor, places the individual and his kind at risk of death and extinction. His findings can be briefly summed up as follows:

1. When trapped or suddenly restricted from natural movement, all creatures immediately do two things: struggle to break free and, if able, reorient themselves.

2. Once free and reoriented, the creature will, in the next split second, make good its escape.

This behavior is fundamental to survival, so the creature can be counted upon to put every ounce of energy into it.

Except for a totally exhausted, near-dead fish, any angler who has freed his quarry after a hard fight has observed what Dr. Pavlov observed. Suddenly released from hook and hand, the fish rests momentarily in the water, righting itself and checking its bearings, and then, swoosh, it's gone!

Fish who don't fight to break free, reorient, and escape in the underwater world, also go by another name: supper. Predatory search and capture of one fish by another has been going on beneath the waves for 400 million years or more, so this set of reflexes has been strongly selected and is by now hard-wired into the neural circuitry of all fishes. Only by breaking free and making a dash to safety do they stand a chance of growing up to spawn fry of their own.

Whether Pavlov's freedom reflex exists in non-wild, hatchery-raised fish remains undetermined, but we know from studies on zoo-raised animals that, once returned to their wild environments, they often become confused, helpless, and unable to elude their natural predators--the very predators, by the way, that helped them evolve into successful wild animals in the first place. Many wild-trout advocates disdain hatchery fish precisely because these fish are too stupid to protect themselves and stupid fish do not make good sport.

Could this be nature's equation?

No Freedom Reflex equals no freedom equals no species!


If you sort through all the things fishing includes--daydreaming, rod-building, fly-tying, camping, scenery, solitude, friendship, the love of nature, tradition, relaxation, a balm for the soul, and so on--what you find at the very core of angling is the thrill of getting hold of a wild thing, a creature that will, reliably and predictably, spend its entire essence in a struggle to break free from bondage.

This is the thrill of the hook-up, the catch.

Fish don't fight half-assed battles; they go to the mat every time. To us it may be sport, but to the fish it is life or death. Studies on fish locomotion and physiology tell us that only during so-called "burst" swimming, in a feeding chase or while engaged in Pavlov's Freedom Reflex, do fish switch to anaerobic metabolism and kick in all the muscle groups so as to maximize velocity, endurance, and, God bless 'em, sharp turns.

While it is good to feel the nibble or the take or see the strike, and it is wonderful to set the hook, these serve only to trigger our autonomic nervous systems into the same state of high arousal as our prey's. What really keeps our predator's heart pumping is the all-out struggle of the just-hooked fish to break free. The harder it fights, the greater the rush, and the greater the thrill.

While I'm not sure fish have spirits, it is clear that if they do, a two-pound smallmouth has a huge fighting spirit, whereas a two-pound walleye has to swagger considerably not to be called a coward. In the relationship between fisherman and fish, we measure a fish's spirit by how well, once hooked, it struggles to free itself. I like catching carp because, once hooked, a carp never quits. A hooked carp seems to say, "Okay, buddy. Now that you fooled me, let's go ahead and see if you can pull me out, or if I can pull you in. Loser dies."

The quality of a fish's struggle is why I like bluegills over crappies, rainbows over cutthroats, most saltwater fish over fresh, and catfish all the time because they'll horn you anytime, anywhere, in water or out. A really good fight is, when it's all said and done, what I want most.

I'm sure an ichthyologist would correct me about what it is that goes into a given fish's ability to fight--bone structure, musculature, fin height and width, and such--but, in the same way that I don't want an astronomer to remind me that the constellation Pisces is a projection of man's imagination onto a random grouping of distant galaxies, I like to keep my illusions about the fishes intact. When I'm out socializing with them, I want to meet fish that remind me of what is admirable about both them and us: a willingness to fight hard to stay free, and the harder the better.

Of one thing I am deeply convinced: if fish don't need us, we most certainly need them. If a fish runs and jumps and shakes its head or dives into the weeds or wraps my line around a submerged log, or just bows its neck and bulls it out with me, then at least I know I've met a creature that wants its freedom as much as I want mine. Maybe that's why fishing should be a sacred act, an interaction with another creature that should never be taken lightly.


In mulling over Pavlov's observations about the freedom reflex, I have wondered whether it is the wildness in fish that somehow renews the wildness in us. After the hook is set and the shiver of something wild comes dancing up the rod, we seem somehow to be released from the confines of our over-civilized selves. It is as if the fighting fish is the longed-for iron key that opens the golden door to our uncensored souls and what still might be wild in us.

I have seen children squeal, women scream, and men bellow with delight at the first mad run of a just-hooked fish. I have heard their voices and my own ring out over a still lake. And in that instant, in that moment of abandonment to pure, uncluttered joy, there is, suddenly and momentarily, a brief glimpse into the untamed, unfettered, wild nature of what humankind once was, and what it still needs to be from time to time.

And afterward, after the fish is brought to hand, the catcher seems somehow recharged, revitalized, renewed. Having shed the burden of self-consciousness, if only for a few moments, he or she seems somehow relaxed and more at one with his nature.

Sometimes after a good fight with a strong fish, and after I have set us both free, I simply reel in and head home knowing, deep down, that no finer moment will fill up my soul so well that day. And it's a good going-home feeling indeed.

If there is any merit to my thesis that wildness can be transmitted from one species to another over something so tenuous as a fishing line, then it seems that our connections to what little wildness and wilderness is left in our world should be even more precious to us than any of us has yet realized.

To mirror the fishes we angle for one last time, it seems to me that we all need wildness--deep in our souls, but also at our fingertips. We need ready access to it. We need to be able to touch this wildness, to call it forth when we need it, up and out of the padded cell in which we keep it locked for civilization's sake. On those days when we feel gang-hooked ourselves, and are headed inexorably toward the gaff or landing net, we need to call upon our wildness to struggle to break away, to right ourselves, and to make good our dash to freedom.

Thank you, Dr. Pavlov.
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Title Annotation:1904 Nobel Prize winner Dr. Ivan Pavlov
Author:Quinnett, Paul
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1994
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