For the West Coast's winter steelheader the fishing year 1956 may have begun on January 1st with a shivery trip to the Umpqua or the Klamath or the Nooksack. For the winter-vacationing Easterner it may have begun in February with a chartered boat trip to the Gulf Stream out of Palm Beach or Miami or Tavernier. But the first man is regarded as something of a freak, even by his fellow fishermen, and the second is not a fisherman at all, in the pure, psychiatric sense of the word (unless, of course, he came to Florida seeking the presence of fish rather than the absence of snow).
Thus for most anglers throughout the United States and Canada the fishing year is just now beginning—and not until June or July will it really achieve its peak. By then nearly 20 million men, women and children in 48 states will have paid out about $40 million for licenses and will be happily catching a conservatively estimated 100 million game fish and a quarter of a billion pan fish. Of the 20 million, nearly two-thirds will pursue at least one of the four popular species portrayed in bait's-eye perspective on the opposite and following pages.
By and large, this army of anglers will be using tackle and techniques basically unchanged since their great-grandfathers went fishing. In fact, flyfishing is at least 3,000 years old; the catching of fish on trolled lures predates the Christian era; and nobody is certain which beetle-browed caveman first skewered an earthworm on a thorn hook and hopefully dangled it in a river on the end of an elk's tendon (although it is known for sure that a chap whose cave overlooked the pool came by and quietly told him he should have been there yesterday).
There are, of course, some recent tackle developments: the growth of spin fishing and the use of synthetic materials for rodmaking are the most important. The spin fisherman employs a relatively new mechanical device for casting a bait or lure or weighted fly, and the mixed feelings with which anglers view this method are reactions to spin tackle's chief characteristics: it's so easy to use that a) anyone can catch fish with it after a few minutes' practice and b) it de-emphasizes casting skill and stream craft and overemphasizes the mechanical advantages of the tackle.
In England, where the bulk of good fishing water is still privately controlled, spin fishing has long been banned on most trout streams. In the United States, where the possibility of such restrictive laws is remote, observers at recent sportsmen's shows have reported a promising revival of interest in fly-rod fishing, and veteran fly rodders hope the pendulum has now started to swing back, and that spinning will soon assume the same limited (but important) position it now holds in England.
As for the new rodmaking materials, it now seems certain that just as bamboo rods can't compete with the so-called "glass rods" in the low and middle price ranges, neither can synthetics compete with natural cane in the highest price brackets (from $100 to $200), and that the split-bamboo rod will survive a while longer, if only as a luxury item. (But SI spies reported several glass rods on the Restigouche Club's hallowed salmon pools last season, in the hands of men who could easily afford the most expensive Payne or Leonard or Orvis split-cane rod.)
The new 1956 model lures, of which there are hundreds, are almost all trademarked variations on ancient fish-getting themes: the metal spoon, the wooden or plastic plug, the metal spinner, the "Devon minnow" revolving lure, the top-water "bug" for fly-rod use; and in salt water—the feathered jig, the wooden plug, the "block tin" squid, the spoon. The bait fisherman will find few improvements in earthworms, hellgrammites, crawfish, shiners, frogs, salamanders, sand-worms, lamprey-eel larvae, mice, shrimp, grasshoppers, crickets, grubs, cockroaches, fiddler crabs and other tried-and-true enticements for fresh- and salt-water fishes, but he will be happy with the old familiar models.
More important, however, than any new techniques or lures is the recently read about discovery by fresh-water fish biologists that most warm-water lakes are badly underfished, that it is virtually impossible to "fish out" a bass lake or perch pond and that even in some heavily fished waters, more fish died of old age than were caught. As a result, many states have declared year-round open seasons for warm-water species and have liberalized or even abolished creel and size limits.
The weather, as always, played a great part in shaping future fishing conditions. In the East, fresh-water fishermen found some favorite trout streams badly damaged by last year's several hurricanes, and some lakes and ponds altered by washed-out dams and fish-barriers. The Brodhead Creek in Pennsylvania headed the list of casualties: the cover was stripped from the streamside, pools were filled with silt, the deep runs were flattened out and it will be a decade, say stream biologists, before the Brodhead will again be a good trout stream. In Connecticut, the Housatonic suffered almost as badly, and there are few coastal rivers that don't show flood damage to the pools and to aquatic insect life.
In the West, too, there was flood damage in some northern steelhead rivers, notably Oregon's Klamath, but throughout the West alarmed sportsmen were confronted by an even greater threat. This was what seemed to some observers a determination on the part of the Army's Corps of Engineers and the Department of Interior's Bureau of Reclamation to slap a dam across every gorge and valley in sight, often with seemingly total disregard for the migration of fish (especially steel-head trout and salmon coming in from the sea to spawn) and for wildlife and recreational values. Even the Madison River in Montana, considered by many fishermen to be America's greatest trout stream, was slated by the Bureau of Reclamation for a series of storage and diversion dams. But in other parts of the country, dams were credited with increasing recreational and fishing facilities a thousand fold. Such man-made lakes as Kentucky, Center Hill, Fontana, Mead, Mussel Shoals and Elephant Butte will provide fun and sport for more than five million Americans this year.