How I Came to Respect Wildlife on The Delaware River

Fishing on the Delaware River was one of my childhood highlights. Our family would make a trip down there once every summer. We would pack up all the fishing poles, bait, lures, tackle, hooks, nets etc. into our small SUV and cram everyone else and our luggage in there and then hit the road for an eight hour trip to Camden, New Jersey. The trip itself was interesting enough with all the pit stops, detours and almost crashes, but really, we knew that the real fun would begin only once we got to the sparkling clear water of the river. When that happened, it was time to get serious. No one ever planned to leave the river without catching at least one fish. And that’s the way it always was.

Being older now, I have a new appreciation for the Delaware River. I no longer see every fish as merely another body to be caught, or another conquest to make. I can see them now as my fellows who occupy this same planet and go through the same trials as me. It all started one year when my fishing pole was broken in an accident by a certain brother of mine. After that, I was ready to go home. I felt that there was no reason to my staying if I couldn’t fish, since it was all that I was there for back in those days. My parents refused though, saying that we had come this far and it was our last day fishing, so I ought to just stick through it and make myself useful.

I did make myself useful. Angry at my parents for refusing to let me go home and my brother for destroying my means of fishing, I set out along the river with a plan of retaliation. I knew that I couldn’t destroy his fishing pole as he had destroyed mine, simply because it would get me in serious trouble. So instead, I went about with a set intention of making it impossible for him and the others to fish. I told them I was going to look for a better fishing place, but really, I was looking for something else entirely. I went off on my search and after a good distance from them, I found what I was looking for.

It was in a well-hidden area, where the trees slouched gracefully over the water of the river, creating a cool, shaded space where I could conduct my plan. I never got the chance to, though, as I was suddenly disturbed from my thoughts of retaliation by a flash of something that I saw out of the corner of my eye. I looked and there to my left was a small group of fish in the river. It surprised me to clearly see such a group of fish so close to the edge of the river, so I went over to investigate. As I got closer, I could see two things: one that they seemed to be shad fish and two that they appeared to be spawning.

English: "Shad Fishing at Gloucester on t...

“Shad Fishing at Gloucester on the Delaware River,” by Thomas Eakins. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Ball State University Art Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From what I knew of shad at the time, this seemed to make sense. We were there in June, after all, which is usually around the time when they spawn. So, it should not have surprised me much to see them there. I was somewhat surprised despite myself, however, since I had never seen fish in this way before: acting naturally in their natural habitat. Normally, I only saw those fish that were dead, dying, or might possibly die sometime afterward. Therefore, this was a new experience for me.

I took advantage of my timing and the place I found myself at to sit beneath one of the overhanging trees to watch the fish. I had completely forgotten about my original plan and, even if I had remembered it, I am quite certain that I would have forgotten it anyway soon afterward, as something happened which made all other thoughts leave my mind.

The fish in the river were quite focused on what they were doing and had not noticed me at all. As such, they had also not noticed another predator creeping up on them. It was a hawk, circling the sky unnoticed by both the fish and me. The bird of prey did not lose any time in taking advantage of our ignorance. It swooped down upon the fish, snatched one of them up and quickly took off again. The fish were unmoved to have lost one of their own and merely continued on with their activities. I, however, was another story.

I was childishly indignant at the hawk. Naive as I was, I could not see the point that many will argue, which is that the hawk did not take the fish for any entertainment of his, he took it to feed himself. All I saw was the unfairness of the situation: that the hawk had taken the shad when it had only just come so far, all the way up from the ocean, and it had been in the process of finishing the goal which it had fought so hard to accomplish.

Back then, it was only a vague sense of injustice and unfairness which led me to throw rocks at the retreating form of the hawk, in a vain attempt to bring the poor fish back to accomplish its goal. Looking back now though, I can see the connections which I previously had only vaguely felt at that time. The indignation that I felt toward the hawk was my anger at my brother. My purpose (like the fish’s purpose of spawning, unfulfilled thanks to an outside influence) was to fish. It was unfulfilled because my brother broke my fishing rod, just as the hawk took away any chance of the fish spawning. Both of us were unfairly deprived of our reason for being in that moment. Both of us were connected in that moment.

I won’t lie and say that our lives, the life of a human and that of a fish, are entirely connected, since both species are vastly different, after all. I will say, however, that we are similar, at the very least, as we go through similar experiences and trials, which I think all creatures do. I don’t claim, either, that this is an earth-shattering discover. Just that it’s a useful insight and perhaps, one that you too will make if you are ever to travel to the Delaware River. Even if not, I can still vouch that the Delaware River is a beautiful place to fish and enjoy nature. Say hi to my fellow fish for me if you do travel there.

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