Voices from the River: Stages of hunting and fishing ... and conservation

By Scott Willoughby 

Within the eclectic community commonly known as “hunters and anglers,” I like to think of myself as “all the above.” But I realize not everyone checks both the hook and bullet boxes, and confess that I’m generally amused by the accepted tendency to place all breed of sportsmen and women in the same camp. To this day, I’ve still never met a catch-and-release hunter. 

Just the same, from the traditions to the tall tales, there are plenty of parallels. Perhaps most fascinating among them are the so-called “Five Stages.” 

If you hunt, undoubtedly you passed through a hunter safety course first. That’s where most of us were originally introduced to “The Five Stages of Sport Hunting,” another one of those one-size-fits-all category attempts. As something of a late-comer to the hunting tribe, I feel like I may have skipped a step or two in the layering process, as I suspect many do. After all, success means different things to different people, and our age, experience and the actions of those surrounding us all have an impact on our perspective of what constitutes a good hunter. 

The same can be said for fishing, and has been, as applying the Five Stages to anglers has fallen into vogue recently. Lifelong fly fishers, much like those who have never hunted with anything but bow and arrow, might be accused of rearranging the stages altogether, skipping ahead to stage four by the time they learned that fish eat worms. The most enlightened among us might leap straight to stage five, exchanging the confines of linear progression for a sort of transcendent awareness, embracing their journey as the destination. 

For those of us less-enlightened, the Five-Stage hunting journey generally breaks out something like this, according to the good folks at Colorado Parks and Wildlife: 

  1. Shooter stage. This hunter thinks of “good hunting” as meaning “much shooting.” Beginning hunters tell of the chances he/she had to shoot. Missing game is not as important as pulling the trigger. Hunters in this stage can make dangerous hunting partners. 

  1. Limiting out stage. These hunters still talk much about enjoying shooting. More important to them is the number of game animals shot. Limiting out is their primary concern. They may even want to “limit out” more than safe behavior allows. 

  1. Trophy stage. These hunters try to take only certain game. They look for that one special animal and may travel far to find their trophy. Getting a lot of shooting is now less important. 

  1. Method stage. In this stage, hunting has become very important to the hunter. They still want to take game, and perhaps even to limit out, but more important to them is how it is done These hunters study the habits of their game. They choose special equipment which may be primitive, such as the bow and arrow or black powder. Equipment use and the best hunting skills mark this stage. 

  1. Sportsman stage. After years of hunting, these hunters enjoy being with friends in the outdoors more than taking game. They enjoy the total hunting experience. 

A variation of the Five Stages has been applied to fishing for a little while now, and particularly fly fishing. Stage one, the “shooter stage,” translates to the basic desire to catch a fish. That’s it. And among a certain segment of novice fly fishers, merely casting enough to claim some sort of mastery will suffice. 

Stage two, “limiting out,” is pretty self-evident. Once you’ve caught one fish, the focus turns to quantity. Even if you’re putting them all back, the confidence that you can catch as many fish as you want can be somewhat gratifying. And after listening to the blowhards bellied up at the Dew Drop Inn long enough, what could be more fun than taking a turn telling the gang that you lost count somewhere after landing 30 fish or so? 

The obvious answer is stage three: Bragging about bagging trophy trout, no matter how many. The “trophy stage” is tough to avoid if you stick with fishing long enough. And for some folks, it’s the ultimate endgame. Fishing becomes about catching the biggest fish you can find, wherever that may lead. Period. 

Others, though, will eventually move beyond the folly of first-most-biggest and embrace stage four, the “method stage.” If you’re already fly fishing, that means actually seeking out ways to make it harder. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, might include making impossible casts, targeting select species in undisclosed, remote locations, or tying on the tiniest midge you can with frozen fingers in the dead of winter in order to trick a single, stubborn trout into eating it. 

By now, you are at the pinnacle of your fishing game, making it all the more easy to embrace stage five, because you have achieved “sportsman” status. Desire still plays a role in this been-there-done-that stage, but it’s distilled to its essence. What you desire most is the simple act of going fishing, tuning into the natural world, studying subtle braids of current, light, sound, the scent of the river. You might share it with a friend, your dog, or maybe just a memory, but catching fish is an afterthought. It’s the experience that matters most. As it should. 

For a while now, I’ve been contemplating just how the Five Stages might apply to conservation, some sort of progressive conservation ethos that coincides with our evolution as sportsmen and women. But while the overlap seems evident, it’s probably not a plug-and-play application.  

Sure, I suppose you could start at a stage one river cleanup, aim for filling up the most garbage bags, maybe even brag about hauling a refrigerator out of the water before moving on to more challenging or sophisticated methods of cleaning up rivers or influencing policy to the point where simply knowing that you are part of the solution is enough to make it all worthwhile. Come to think of it, that may be how it happened to me. 

But it feels more like each of the currently accepted stages of sport hunting and fishing is missing some pieces, specifically the conservation pieces. Or maybe there’s a sixth stage that’s been somehow overlooked. Not only do sportsmen have a duty to police our own ranks and set ethical examples in the field, but the message of wildlife conservation needs to be conveyed early and often: That fish and wildlife and the healthy habitat they depend on must be sustained and managed for the benefit of current and future generations. And if we aren’t willing to do that for ourselves, who will? 

There are many ways to contribute to the conservation cause — to evolve as a conservationist, if you will — whether by merely paying membership dues to organizations like TU or volunteering for river restoration projects, maybe even helping organize one. With the amount of information available online, getting involved in the legislative process is getting easier every day, and the sportsmen’s voice still carries clout when it comes to directing the decisions of policymakers. If you’re looking for ideas or ways to chip in, well, that’s basically what TU’s here for. Start with your local chapter or reach out directly to field staff like me. 

Whether it’s acknowledged within the Five Stages or not, fishing, hunting and conservation are inseparably united, even more so as we advance as sportsmen and women. Catching fish may be an afterthought by the time you reach stage five, but that doesn’t really count if there aren’t any fish to catch. You may call yourself a sportsman or woman, but it's going to take a little more to truly achieve enlightenment. 

Scott Willoughby works for TU’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project as the Colorado Field Coordinator. 


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