It’s the thing I have never understood about the men and boys who go out to pretty places to fish. Some of them leave their trash along the river banks and trails — piles of beer bottles and fast-food packaging, empty bait containers and discarded fishing line. It happens on trout streams, but you also see it — in my experience, more often — on shorelines where bait anglers sit and wait for bass, rockfish, perch or catfish. This summer in Maryland, along the Severn River, someone found a young osprey hanging upside down from a tree. The bird had become entangled in fishing line. Despite efforts by wildlife rescuers to save it, the osprey died from stress. Sometimes monofilament line gets away from anglers by accident. But most of the time it’s just carelessness that leaves it to cause problems for another person or wild animal.
And then there’s the trash. I have seen shocking levels of it along water in urban areas and in remote areas. One time, during the spring shad run in the lower Gunpowder River, near Route 40 east of Baltimore, I came across a pile of blue Bud bottles and lunch trash, with enough evidence of recent fishing that I knew instantly that some all-day shad anglers had been the culprits. I found a trash bag near the mess and collected as much as I could bear. One hundred and fifty miles away, along the rocky banks of the North Branch of the Potomac River in remote western Maryland, I found a similar pile, also with Bud bottles, next to a dead campfire. You stand there, with scenery that should take your breath away, and it’s the trash that does it instead. I just don’t get it. Fishing for trout, in particular, takes us to some of the most beautiful places in the country, and yet you’re apt to find that someone who enjoys the same activity as you, in the same place, has no second thought about leaving his garbage behind. It does not happen everywhere, to be sure. But that it happens at all is what amazes me. Didn’t the guys who drank all that Bud see what I saw when I stood on the banks of the Gunpowder as the shad pooled up that April morning? Why would they leave their mess there? And didn’t the guys who left their garbage along the North Branch have the same feeling I did — something on the order of awe — when I arrived there to fish for trout last May?
The other day I hiked through a meadow and forest to fish the North Branch. I passed thickets of wildflower — purple thistle, purple-crimson ironweed and yellow crownbeard. Beautiful place. I met a father and a young man I presumed to be his son along the way. They were leaving, I was arriving. We exchanged information about the fishing in the river down below. The young man had a Bud Lite can in his hand. About three hours later, as I hiked out, I found a crumpled Bud Lite can along the trail. It jumped out at me. It was the only litter I had seen. Now, I suppose the young man could have dropped it by accident. But he might also be one of those guys who grew up seeing the adults around him throw their trash anywhere they please and, never hearing or seeing a counter message, continues on his littering way into adulthood, even as he visits pretty places where he should feel privileged to fish. I live and work in Baltimore and see terrible amounts of trash in my city. A week ago, while driving, I passed a young man just as he finished a fountain soda and tossed his empty cup into weeds along a road just north of the city line, in Baltimore County. I cringed. I was as bewildered as I was angry.
I am self-conscious of sounding like an old fart when I mention that, back in the day, starting when Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson were in the White House, we heard constant anti-littering messages in the public sphere. It made a difference. We have not had that kind of messaging on a sustained level for about four decades now and I see the results everywhere I go, even in remote places, even among the wildflowers of late summer. It’s the one thing about fishing for trout I’ll never understand.