When I was somewhere around ten, my younger brother and I climbed up to a high mountain lake in northwestern Montana that is the headwaters of our family's stream, in order to get above spring run-off and find some fish. My family doesn't own this stream, obviously, but we have always felt that it is "our" stream, and we get a little jealous when we see others fish it. Some of this is probably due to the fact that not many other people fish the stream. Most everyone thinks that all the trout were washed out in the big flood of 1964. They may have been (that was a little before my time), but there have been big fish in there ever since I could follow my dad upstream. Not many, but big old cutthroats.
Anyway, my brother and I got up to this lake and each landed and kept a nice Yellowstone cut. We had agreed that we would each keep one, as two fish was what we needed to round out a family breakfast the next morning. Not wanting to head right back down the mountain after walking three miles to get up there, we decided to fish a while longer, but put back what we caught, if anything. My brother soon hooked another fish and brought it to hand. It was a nice fish, bigger than his first. He was eight years old and very excited. "I'm going to keep this one". I told him to put it back, that we already had enough for breakfast. He pulled out his pocket knife and whacked the fish on the head. After a few strikes, this big cut gave a death shiver and squirt its eggs out all over my brother's hand, arm, feet, and the rocks below. My brother's eyes welled up, he cradled the fish like an injured pet, and he began to cry. "I killed the fish and all its babies."
It is the same way I felt when I shot my first deer. The same way I felt when the realization set in that it was dead because of me and my actions.
In the years since, I began to feel differently. I am still a little sad to take life, but more than anything else, I am grateful. Grateful to God for providing me with these experiences and putting me in this position. Grateful that I can interact with nature. Grateful that there are animals and places to provide me with these experiences. And usually, I feel this gratitude whether I was successful or not.
So I do not want to sound callous, cold, or indifferent, but death is a part of interacting with nature. It is not the same as viewing nature. Backpackers, day hikers, and the millions of people who see the Smokys through a rolled-down window are viewing nature. The hunter and the fisherman are temporarily shedding the trappings, the constraints, and the niceties of civilization and slipping back within the walls of Eden. Fishing isn't about catching or releasing fish, anymore than hunting is about killing an animal. It is about the experience of re-entering the natural world, as it was before cars, and lawsuits, even before original sin.
I have caught and kept, and caught and released a lot of fish in that lake. In fact, the picture of my brother and I at the head of this post was taken at the same lake about twenty years later. But I think of that fish my brother killed more than any other fish the two of us have ever caught. He wasn't wrong to keep the fish. It didn't go to waste and there are lots of fish in that lake to this day. He wouldn't have been wrong to put it back. He was wrong because of the way he felt afterwards.
Life is hard. But it's a lot harder if you're stupid.