In a marsh oxbow that was formed long before Europeans settled the confluence of two great North American Rivers, an ancient fish — a gar — skulked among the reeds and weeds, hunting for his prey.
On the bank of the marsh, I skulked with a bow — a modern version of an ancient sporting tool — hunting that ancient hunter.
I released a stout arrow, which flew toward the fish and penetrated the thick armor-like scales that have helped gar to survive millions of years. The fish's scales are so tough, and its dozens of teeth so sharp, it has few predators. Humans increasingly pursue them with archery tackle designed for bowfishing.
I've dabbled in bowfishing for several years, but not enough to be considered accomplished. After good aim and an arrow that flew true, I would chuck the fish into the weeds and justify it by saying it was population control and food for other critters. Bowfishing quarry are often considered non-game or "rough" fish — species that generally don't get the attention of fancy-boat tournament anglers, pristine-water flyfishermen or families looking to fill a frying pan.
But something didn't feel right about the kill-and-chuck process. As stewards of God's creation, wanton killing of animals is troubling. We have the responsibility to manage animals with reason, which might include killing for population control, clothing or food. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear on this: "It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly." (2418)
Gar aren't impending ecological disasters. They're native species and an important apex predator.
"They help maintain balance in (freshwater) ecosystems," explained fisheries biologist and gar specialist Solomon David of Michigan State University in a Twitter thread. "Better there, than wasteful bowfishing & being turned into fertilizer (often the "we're not wasting it" excuse of bowfishing)."
That Twitter thread challenged my bowfishing ethos. Through research and prayerful consideration, I came to the conclusion that ethical bowfishing demands the same norms used for any lethal conservation sport: Absent an imperative for population control, we're compelled to consume the fish we kill.
But eat gar? Do people really do that?
As it turns out, it's delicious. That shortnose gar I took from the marsh offered 8 ounces of firm, boneless fillets. A light coat of cornmeal and quick fry resulted in a taste closer to pork than fish.
Cleaning the thing took a little more work than the typical fillet job. But once the hack saw and tin snips cut through the plate-armor ganoid scales, removing the flesh from the skin and bones was relatively easy.
I always felt a little guilty about those fish I let die needlessly, and I blame my ignorance and stubbornness in seeking a legitimate resolution. But by enriching my understanding of the gar's ecological significance, and a deep desire to try all sorts of "new" food, I've discovered a fair balance to enjoying an ancient form of fishing for an ancient form of fish by allowing its death to help sustain life as food. That's simple, ancient Christian teaching, and it's the calling of the responsible steward.
Phillips is the editor of the St. Louis Review and a radical conservationist. He and his family are members of St. Ambrose Parish. This is the first of his God's Outdoors column, which will explore conservation and outdoor recreation through a Catholic lens.