Whenever I see anyone fishing, for a brief moment I recall what it was like to feel the wiggle on the line and the sticky fish in my hand.

We’d lug home whatever fish we caught in a pail of water, rinse it off in the sink, cut off its head, clean it out and then flop it around on a plate of flour and corn meal after dipping it in an egg wash.

We’d salivate as we watched that trout or white perch crisp up and brown in the pan, but the best part was sharing the sweet soft interior afterward and knowing we were responsible for bringing such a savory treat to the table.

When we were young and someone said, “Let’s go fishing,” it meant that we were going to catch fish to eat it, not to do something called catch and release.

It would have been such a strange notion back when I was a kid to catch fish merely to throw it back in the water.

Sure, we caught the occasional fish that was too small or too big or the wrong kind for eating. We’d gently twist it off the hook, careful not to tear its mouth, and slip it back into the water to watch it swim away.

Now fishing is a whole other ball game. I see people out on their boats or on the shore fishing and feel kind of sorry for them, that they can’t really eat all that they catch.

I get the need for conserving and controlling fish populations. The state issues rules explaining how many fish a person should eat within a certain time period on certain lakes and ponds — and those that should be avoided all together.

“Warning: Some Maine waters are polluted, requiring additional limits to eating fish,” the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife website says. “Fish caught in some Maine waters have high levels of PCBs, Dioxins or DDT in them. These chemicals can cause cancer and other health effects.”

The regulations also warn that mercury in the state’s freshwater fish may harm babies of pregnant and nursing mothers, as well as young children.

“Pregnant and nursing women, women who may get pregnant and children under 8 SHOULD NOT EAT ANY freshwater fish from Maine’s inland waters. Except for brook trout and landlocked salmon, one meal per month is safe.”

I can’t help but think of Mark Twain’s characters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, when I read this and wonder what they would think about life here in the progressive 21st century.

Tell them they could not eat but one fish a month, and only in certain waters?

“Kennebec River, Augusta to the Chops: Do not eat any fish from these waters,” Maine’s rules warn.

What have we done to our waters, polluting them so heavily with chemicals that we can’t eat the fish — a vital source of food for people in the days when processed meals were unheard of and we relied on whatever we grew, hunted and foraged for?

My heart sinks a little when I see kids by the side of the road in summer, barefoot, knees bent, caps shielding their faces from the sun, their bodies tilting toward a stream or pond, fishing rod in hand.

Happy to be free of school and other obligations, they’ll never know the thrill of fishing with a goal of bringing home supper, without concern for DDT and PCBs.

The worst fear we had as kids was whether a fish had worms, not whether it would give us cancer. A lot of the innocence we enjoyed is gone.

We were lucky to have been born when we were, to have enjoyed the outdoors fully and freely, without ever having to fear the dangers that now lurk within it.

I don’t know if I’ll ever hold a fishing rod in my hands again. It just doesn’t feel right to catch a fish merely for sport — and throw it back for no good reason at all.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 24 years. Her column appears here Saturdays. She may be reached at [email protected]

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