“ I know that fish and people can coexist.” – George W. Bush.
Releasing fish is a hot button topic in the world of recreational fishing, and outside it. Only the vitriolic debate over the use of bait trumps it.
The arguments over releasing one’s catch have cooled down considerably as catch and release fishing has acquired a wider following due to the initiative of fisheries managers who quickly appreciated its utility both as a conservation tool and as a way to create blue ribbon angling opportunities. Releasing fish was also given a boost thanks to the marketing of the freshwater sport fishing industry, which came to the inescapable conclusion that killing fish was inimical to their profit margins.
Save for a few principled publications, sport fishing magazines are nothing more than glossy brochures for the sport fishing industry. In this genre, fly fishing magazines are dominant; and in fly fishing magazines the notion of killing a fish is as rare as a queer couple tying the knot in a Baptist church.
I began releasing most of the fish I hooked because my appetite for fishing exceeded my appetite for fish. I went fishing more often. As a result, my predatory skills increased along with my powers of observation. That increase in awareness led to the inescapable conclusion that fish populations were under considerable pressure, and recognition of the fact that if I wanted to continue enjoying the privilege of angling, I was obliged to work on behalf of fish.
Doing this introduced me to men who devoted a big part of their lives fighting for fish, fish habitat, and conservative angling practices consistent with the maintenance of these things. They were, and are, all passionate anglers. For the most part, they practised catch and release angling.
Because of their dedication, and the enormous achievements they have made, and continue to make, on behalf of the environment, I found it hard to accept the charge leveled by animal rights activists that characterized these indefatigable fish campaigners as sadists who tortured fish for fun.
Whether fish feel pain is still up for debate, but given the structure of their nervous system, to suggest that they feel the kind of pain we do is anthropomorphic. Still, the debate over the ethical issues surrounding catch and release is not going be resolved quickly or at all.
Fishers who practice catch and release have to acknowledge that fighting fish stresses them, and fighting them for a long time probably greatly diminishes their chances of spawning successfully. We must also concede that some fish inevitably die as a result of being caught then set free. And, we have to concede that fish have been mutilated as a result of catch and release angling.
I vividly recall the day I lost a whitefish and found an eye impaled on the end of my fly. The event shook me up. Mike Whelpley, who was fishing with me, noticed my reaction and asked, sardonically, if I was going to quit fishing. I didn’t, but I came close to it the day I released a beautiful hen steelhead in a cloud of blood after the trailing hook on a intruder style fly I had been experimenting with that season (and have since stopped using) had severed the fish’s gill filament.
Because of events like this, fishers who practice catch and release, are obligated to do their utmost to minimize their occurrence.
Fortunately, much can be done in this regard. The barbless hook regulation will continue to save countless small fish and many large ones, but hook size and the length of flies or lures are refinements that will go even farther to save fish.
I can testify to the fact that even Chinook salmon can be held by short shanked hooks with size 6 and 8 hooks. In Britain short hooks with gapes of 10 and 12 are commonly used to subdue large Atlantic salmon.
Tying these hooks at the end of long leeches and streamers, however, defeats the purpose of the smaller hook as they are more likely to lodge in sensitive areas deeper in a fish’s maw.
Using the stoutest leader a small hook will accommodate and fighting a fish aggressively reduces the time the creature is played and the stress associated with it.
Handling fish should be avoided if possible. This is made easier with the use of tools like the forceps constructed with a sleeve that can be slid down the line so that the hook can be freed with a gentle twist of the wrist.
Finally, an earnest discussion must be initiated on the number of fish that can be caught and released by an angler. Bragging about size has been supplanted by boasting about numbers of fish caught, with the result that too many fishers are attempting to catch as many fish as humanly possible every time they go fishing.
The responsible angler of today limits his catch to limit his kill.