I saw this quote on Twitter yesterday, and it got me thinking (again) about something that I wonder about all the time:
"All the romance of trout fishing exists in the mind of the angler and is in no way shared by the fish." - Harold F. Blaisdell, 'The Philosophical Fisherman'
As much as I enjoy fly fishing, I really wonder at times if it's an ethical thing to do. I wonder what the point is for doing it at all. The comments below are somewhat rambling, but this is just how they came out of my head and onto the screen. I'm just going to put this out there, rather than try to make it more coherent or cohesive.
When I was a teenager, I kept and ate most of the fish I caught. I fished for trout from mid April until mid-June. After that, I focused on bass. The streams where I fished for trout had no sustaining populations, and all the fish we caught were stocked. The two primary lakes where I fished for bass were different though. They weren't huge, and I had a handful of high school friends who fished the same two lakes. We created enough pressure on these two lakes to seriously affect the population of bass if we kept fish, or if we didn't.
One of the lakes in particular, Lake Lehman, was owned by a local company - a paper mill. They sold memberships to "The Lake Club", where people could swim, canoe, play tennis, picnic, and fish. The paper mill really maintained the property as a back-up water supply. Paper-making is a water-intensive business, and the company needed reliable water sources. The Lake Club, in those days, was managed by a curmudgeonly older man named Guy Bievenour. He had managed the Lake Club since at least 1948, according to a reference I found on newspapers.com. I started fishing there about 1974 or 1975.
Mr. Bievenour wanted to preserve the fish population in the lake, and we quickly discovered a way to take advantage. He would pay fisherman $1 per fish to release fish that they had caught and they were planning on keeping, assuming the fish were still alive. We took advantage of this for a couple years, making some money. We had no sense of "catch and release"; it was only a way to make a buck. I remember my dad being constantly mad at me for spending time fishing and not bringing home any fish to eat, despite the fact that I caught fish all the time.
Over time, something changed in the lake. As the only people who fished the lake hard took advantage of the bounty paid to release fish, the number of fish in the lake increased. We were very competitive fishermen (boys, really), and we kept track of how many fish we caught and who caught the biggest fish. In our junior high years, a good season might be 20 fish or so over the course of a summer. But, our skills improved with age and time on the water, the fish population increased, and I remember taking 26 fish on opening day one year, probably 1979. By then, no bounties were available, because Mr. Bievenour would have gone bankrupt paying half a dozen of us for all the fish we caught. I was by then routinely catching 100+ bass per season from this lake. On our own, a catch and release ethos had been created. We liked the hunt, but had no taste for the kill. We felt good about releasing the fish. It was a small enough lake that we would catch some fish multiple times, often recognizing larger fish from their "home location" in the lake.
But over time, we stopped catching large fish. By not keeping any fish at all, the lake became over-populated and the fish fought for food. Catching them was easy, but the plentiful fish were small. Despite our belief that overpopulation was the cause, we never did start to keep fish from the lake, to see if larger fish would return.
We used barbed hooks in those days. Rubber worms were our primary weapon. After a fish took a rubber work, often by the tail, we would let the fish "run" with the worm, until it stopped and swallowed it. I am sure that those big (hook size up to 2/0) hooks deep in the gullet of the bass inflicted way more harm than we realized. Yet, we had no compassion or thoughts for the health of the fish. We were just "scoring points" in an adolescent fishing competition.
The fish certainly didn't enjoy it. We did. But, what was the allure? Was it competition? Was the fishing itself what we loved? I assume it was both, to some extent.
I am still in touch with a few of the people I fished with in those days. To the best of my knowledge, I am the only one who still fishes regularly. So, perhaps it wasn't simply the love of fishing itself that had us out there. Who knows? Perhaps my other friends simply don't have time in their busy lives to fish any more. Perhaps they don't have the financial resources. Fishing can certainly be expensive, although it doesn't have to be that way.
Today, I'd like to claim my fishing is more "civilized". I use barbless hooks. I follow regulations designed to protect waterfowl (no lead weights) and rivers (no felt soled wading boots that can easily spread didymo, an invasive diatom that can easily spread from one river to another). But, I still catch trout. When I hook a trout, it doesn't just swim to the net to be released. It fights with all of its strength to escape, coming to the net only when exhausted. I rarely touch a fish. I have an expensive net designed to reduce harm to the fish's outer "slime" layer. I use hemostats to remove the hook, make sure the fish is breathing OK, and send it on its way. Clearly the fish feels some sort of pain when the hook penetrates its skin. However, most scientists seem to agree that it's not like a human's reaction to pain as we know it.
I am a meat eater. I try to eat local meat, raised ethically by farmers that I know. I visit the farms that produce my food. I know the farmers. I recognize that by eating meat, I'm participating in the death of an animal. I accept that.
Fishing is different. I am inflicting some level of pain or discomfort on an animal for the purpose of my own "sport" or entertainment or passion or hobby, or whatever you want to call it. If that discomfort is minimal, is it OK? I guess I'm not sure.
Which always leads me to my next thought. I have thousands of dollars worth of fishing equipment. I spend more money every year to replace worn out equipment, replace flies that I lose or that are destroyed, to travel to fishing locations, for my fishing license, etc. I truly enjoy my time on the river. I enjoy the time whether I catch fish or not. There is a very rhythmic and peaceful pattern to fly fishing that is quite relaxing. The surroundings are beautiful. I get to spend quality time with my wife or my son.
But at the end of the day, I'm spending time and money (and natural resources) to try to fool a fish into thinking a pile of feathers is a meal, I inflict some level of pain on that fish, and then I release the fish. I have photos and memories. No tangible "reward" for my time on the water. It seems absurd. The part about trying to "outsmart" a fish seems especially ridiculous, to be honest.
At the same time, doesn't this describe most human leisure activities? Going to a sporting event? Playing a game? Competing in a marathon or a triathlon or other athletic event? Playing golf? Going out to dinner at a restaurant? Skiing? CrossFit? Are they all essentially pointless or is some kind of leisure activity like this necessary for our mental or physical health, or both? None of them seems essential to survival, yet we all have some leisure activity that we enjoy and pursue.
Clearly, in the parlance of the day, this is a first world problem. I am not starving and using fishing to feed my family. If I wanted to feed my family by fishing, I would pursue small warm-water species that are easier to catch than trout.
I have no intention of giving up fly fishing. I'm not apologizing for doing what I do. But, I do certainly think about these things at times. I don't claim to know the answers. But, I haven't quit fishing either.