Catch and Release Is No Fun for the Fish

A once-impassioned angler rethinks his relationship with sport fishing

There was a time in my life when fly-fishing was my life. I was a true fish bum. My entire existence revolved around the “sport.” I fished more than 150 days a year and had an unhealthy obsession with wild and native trout. There was something enchanting about those beautifully speckled, mysterious creatures. Their habits, their history, their habitats — all this intrigued me. I didn’t neglect the warm water species, either: the bass, pike, muskies, walleye, carp, catfish, and so on. I owned a respectable collection of fly-rods. I tied my own flies and was damn good at it. My bookshelf was filled with fly-fishing books. I had hundreds of pictures of myself holding my “trophies,” and was proud of the 2-foot wild brown trout, the 20-inch smallmouth, the gorgeous little native brookies, the 30-inch walleye. But as time went on, something changed within me. It was a gradual change — a slow raising consciousness, if you will. I fought it at first, and even tried to block it out, but eventually I had to face it. I knew what I was doing was wrong.

photo of ticksPhoto by smuzz / Flickr Most fishermen and fisherwomen truly care about fish and the habitats in which they live. But sports fishing inflicts pain on the fish who are caught.

What was I doing? I was having fun, which is a poor excuse for torturing a living creature. This is the part where most people roll their eyes and sigh at the crazy “animal rights extremist” and say something like, “it’s just a fish.” What exactly does that even mean? So, because it’s a fish, it deserves no respect or empathy?

Let’s go back to that word, “torture.” Torture: The action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting pain. For the pleasure of the person inflicting pain. That right there is a good description of sport fishing. Now to be clear, I am not saying that all fisherman are sick people who knowingly and deliberately go out to torture or injure fish. On the contrary, I would say the exact opposite is true. Most fisherman are good people who truly do care about  fish and the habitats in which they live. But the fact of the matter is that sport fishing has become such a cultural norm and pastime that we never question it. Look at it this way: If we did to any other species what we do to fish, people would be appalled. And rightfully so.

Many claim that sport fishing benefits fish species through conservation efforts. True, but this is an entirely different subject having nothing to do with morality. And if torturing an animal for entertainment is our only way to conserve it, what does that say about us?

In Thomas Mcguane’s book, The Longest Silence, he tells a story of hooking and losing a black-tipped shark. After losing the shark, he asks himself what he had done to deserve this — as if somehow he’s the victim. What about the shark who is now swimming around with a hook permanently lodged inside its mouth? What did the shark do to deserve this?

Many fisherman — namely the catch and release crowd — like to preach ethics on how to properly and respectfully handle a fish once it has been landed. This, of course, comes after they have hooked it and fought it — “played it” in angler-speak — to exhaustion, in what has to be a terrifying experience for the fish. The hypocrisy is stunning.

Some argue that fish can’t feel pain, or that they lack the intelligence to comprehend any type of emotion or thoughts. This may be the case, though recent science suggests otherwise. But how does it really matter? What does matter is that we know. We know that torturing a living creature of any kind, in any context, regardless of its mental capacity, is wrong.

Most studies claim that upwards of 95 percent of all fish caught on artificial flies and lures survive the ordeal. My experience as an angler would suggest this is true. Most fish do survive, but what right do we have to submit them to this risky game of life or death in the first place? And what about that other 5 percent or 3 percent or 1 percent — are they just justifiable collateral damage? Do their lives not matter? I am sure their lives matter to them. I think it would be silly to assume that fish understand complex issues such as life and death, but I don’t see how it matters. Fish, like all creatures, have the will to survive. Depriving them of life is a very serious matter.

For those who don’t die, what about the impact of being caught over and over again? “Game fish are too valuable to only be caught once.” This is a famous quote by the late Lee Wulff, the father of modern catch and release fishing. Conserve the resource! Release your fish! This mindset is so ingrained in the modern angling community that it’s considered blasphemous to keep a fish for a meal. In their minds, fish should be released to be caught again, which inevitably creates a cycle of torture. The same fish can be caught over and over again — ten times, twenty times, even a hundred times. Repeated captures often result in deformities and grotesque injuries to the fish: torn jaws, pierced eyeballs, ripped gills, and so on. I once saw a steelhead swimming in a Lake Erie tributary that had no less than 10 flies stuck in its body.

Here, I would like to make a distinction between subsistence fishing and sport fishing — they are not the same thing. Fishing for one’s food needs no moral justification. In fact, if more people caught their own fish from local sources instead of relying on commercial fisheries, rapidly declining ocean species would benefit.

But sport fishing has many negative impacts on the environment. In my home state of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission raises and stocks tens of thousands of trout on an annual basis, dumping these hatchery-raised trout into streams where they cause ecological damage. Imagine if someone dumped a few thousand white-tailed deer off at a state forest. This would throw an established ecosystem into chaos. Stocked trout compete with native trout and other fish species for food, shelter, and spawning habitat. In some cases, stocked trout will reproduce, creating a perpetual population of invasive species and possibly corrupting the gene pools of native strains of trout.

But the ecological effects of stocking extend well beyond just trout. Many streams and lakes have never held fish of any kind. The native species that have evolved in these waters have no defenses against the new invaders, so once stocking takes place, their numbers are quickly reduced — in some cases, they die out completely. All of these ecological disruptions are in the name of “sport.”

And there are other, indirect adverse effects of stocking trout. Fishing line tangled up in tree limbs result in death traps for birds. Heavy traffic from anglers wading in and along streams disrupts stream beds and erodes stream banks, causing siltation. Baited hooks and fishing lures that have been snapped off are left behind for unsuspecting wildlife to mistakenly eat or step on. New parasites, viruses, bacteria, and diseases are potentially introduced via hatchery fish. Whirling Disease, caused by a parasite from Europe, is a good example.

To me, fishing is synonymous with wilderness. Looking back on my many years as a sport angler, it’s clear to me that it wasn’t so much fish that I was after, it was nature —raw, untapped nature. Exploring the unknown. Getting away from the world of people. I still spend lots of time in the woods as a hiker, an explorer, a bird watcher, a tree geek, a forest farmer, and I still hike the trout streams. Walking up a brook trout stream in October during the spawn is an awesome experience. There are few things in life more relaxing or enjoyable than sitting along a creek and watching trout, seeing them not as trophies, but as individuals —  living, breathing creatures worthy of equal consideration.

As an old wise woman once said, “a hobby a day keeps the doldrums away.” But when that hobby involves cruelty, it’s time to rethink what you’re doing.

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