Monday 26th January, 2009
There's a discussion on the Board about catch and release, it's a subject that comes up from time to time in various forms. For example when discussing salmon stocks, Germany or Switzerland, proposed EU saltwater fishing licensing and every time someone posts a picture of a dead fish and a happy face. Well something I've learned over the years - and I'm sure it's something you've discovered too - is that there are convincing arguments for almost every point of view. Especially if morality is involved. You can spend your entire life arguing over some point or other and you'll never convince everyone. Points of view are points of view. Change your perspective and you'll change your opinion.
My argument for catch and release is really very simple: it's the best thing for fish. Don't be misled by false arguments; the worst thing for fish is eating them. Our track record as a human race eating fish and trying to manage them sustainably is a catastrophic failure. The flip side, zero-fishing, doesn't work either in my opinon, because zero-fishing equals zero-interest in their environment and health. So fishing, and in particular catch and release sport fishing, whether that be fly fishing for trout, salmon or any other fish, and indeed coarse fishing for carp, pike and so on which is hugely popular in Europe, is FANTASTIC for fish.
And one other thing, all the best anglers I know, whether they be fly or coarse all catch and release. There may be some guys who haven't got there yet, but by Christ we're going to get them there. How does this argue against PETA, so-called Green politicians, and European government politics who for some reason think killing fish is better for them than releasing them? I have no idea. Quite frankly I think they should get over themselves and start dealing with the real problems and realise that C&R is a solution, not a problem.
So there I was not going to put my point of view across, and I've gone and done it anyway. Of course there are many different arguments against my point of view, and naturally I think they're wrong, and they are, but of greater importance to everyone who fishes, whether or not they're going to take from the river, is the ability to return fish, unharmed and healthy. Even in those places where C&R is illegal, such as Germany and Switzerland, one must still be able to release undersized fish unharmed and quickly - being sure not to derive any pleasure from their capture, which as I understand it is the problem here - having fun... well fuck me, fishing is fun. I'll be the first to put my hand up to admit that the main reason that I fish is because it's fun. I love fishing and if it wasn't fun I wouldn't do it. Fish are on this planet, in this unbeliveable Universe, so we can catch them. You may not believe that, but you're never going to convince me otherwise. They are there to be caught, and I don't know about you, but I'm here to catch them. And I'm going to try to catch all of them.
Does it do them any harm? No. If it harmed them I wouldn't fish. Sure they get a pin-prick, but fish are fish, they don't have a feeling of "self". Yes they're alive and it's a miracle, but they don't have the capacity to be aware of themselves. And let's face it, we've all seen fish with horrendous damage from other fish or birds, with their insides hanging out and bleeding everywhere, and yet these fish are behaving normally, eating or beating themselves up fornicating. Being hooking is a natural part of the fishes world. That's their world and one where our worlds meet.
So... what to do when you've caught a fish that you want to release? Well, firstly I think it's important to have made this decision beforehand. I'm talking barbless hooks and responsible tippet breaking strains. I haven't fished a barbed hook in fifteen years, you should always fish barbless because they're easier to release from you, fish, trees and of course juvenile fish. As for responsible breaking strains, you'll want to bowl the fish over every chance you get. So as strong as you can reasonably get away with and still get the take.
When playing fish it's important to keep them off balance and try to get them in as fast as possible. Take the fight to them, turn them often and flip them over if you can. The quicker that fish is in the net the greater his survival chance. Long drawn out fights kill fish.
I use a net. Nets should be knotless and soft. The advantages of having a net are that you can often finish the fight over deep water, overgrown banks and difficult places, you can keep the fish in the net and under water while you sort yourself out to release him, you can handle the fish through the net so as to not harm his protective slime layer, and if you need a photo the fish will quite happily breathe in the net while you quickly prepare the shot.
If you can get away without handling the fish, as in the case of small fish for example, where often you need only touch the fly, then this is what you should do. With larger fish you will probably need to carefully handle them. Do this with wet hands, that are clean from sunscreen and insect repellant. Hold the fish either across the wrist of the tail or across the back or belly and not near the gills or eyes. Holding a large fish by the wrist stops him struggling, as does holding it upside down. Best or all is keeping the fish underwater in the net while you unhook the fly. This way they can breathe. Always keep a pair of surgical forceps handy AND a spare pair for when you lose the first.
The trick to good fish handling is confidence. Dropping the fish is absolutely unforgivable. Keep them in the water as much as possible and do everything in your power to release the fish quickly and calmly. The net gives both you and the fish breathing space. Bleeding fish we're told will probably live not die, fish bleeding from the kills have a much lower chance of survival, a fish killed has zero chance of survival and future breeding. If you're going to kill a fish, kill it by striking it unconscious, hitting it immediately above the eyes at the top of the head. If you're going to release but the fish has swallowed the fly, clip the line close to the fly and release the fish - the fish will be fine and the hook will dissolve, pass through or rust out eventually, and often quite quickly.
When releasing fish, point them into the current so that water flows over the gills. Release them into well oxygenated water and allow them to swim out of your hands. How well you handle the playing and releasing of the fish determines the nature of the experience for the fish. Done well it's just another fish-day. And no matter what argument you've constructed for yourself, the best thing is for that fish is to go back completely unharmed. End of story.
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