Foreword: just to give our international readers some background on this, in the UK there is a small number of fishermen who believe that fishing can only be justified by the killing and eating of fish. These fisherman are on the whole rather old and generally Salmon fishers. Unfortunately they have loud voices.
There's a few things which are beyond belief. Such as religion, politics, sex and the present debate on catch and release. Now look, I know there's quite a lot of bullshit in fly fishing. But this thing has the beginnings of a bad smell about it. And I'm sniffing. Where are all the salmon? The sea-trout? The wild browns? All right, I know we're not entirely responsible. But we're not helping things much either.
There is quite a persuasive group of anglers insisting that salmon in particular should be killed once caught. Their argument as far as I can understand it is a moral one. I have a problem with morals in general and this one in particular. Frankly I can't follow it. Strangely, I know plenty of other anglers who have a completely different set of morals. For them it is a 'sin' to kill fish.
As far as I'm concerned both groups are slightly mad and the first, most definitely dangerous. The argument for catch and release is a far simpler one than is presently being promoted. This at least I am grateful for. Morals, I always felt, were for romantic disillusioned people who couldn't trust their self control. But, hell, nobody's perfect.
The argument for returning your fish is this; they are too valuable to be killed. A dead fish can't breed and self-sustaining waters should not be stocked. For me this is where the argument begins and ends. I have read somewhere that the anti-fishing-brigade (intriguingly, yet another bunch of moralists) will make a mockery of catch and release. Well excuse me for thinking, but I reckon there are some serious problems around. And if we take a species of fish to the edge of local extinction then we are really in trouble, and deservedly so. We must do everything we can to assist native fish because we love the sport and the fish and fishing's no fun without fish. Believe me I've been there, done that.
One thing that really annoys me is that the privileged few who have access to what was some of the best fly fishing in Europe have buggered it up. I am talking the River Test here. Some stretches of this water are a joke. It is completely unnecessary to stock this water, let alone stuff it with overgrown rainbows. Everyone knows this and yet it still happens.
If the custodians of these waters are incapable of preserving the integrity of the stream then we should take it back. Make it public access.
When the British decided to leave their homes and live in the US, Australia and NZ they made the rivers and the fishing available to all. Ok they each have their problems, but they all contain better fishing as a result of this freedom.
And better fishing is something for which we should all be striving.
For a while I was a slot-man. In all sorts of ways. But relevantly with fish sizes. I figured small fish should go back because they were too small to eat. I figured big fish should go back because they had all the good genes (I'm into genes, which is why I get to fish on Sundays, which is possibly why I'm into genes). This I found to be a fairly flexible system, but workable in spite of it. Then I got serious. All good genes, which meant the fat good looking trout, the ones you really want to eat, went back too. All I got left with was the average.
Selective culling was, I thought, essential to the good workings of a trout stream. Sound in theory, but completely impracticable. So unless I'm really hungry I'll put them all back. I'm not talking about the sort of hunger you find in Kenmore either (which can be pretty bad) (this is a reference to the fact that whenever I have visited the editor in Kenmore he has *nothing* in the larder); I'm talking of the sort of hunger you find somewhere in the mountains of New Zealand when you've been stuck some place for ten days because it hasn't stopped raining and the only way to get anywhere is by crossing the damn river.
You know something, the funny thing is that the majority of the anglers I get to meet (and I meet lots) also share similar sentiments. Which is both good and curious. Is it just that I get to meet intelligent, up-to-date, educated anglers? Or is it that the editors of a few magazines express their views through selected censorship? (Trout & Salmon magazine reference) One thing I've always felt is that this magazine
There is however a problem. Isn't there ever? It is that even some of the most well-intentioned anglers among us fail to return fish properly. There is always a certain amount of mortality in catch and release. Minimising this is in fact the intention of this article. Relax, I'm not going to make a list. I hate lists, they smack too much of organisation. People leave me lists all the time. I'm forever ripping them up.
We all know that the longer you play a fish the less the likelihood of it's eventual survival. It's better to bully a fish and lose him, rather than take it gently and kill him. Smart and succinct - that's me. I always try to keep a fish off balance. Much use of side strain and even hitting the side strain causes this effect.
Upside down trout
I'll rarely remove fish from water, but if I have to, I'll hold him upside down - because this way they struggle less (which is incidentally, the difference between me and fish - I'd struggle like hell. That and they live in water), gently but firmly with wet hands or wet mesh. I have a clever net which incorporates a spring balance under the handle, but I rarely use it: thoughts of my future quality of fishing overcome curiosity, besides it can be disappointing to know the weight of the fish, and moreover it's not really important.
Naturally it goes without saying that my hooks are debarbed for the fish (although barbed for the box). But if I don't say it someone will point it out. I've got a smart little tool 'the ketchum release' which releases the fish without fish handling, if you know how to use it. But big fish, I've always found, require steadying before returning. Maybe they're just so surprised. For small fish I use the rod tip, so long as there aren't droppers in the way.
When a fish does need to be helped back, I'll suddenly acquire infinite patience. This comes, personally, as a great surprise. I'll hold him into a gentle current, until he kicks. In a lake I might nudge him forwards, but I still try to give him the impression that I'm in no particular hurry. Whether it gets through is debatable. In a river, with a particularly big fish, it can help him if you place your leg downstream to give him some rest, bit like a rock really. And naturally I'll talk him through it, it might be his first time. One never knows.
Of course I'm always prepared to kill a fish which appears to be struggling for life. Sometimes this can't be helped. Especially early in the season, when the fish are knackered, or midsummer, when the lake is. This is, I guess, my selective cull. It's just that it's not me who's selecting. It's fate.
Although I'm not sure I believe in fate too much either. You've got to be careful with what you fill your head.
I'd like to finish by mentioning a minor and obscure branch of the catch and release advocates. Their philosophy can be summed up as catch and release... without the catch. Basically it's a bit like your normal fishing, but the sport is applied on a higher plane. It's more theoretical than your general run of the mill stuff, and therefore demands more intelligence. Indeed, in my more enlightened moments I have often been a practitioner of the branch myself.
The whole concept is based around the pretext that you can actually catch fish. This is really quite important. The next step is to discover the whereabouts of actual fish. You will notice at this point that this takes the sport away from the completely abstract. So it is indeed a key element.
Once we have found our 'target' fish, perhaps by cleverly stalking around the banks, the way one does, we can then determine which fly is required. This is where the branch splits into two separate sub-divisions. On the one hand there is the 'let's stick the fly on, but make sure there is no hook' practitioners, and on the other there exists the 'let's make the imaginary cast'. I'm sure that it doesn't take a great deal of thought to realise that this second sub-division has taken the sport of fly fishing to a new plateau. An area of expertise requiring awe-inspiring intelligence, a good deal of sophisticated abstract reasoning, and a small amount of insanity.
If, however, you don't think you qualify, don't worry too much about it. It is an position you can aspire to. We're all going somewhere, although where the hell I'm going I've got no idea. Sometimes I'm not even sure where I've been. And I quite like that. It's my own sort of personal release.