Why do we fish?

Essay by David Petersen

Wildlife – May 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

SINCE THE PHENOMENAL popular success of Robert Redford’s film treatment of the Norman Maclean classic, A River Runs Through It, fly-fishing mania has swept North America, converting the “quiet sport” into a flashy growth industry.

And it’s easy to understand why: Form informs fly casting. And form plus knowledge of trout, the insects they eat, and the personality of mountain water define fly fishing. It’s a song of the senses, a celebration of the spirit. Fly and bait fishing differ like ballet and bowling; fly and spin fishing like chess and checkers. It’s artful, it’s challenging, it’s fun and relaxing, this catch-and-release angling craze. And on its glossy surface, at least, it’s a gentle way to touch wild nature.

But what might be the trout’s take on this? What effect might having a hook set in your mouth, being dragged through the water by an invisible, irresistible force, being hoisted from the element that sustains you to pant and gasp and finally be released, tired nearly unto death … how might such an experience affect your day?

Certainly, catch and release, as opposed to catch and kill, promotes more and bigger fish, better-balanced aquatic ecosystems, and more and bigger pleasures for a growing number of fly fishers. Yet there are many among the American public who find it easier to stomach the killing and eating of wild creatures than using them for playthings. Thus, even with this gentlest of the “blood sports,” ethics is an issue.

A common moral defense offered by catch and release anglers, of whom I am a passionate one, is that since trout usually take flies in the bony corner of the mouth, they can be released without noticeable injury. A growing number of fly fishers, in fact, use barbless hooks to facilitate just this end.

Without noticeable injury, perhaps. But what about pain? Do hooked and handled fish suffer pain, physical or emotional? And if so, to what extent?

Hard questions, with no scientifically established answers, as researchers readily admit. But not so unanswerable for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). In a letter to Walden Pond State Reservation in Massachusetts, PETA recently requested an end to fishing in those hallowed Thoreauvian waters. Why? Because “fish have individual personalities … they talk to each other, form bonds, and sometimes grieve when their companions die.” Not satisfied with that, PETA, who also frown on keeping pets and riding horses, went on to petition the town of Fishkill, New York, to change its name to Fishsave.

Such pseudo-Jainist inanity aside, it seems likely that a promptly landed and gently released fly-caught trout probably perceive little pain, physical or emotional, and even that only briefly. Sadly, there are exceptions. In designated “blue ribbon” waters coast to coast, hook scarring and other cumulative catch and release injuries are far too common. And some jerks’ idea of a gentle release is holding a trout out of water for several minutes to show it around and take hero pictures, then ripping out the hook and flinging what’s left back into the water, like so much garbage. Most trout thus manhandled die from the trauma, and might just as well be eaten.

YET, FOR BETTER AND WORSE, people have always fished, and so long as there remain places to angle and something edible or at least beautiful to angle for, people will continue to fish. In North America alone, some 50 million of us indulge annually. And even from the fishy point of view, it’s not all bad.

Through license sales, special taxes on sporting equipment, and outright donations (via such sport-conservation groups as Trout Unlimited and the Izaak Walton League), America’s anglers contribute millions annually (over $38 million in 1996) to help enforce fishing laws and management policies, purify polluted waters, restore livestock- and logging-ruined riparian areas, purchase threatened aquatic habitat and otherwise rebuild, improve and preserve robust fisheries–all of which works to the benefit of entire natural communities (otters, ospreys, eagles, bears …), not just fish and fishers. Hunters do the same. Meanwhile, PETA’s $11.5 million annual war chest devotes not one copper penny to wildlife or wildlands preservation. These folks aren’t saintly animal saviors, but lowly moralists.

The onus is increasingly on ethical anglers to minimize abuse to both fish and fisheries while educating others likewise.

Why do we fish? And what effects do our pleasures have on the creatures we catch, caress, and release?

The answers lie waiting in cold mountain water.

David Petersen lives in Durango, and is a regular contributor to Writers on the Range, a project of High Country News. He has not announced plans to participate in the Caddis Hatch Festival, May 1-3 on the upper Arkansas.