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for people who care about the West

It only seems cruel to fool a fish


"Who hears the fishes when they cry?" That question was asked by a scold, iconoclast and master angler who worried about the pain he inflicted on his quarry. His contemporaries considered him very weird. His name was Henry Thoreau.

The same concern is being voiced today by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which also is considered very weird, and with excellent reason. For example, PETA's 6-foot-tall mascot, Gill the Fish, flounces around at public functions, trying to stamp out all fishing and fish eating while studiously ignoring habitat degradation.

But there is nothing weird or even incorrect in the following statement from PETA's Factsheet N. 4: "Hooked fish struggle out of fear and physical pain. Once fish are brought out of their environment and into ours, they begin to suffocate ... Anglers also often impale their victims on a 'stringer' and dangle them in the water so that they won't die quickly and 'spoil.' Fish who are released can suffer such severe stress from being 'played' that they may die."

Particularly loathsome to animal-rights zealots is no-kill fishing or "catch-and-release," a phrase coined in 1939 by fishing pundit Lee Wulff who proclaimed that "game fish are too valuable to be caught only once." Wulff was a tireless evangelist of fisheries conservation, but he also popularized landing trout and salmon on wispy rods and gossamer lines - a stress-inducing practice less accurately described as "playing" than "nagging."

What so offends the animal-rights crowd about catch-and-release is that there can be no motive other than fun. As with the puritan view of sex, it's only evil if you enjoy it. Yet others also have questions: "If fish do feel pain, as some evidence has begun to suggest, what does the catch-and-release angler do about that knowledge?" asks outdoor writer Ted Kerasote in a thoughtful Orion magazine essay entitled "Catch and Deny."

My answer is this: land fish quickly; handle them gently; wet your hands so as not to remove their protective slime; and return them swiftly. That fish feel pain is news only to those who don't know them, but worrying about unavoidable pain caused by fishing amounts to contemplating our navels. There is something about the American psyche that delights in donning ashes and sackcloth and wallowing in needless guilt.

On the other hand, I am disgusted at the inhumane ways I see catch-and-release anglers treating fish - holding trout and salmon aloft for photos, thereby cracking their delicate ribs, waving lip-held bass around for two or three minutes while they puff and blow about how they caught them.

Kill-and-eat anglers are no better. I see them allowing fish to flap on beaches and boat bottoms for the better part of an hour when all they have to do is break their necks or club them. And I agree with PETA about stringers. Still, I believe that humane treatment of fish need not preclude catch-and-release or catch-and-kill.

I also believe that if catching fish caused significant discomfort, those that were released would learn to avoid most lures and bait. What is going through the "mind" of a fish when it impales itself on a hook for a second, third or ninth time? One can only guess.

But why bother? If everybody killed all the fish they caught, fish populations would crash. Before catch-and-release became popular in the 1970s it happened all across America.

The watershed event in today's no-kill angling ethic occurred in 1973, when Yellowstone National Park required anglers to release cutthroat trout in most streams. It was a hard sell. State game-and-fish bureaucrats ranted about how you "can't stockpile harvestable surpluses." Guides, outfitters and fillet-and-release anglers screamed like gulls at a freshly capped landfill.

"It was nearly as contentious as wolf reintroduction," recalls John Varley, the regulation's main architect and now Yellowstone's head resource manager.

But there was no alternative. The greatest inland cutthroat population in the world lay in ruins. At Fishing Bridge, 50,000 anglers per year had to wait an average of seven hours and 40 minutes between fish.

The issue wasn't just fish or fishing. The cutthroats had fueled the entire greater Yellowstone ecosystem, supplying major nourishment to such species as white pelicans, ospreys, eagles, minks, otters and grizzly bears. In 1975, before the cutthroat population had time to respond to the no-kill regs, a survey revealed grizzly bear activity on 17 of 59 cutthroat spawning streams flowing into Yellowstone Lake.

Now grizzlies work at least 55, and one research team observed a sow with cubs averaging 100 fish a day for 10 days. In another recent study, white pelicans in the park were seen to consume 300,000 pounds of cutthroats in one season; and other avian predators ate 220,000 pounds in just 100 days. Moreover, Yellowstone became the trout-angling capital of the world with guiding and outfitting businesses flourishing around its borders. That's what catch-and-release can do and has done all over the world.

Never do I miss a chance to fish Yellowstone or to thank Varley. In the West and East I release thousands of fish a year; I kill and eat hundreds. I experience no guilt. But once, while flyfishing a remote trout pond in northern Maine, I did feel a certain empathy for my quarry. A gust of wind caught my backcast, and suddenly I hooked a 190-pounder. With a burst of expletives, I extracted the fly from my lower lip. Then I held my head in the icy water, moving it slowly back and forth, shuddering, recovering.

Ted Williams is an environmental columnist and reporter who writes frequently about the West.