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Fish Tales


Catch and Eat


While SCMO clearly supports catch and release, we recognize and respect the right of others to have a different opinion. The following article by Jess Thompson was posted in a fishing newsgroup. It was not written about marlin or even offshore fishing, rather about smaller freshwater species, so I have not included the author's address in the hope of sparing him any more abuse. Nonetheless, I felt it appropriate to reprint here, since it demonstrates many of the points often used to dismiss the catch and release ethic. The preamble was added at the request of the author, who has softened his own stance since the original publication of the article. Read with an open mind and you may develop a better understanding of what we are up against ...

To readers of CATCH AND EAT

The author wrote this article in part in reaction to venomous messages sent to Jan Gunnar Furuly because Furuly posted pictures of "dead fish" on his website; in part to support those who now and then take home a fish to eat; in part to oppose what in some instances seems like reckless and indiscriminate release of caught fish.

Written in the heat of reaction, the author recognizes that, if he had let it cool longer before exposing it, he no doubt would have softened some of the more inflammatory passages. He also wrote it in an innocent lack of awareness that this issue generates such heat in so many places by so many people. He has largely retracted that he slanted the article "purposely to arouse debate." Much less did he write it to provoke bitter argument or dissension.

He much prefers that all fisherpeople support fish, fishing, and. . .each other. Your way, his way, her way, their way -- isn't it all great? Isn't it all OUR WAY?

He has already read that he states the obvious; that the article is too long; that it's full of overstatement; that it's garbage; that he ought to be put in the corner with "a lollipop," or "better yet, a dunce cap;" that he maybe has a secret or ulterior motive as an anti-fisher or Native American; and suchlike.

Please understand that its author, while he is old, he is not too old to learn. Understand also that he had part of his tongue in his cheek (along with his foot, as it turned out) when he talked about "honoring" fish. He had and has no desire to argue for animism or naturism, nor to re-institute prehistoric or mystical rites, religions, or ceremonies, but only to recognize that primary cultures practiced such rites.

Please understand further that its author 1) likes to fish; 2)sees wisdom in this, that how you fish depends to a great extent on where you fish; 3)sees wisdom in selective harvest, bag limits, and in self-imposed catch limits (as against unlimited catch and release); 4)urges, as at the end of the article, the most careful handling of fish in the practice of catch and release.

When you catch a fish, you honor it if you eat it.

Any fish that gets caught deserves to be eaten. It does not deserve to be caught again and again. So-called "Trophy Waters," "Quality Waters," where you must turn back the fish you catch, are a misuse of words, a miscarriage.

For years we have all admired the prowess of Lee Wulff, the highest of all high priests in the religion of Catch and Release. Likewise, we all admire Trout Unlimited and its heroic efforts to maintain habitat and fish restoration.

But...But...Lee Wulff's famous statement, taken up and touted by Trout Unlimited, that, "A good gamefish is too valuable to be caught only once," must be argued against. It states purely the position and argument of Catch and Release, and it's sucker bait. It plays into the hand of the Anti-fishers. It denies our human nature, it denies the nature of fishing, and too often, it fails in its own objective.

Catch and Release, with its "quality," its "pure sport" position, its "for fun only" or "for pictures only" attitude, plays SQUARELY into the hands of the Anti-fishers and Anti-hunters who would ban all fishing and hunting for whatever reason.

In many parts of the world, hatcheries plant fish. Everybody calls it "Put-and-take" fishing. Catch and releasers practice not put-and-take but take-and-put. And take-and-put, put, put, put -- they wish. Too often it doesn't work.

Those who practice Catch and Release are not better sports. They preen themselves; they see themselves as a higher form of life; they preach, but do not practice a higher form of sportsmanship. If you are a fly-only Purist because of the joy or challenge and artistry of fly-fishing, fine; but if you are a Purist/Snob, go home.

A fish that gets caught deserves to be eaten. It makes good sense, and it is good sportsmanship. It plays fair with the fish. It is quality fishing. The one who fishes "Trophy Water" (even with fly-only) is not a higher form of life, nor is the one who fishes downstream (even with a worm) an inferior form.

Consider: In most instances, regulations state that you must count fish you have caught and released as part of your daily limit. If the limit is two salmon or five trout, when you have caught your limit, you're supposed to quit. Where's the sportsmanship (or the honesty) if you catch and release fish by the hour?

Those who fry a couple of trout for breakfast over the campfire stand higher than those who catch and turn back eight or ten salmon in a day, and much higher than those who brag of "releasing" fifty trout during an afternoon hatch. It's time to speak up and say so.

Let me make a statement that is admittedly an overstatement, made for debate: Catch and Release people ought to go home and stay home. Either that, or they ought to fish in the dark or out of sight somewhere. They give ammunition to the Anti-fishers, and therefore ought to whisper their advice and push their program in secret.

When I say that, I do not mean to insult you. I only suggest that you, with the Anti-fishers and Anti-hunters have been misled (or you are out to mislead people) and have ignored a basic truth about life and about the human condition within life:

Life lives on life.

All living things are food. This fact is for many of us, hard to accept, but we had best recognize it, get used to it, and at last, honor it. Yes, honor it, and honor the catch, like many primary cultures (as Joseph Campbell teaches us) whose practice is to thank the fish or the deer that they fetch home and put on the table. Thus, any fish that gets caught deserves to be thanked as well as to be eaten. The fisher man or woman deserves to eat it, and the fish deserves to be eaten. If you catch it, eat it.

Eat it because its prey. The fish is prey. The duck is prey. When you go into the field, the pheasant is prey. The deer, the elk, the moose, are prey. Would you, if you could, shoot a duck or a deer, just for fun, and then send it on its way, just as you "play" at catching fish? Why not then, invite some worms to practice, just for fun, on eating, say, your leg, for a while? Give the worms some fun, before, ultimately, as is the end for all of us, all living things -- we all finish up under a tree somewhere. Boys and girls, hard as it is to admit, we're all in this business together. A vulture, maybe, is the honestest creature on earth.

For many generations, here in the Pacific Northwest, salmon were classified as "Food Fish" and one did not even need a license to take them. As food.

If you do not want to take the fish as food, if all you want to do is to catch it, if you put it through the throes of its struggle to keep from being eaten, and then you toss it back, you might as well get a wind-up mechanical fish. You only go through the motions. But the fish is not mechanical. It's alive when you hook it, and if you throw it back, you do an injustice to the fish. You waste your own and the fish's struggle.

The fish bites because it thinks(?) it is about to get something to eat. Or, it wants to protect its territory. Or, okay, it's mad, angry. You've taunted it. In any case, you have teased or tormented the fish until it takes. You have fooled it. You have tricked it. Instead of the fish getting something to eat, it is about to get eaten. But -- in the practice of C & R, you have tormented if not tortured the fish, and by turning it loose, you say, "All right, I have set you loose so that I can torment you again." Once, I say, is enough. Eat it. Be honest and eat it.

Take and eat is fully honest. A kid with a willow stick and a can of worms and a stringer of fish is as honest as anything on earth. All refinements of fishing, all methods up to a $2,000 Orvis rod and a #18 midge or a $10,000 bass boat and a 150 HP engine, go back to that picture. And when the kid comes home with his catch, and eats it, helps feed the family, he is doubly forthright, triply honest. He makes a meal.

Some want not a meal of a fish, but only a picture of a fish -- to show the fish's beauty. Don't talk to me about the beauty of the fish, the rainbow stripe, the pretty spots, unless you intend to eat it. If you do, then, by all means, pet it, stroke it, admire it, and yes, take a picture of it, show it to others. But eat it. And then you are not a mere photographer, a mere picture-taker.

The earliest hunting pictures made by humans, in the caves, portray the hunt and the catch along with the handprint if not the face of the hunters. And whether they made their paintings to help produce a good hunt, to honor or appease the animal's spirit, or for an initiation rite -- no matter. The handprint shows that "I was here." Thirty thousand years ago, "Kilroy was here." And it wasn't mere ego. Kilroy was after food, not only sport.

Fishing or hunting is not first of all a sport, not first of all a bit of play, like marbles or hopscotch or pinochle. Fishing is first of all predation. It is a predatory activity. That is the first and unalterable fact. The human animal is a predator. Fishing, hunting, were first done to gain something to eat; period. Catch and Release mocks this and becomes a sham. Initially, fishing was not a game.

"Game" in its roots, means to leap, to jump, to spring joyfully -- as early humans might have done when they got some grub. Game is what you play with a ball and a stick, or a hoop. Game is also outdoor stuff that you fetch home in your gamebag or creel -- to eat.

Is it a game to go after a fish? Is it sport to stalk a deer or to take a stand? To call in a turkey? Of course it is. Somewhere along the line, away and away back, early humans out for food must have decided, "Hey! This is fun!"

And so today. For many of us, simply to go and enjoy a day outdoors gives us great fun, fish or no fish. It's the ancient thrill of the hunt, the excitement of the chase. You're using your skill as a predator; you match wits, so to speak, when you go into the animal's territory where you are not as much at home. The search itself gives you satisfaction.

And if the search results further in bagging the game, taking the fish, that is a culmination. And when you take and eat, you are not merely going through the motions of the catch for no end except sport. If you do that, it is only for your own entertainment, certainly not for the entertainment of the fish. Rather, it's your entertainment at the fish's expense. Turn it loose and you're asking the fish to pay the price all over again.

To ask this of the fish seems cruel, whereas to take food does not seem cruel. No more than when a lion takes a deer. No one enjoys killing for its own sake. The nature programs that show a bobcat running down a rabbit might make us wish for the rabbit to escape. When caught, it might seem cruel to us. But not to the bobcat. It is life. It is the bobcat's nature. It does me no good to see a frog half way down a snake's gullet, darting it's eyes around until it disappears. But it does the snake good. It is the snake's nature.

Just so, it is our nature to take and eat a fish. I know, we no longer have to fish to eat. We can buy soybeans at the market. But it's nothing like the fun of a day outdoors. Anti-hunters, Anti-fishers, those who want to "protect" nature, who love nature and nature's balance (as if there were such a thing), most often place and see humans as part of nature. But as Anti-fishers they deny their own calling and refuse to see life for what it is; refuse to see life as a hunting proposition; life eating life. Even if it's soybeans.

And at the same time as life eats life, life, particularly human life, can and should honor all life.

Hemingway's "Old Man" said it exactly. Exactly: "Fish, I love you, but I must kill you."

Much of the time, catch and release doesn't work. Fish brought up from deep water, probably 20 feet or more, almost always die. If you cut off the hook and leave it inside fish, a third of them die. Mere hand-contact, holding a big fish up against a jacket or raingear (for the picture), often rubs the protective coating off the fish. Keeping the fish out of the water more than about 15 seconds, often kills the fish.

Thus, though C & R claims to love the fish more by turning it loose, it often kills the fish anyhow. It fails to meet its own goal. The fish dies slowly, and while it then feeds crows or seagulls, it has not come to a swift end. To be sure, the priests of C & R often attempt to teach how to release properly, but this only shows that people often do it wrong. C & R far too often either scars or kills the fish.

You too have perhaps seen this scarring process in fishing programs on national television where catchers of fish, guides, "captains," and their customers, handle the fish with obviously dry hands, hold it up for a picture, and then, like some kind of tin saint, practice their religion, coax the fish back to action, and piously let it go -- so that they, or somebody else, can practice the mockery again, asking the fish to go through its death struggle another time.

I've seen TV shows where the fish is "asked" (rather, "told") to repeat this struggle, and put back, even though the fish already bleeds from the gills. I've seen it done on salmon, steelhead, rainbow trout, bass, catfish, and yes, walleyes, and carp -- the last two, plenty good enough to eat (try some smoked carp). Walleye taste as good as anything that swims, but they are hardly a super "gamey" or fighting fish (compare a three pound walleye with a three pound rainbow).

Catch and Release, with its sham, its posturing, its "pure sportsmanship" thus plays exactly into the hands of the Anti-fishers who would ban all fishing and hunting. The Purists, the Trophy fishers, the Quality fishers, although unwittingly, shake hands with them.

Catch and Release argues that the practice conserves the fish population. Well. C & R argues especially that you should put the big fish back. Okay, fish are cannibals. Big fish eat little fish. Put the big one back and it eats a bunch of little fish. Tell me how this helps the population.

The individual fisher or hunter never in the past hurt the fish or duck population and doesn't today. But, if you take away the wetlands, take away the duck's or the fish's home, foul it, spoil it, clog the nurseries, silt up the spawning beds, you wreck the population. Loss of habitat wrecks it; it did, and does. Dams wreck it; they did, and do. Commercial overfishing wrecks it; it did, and does. The individual taker and eater, no; humans in general, yes.

At the same time, some 70 percent of every species that has ever lived on this planet has disappeared long before humans ever showed up. Does this mean we should not preserve and protect, that we should not practice conservation? Of course we should. We should preserve and protect all that we can. But that does not mean to deny our nature and our place in nature. If you want a stream to recover, shut it down completely. To everybody; to C & R fishing, guides, Indians, commercial fishing, everybody. Regain some real "Quality" water.

I am not anti-profit, but it ought also to be said that the profit motive lurks behind the promotion of C & R. We know that profit is linked to commercial fishing, and that's fine, except where it has been overdone. And then when the point is reached where only a few fish exist it no longer has the possibility of profit.

Promoted by guides and resorts, the profit motive also often stands behind C & R. Guides, often, are among the foremost preachers of "put it back." Many of them are ordained, often self-ordained, priests of this new and false (if not unholy) religion.

I have no major argument with guides. I admire their knowledge and skill. They're usually the most knowledgeable. But if a guide in one season takes a couple thousand steelhead or several thousand salmon, or hundreds of limits of walleyes or rainbow trout, even though its through the customers, who then is the game hog? Who is "selling" fish? If you want only a picture of a fish, who is "selling" fish? Sure, the guide sells talent, skill, but in effect, the guide sells fish. And what's more, the guide argues for the right to sell the same fish over and over. Who is the game hog? Certainly not the individual who takes home a fish or two, honors it, and eats it.

Nor do I have much argument with those who use guides. To use a guide is often the best way to go fishing for those who can afford them -- if all you want out of fishing is fish, or want only a picture of a fish -- want only to take and put.

The same time, those who fish with guides acknowledge first of all that they can't do it themselves (or they don't have time to fish; they want fish quick, and they do have money) So they hire a guide to do it for them; they go along for the ride. This is not bad. Guides often do not fish the fish, they fish the fisher. They tell them where to put the bait, plug, or fly; how to hold the rod, when to crank; they net the fish for them, and somebody takes a picture. This neither is bad. But then they put the poor fish back. This is bad. If you catch it, eat it; if the guide catches it for you, eat it, for heaven's sake. It's food, and it's food you're after.

So in sum, I would maintain your right to practice Catch and Release. Don't stay home. Just don't use a hook. Since C & R has some sham in it, some false front, stick with it. Go all the way. Don't use a hook. Just pretend you're fishing. Really go through the motions. Wave your rod around. Enjoy the breeze and the waves and the birds and the sunshine. Thank the fish also, that you pretend you have caught, as even I have done in reality when I have released a grand steelhead that I urged to go live a while yet -- urged it under the prime if not the only valid reason to release a fish -- to go spawn; certainly not merely so that the fish could provide somebody's additional bit of entertainment.

But if you do use a hook, practice C & R by all the wise rules of quick wet hands and careful revival. Just don't, please, make a religion of it. Don't insult or force it on those who take home a salmon to eat. Don't try to make them feel cheap. They are as much a good sport as you are, with the same enjoyment of the birds, the clouds, the wind, and the waves.

When you catch a fish, you honor it if you eat it. Any fish that gets caught deserves to be eaten.

In time we shall all go over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.

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