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Last updated 3/07

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Flyfishing in Saltwaters Magazine



By Captain John McMurray


Fishing is increasingly being maligned by animal rights groups as cruel. For all intents and purposes their arguments tend to border on the ridiculous, and do not really deserve consideration here.  However, there also seems to be a growing number of people, both within and outside the angling community, who are critical of light-tackle angling, presenting arguments not very different from those the animal rights groups use to impugn all angling. That puts saltwater flyfishers right in the cross hairs.  Given the growing number of light-tackle anglers and saltwater flyfishers, and the increasing pressure on sport-fish stocks, the subject deserves some attention here.  


Dionys de Leeuw, in his essay Contemplating the Interests of Fish: The Angler's Challenge, contends that “Hunters are significantly different from anglers in the respect that they show for an animal’s interest in avoiding pain and suffering.   While hunters make every effort to reduce pain and suffering in their game animals, anglers purposely inflict these conditions on fish.”  His assertion, on the surface, appears accurate, especially in the case of flyfishers and light-tackle enthusiasts.   Hunters strive to make a quicker, cleaner and painless kill, while anglers value the “fight.”  We prize those fish that struggle and exhibit the most spectacular response to stress and pain – running away from the boat as fast as possible, jumping in an effort to get away etc… The species that exhibit these fighting qualities to the greatest extent are the fish we consider to be the best targets. De Leeuw writes, “Not only is there no respect shown by anglers to minimize or avoid the fear, pain and suffering that fish experience while struggling for their lives, but it is precisely the physical expression of these conditions for which game fish are valued.” 


Saltwater flyfishers add fuel to this argument because their craft involves playing fish in a “sporting” way with flimsy rods and light tippets which inevitably extends what Eugene Balon, in his essay Defense of Fishes or the Questionable Ethics of Sportfishing, describes as the “cruel and immoral” fight.  Even if we choose to release the fish, as most saltwater flyfishers do, there is significant mortality due to the physical trauma and stress of hooking the fish as well as the lactic acid build-up due to the extended fight involved.  Balon argues that we do not release fish because we are concerned for their well being, but so that the fish can live longer and get bigger, so we can hopefully “torture and release” them again for our own self-satisfaction.


Undoubtedly fly and light-tackle anglers cause fish stress, inflicting some sort of pain and suffering (the weight of scientific evidence suggests that fish do not experience pain in the acute manner experienced by mammals.)  However to contend that causing such stress is the sole reason, or even just one of the reasons we practice the act of fly/light tackle angling is absurd.   I’m fairly certain that there are very few if any anglers that gain sadistic pleasure out of causing harm to fish.  However, it is undeniably true that to most anglers, the harder a fish struggles, the better the fishing experience, and that is a big part of why we choose to use fly and light tackle gear.  De Leeuw mentions that this is “avoidable because numerous other non-sporting methods of catching fish are possible such as weirs, traps, fyke nets, fish wheels, and anesthetics.” 


Arguments against light-tackle fishing focus on the “respect that anglers show for the interests of the fish.” The problem with that line of reasoning is that it doesn’t take into account the simple fact that we are at the top of the food chain, and these fish that we are targeting are our natural prey.  The natural order of our world doesn’t require those at the top of the food-chain to respect the wishes of those below them.  A well-fed housecat doesn’t ask whether a mouse wants to “play”, but merely acts according to its nature.  An angler “playing” a fish is acting just as naturally.  It may be a little tough on the fish, but that’s the way the natural world has arranged itself.


Charles Witek, Chairman of CCA NY put it best “I didn't ask to be put on top of the food chain, but that's where I am and it's a pretty good place to be.  I could act with vulpine abandon and kill indiscriminately, and be within my natural rights; however, I choose not to do so, and thus engage in behavior that is both natural and responsible.  That doesn't make me any better than a seal or a bluefish, just different.”


So yes, we may inflict some needless discomfort on the fish and sure, there are plenty of fish that die post- release as a result of our sport.  But consider the non-sporting alternative that de Leeuw recommends - killing fish quickly and painlessly, with easy deadly efficient gear.  If we all did this than we’d wipe sport-fish stocks out pretty quickly.  There is also the option of not fishing at all.  But, to do that would be to deny us our ingrained human hunter-gather instincts, and would render us less than nature designed us to be.  Whether we keep fish or not, saltwater flyfishing provides the opportunity to be directly connected through a simple strip-strike to a symbolic or real source of food, an increasingly rare opportunity to reaffirm our place in the natural world, a place too-often forgotten in these times of the modern "supermarket-based" food chain. 


Fishing is a natural urge that is as old as the human species.  Thomas McGuane calls it “an act of racial memory” evoking the mission of the hunter-gather.  It’s a survival instinct that is as much a part of our make up as eating or sleeping.  In this day and age, it’s not exactly a rational urge, because we don’t need to do it to survive.  But we are perhaps thousands of years away from having it bred out of us—if it ever can be.  Denying our instinct and desire to be outdoors hunting for fish, removes us farther from our natural world.  The more folks are so removed, the less they will be advocates for fish and fish habitat conservation.


De Leeuw challenges us to provide ethical justification for angling.  Having a group of concerned anglers that directly embrace and indirectly protect the resource is without a doubt an important justification.  It’s no coincidence that many, and should I say most, conservation advocates that put the needs or the resource before the needs of those targeting it are light-tackle anglers and saltwater flyfishermen. 


In short, to deny our place as hunters on the top of the food chain is unhealthy and unnatural, and prohibiting the symbolic gesture of catch-and-release fishing, and taking the sport out of the fight by prohibiting the use of light tackle would have far greater consequences then the temporary discomfort and subsequent release mortality of a fish that has a brain the size of a pea and forgets the entire incident 30-seconds after it has happened.