Tuesday, June 5, 2012

FIGHTING CHANCE – The Ethical Barbs of Fishing

Fishing is a mystical experience. I knew it the moment I caught my first fish at the age of five or six. That little sunfish's bright, exotic colors and patterns captivated me. It was cool and slimy. It smelled funny but good—sort of earthy and spicy. It wanted very much to get away, and used its spiky dorsal fin to make its point. I got it, and it hurt. There was a little drop of blood.

For the impression it made on me, that little bluegill might as well have been a space alien. Ever since that day, I’ve found fishing to be about the most fascinating, beautiful, peaceful thing I do. If ever there were an activity that’s all about discovery, patience and appreciating details, this is it.

When you catch a fish, an interesting psychological game starts to play out. It happens if you’re catching a five-pound large-mouth on ultra-light tackle. And it’s even more fascinating when it’s a fish that might outweigh you, one that, given half a chance, would gladly eat you.

For the fish, of course, it’s all about survival. But they don’t just act out of blind terror; there’s an intelligence there. Over generations of experience passed down who knows how, they seem to have learned a few things.

There’s a distinct moment in which you can sense whether you’ll ultimately prevail.

They can strip every shred of the night crawler from your hook without moving it an inch. They play dead until that one moment when you think you’re about to grab them. They find the only rough spot on the keel of your canoe and manage to grate your monofilament right over that spot. Hell, I’ve even seen them enlist the help of their friends!

For the fisherman, it’s about trying to anticipate these wily ways. It’s also a battle of wills. This is especially true when you’re fighting a hundred-pound-plus game fish—one that has at least an even chance of getting away.

There’s a distinct moment in which you can sense whether you’ll ultimately prevail. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s that first foot or two of line you finally gain after a half-hour stalemate. Maybe it’s just your aching arms getting their second wind.


The conversation doesn’t end when you’ve landed the fish. Most fishermen I know say something kind to the fish, something like “Aren’t you a beauty!” or “There you go, little guy,” as they ease it back into the water.

And then there’s the conversation you have with yourself. Is the fish going to be okay? Could the little bit of blood you saw coming from its gills mean it wouldn’t survive? For me, this self-dialog has gotten especially intense since I’ve been catching the “big game” of the fishing world: the marlin, the sailfish, the tarpon.

I’ve seen large tarpon released . . . only to be 
bitten in half and then devoured by opportunistic hammerhead sharks.

These are the species known to sometimes literally fight to the death. I’ve heard stories of very large marlin—say, 400 pounds or more—dying on the line, an autopsy revealing that their hearts burst from the exertion of their fight.

Even if a big fish can be released alive (always my wish), that doesn’t guarantee it will survive long. I’ve seen large tarpon released, still weak from a 45-minute fight, only to be bitten in half and then devoured by opportunistic hammerhead sharks.


I’m committed to catch-and-releasing fishing. I won’t hire a guide who doesn’t believe in it too. I believe, as it is said Native Americans once did, that each creature has a spirit. They bless us with whatever contact they allow us, whether that be sacrificing their bodies to nourish us, or simply letting us play with them for a while in wonder.

But questions persist. When my playing ends up costing another creature its life, is that a fair transaction? Does the fact that I nearly always fish not for food, but simply for fun strip me of my last shred of justification? Is my commitment to catch-and-release just my way of rationalizing a brutal and ultimately destructive behavior? Can I fish and still remain true to my code of honoring and respecting Nature?

Perhaps the ultimate answer will lie in finding 
a way of interacting with fish on a more equal footing.

We’ll see how deeply those concerns take root. I’ll keep looking for techniques and technology—like the revolutionary circle hook—that are kinder to the fish. But perhaps the ultimate answer will lie in finding a way of interacting with fish on a more equal footing, one where there’s more at risk for me than a few bucks’ worth of tackle and not landing the fish. Some might suggest swimming with sharks.


Robin Easton said...

I really enjoyed the honesty you shared here, so powerful. I used to fish as a kid, my whole family did, and we always ate the fish (6 kids, it was free food) :) But after a few good scares during my early days in the rainforest---where *I* was the potential prey---I knew what the total body "fear" of losing my life felt like. I just couldn't do it anymore.

Have you ever thought of scuba diving with a good underwater camera. It might be a different type of fishing.

There is also a similar feeling that can be experienced when we go into the wild and learn to communicate with the wild creatures, and do so without the "lure" of food. It requires the same kind of patience, awareness, and so on that fishing requires.

I will be intrigued to see where all this leads you. This post is an honest and exciting sequence of emotions that I think many conscientious people wrestle with or go through.

PS: I have a brother who could lure fish "in" with his fingers---"tickle" them---and then snatch them right out of the water with his bare hands. I once saw him do this in a high mountain stream in Colorado. Then he let them go. I'm sure they were traumatized, more likely shocked, but nonetheless unmarked, unharmed. Just a suggestion.... LOL! :) Although it might be a bit harder with BIG fish... Hahaha ;)

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey Robin - I so appreciate your interest and support for One Man's Wonder -- not to mention your generous help with my new book!

Trouble with fishing is, I think, that I get so much joy out of the process of getting out there, and the close contact with the fish, that I'll have to think of a way to do that without hurting or frightening them too much.

Scuba's a good idea, though the water's quite murky. Maybe "fishing" without a hook -- i.e. just feeding the fish, feeling them bite but not hooking them.

Like I said, we'll see where my conscience takes me...

wondersofnature said...

I have similar reservations when taking children out to explore nature. Some of the children I work with can have difficulties that mean they struggle with rules and boundaries and sometimes that means no matter how careful we are the ant will get squashed...

However, if we didn't run that risk then how will those children ever find out about the world around them, they may never have the opportunity to discuss another creatures needs, or to think how it feels when taken from its home.

Fortunately its a rare occurrence that an animal or plant that we are looking at gets injured, and although I feel terrible each time it happens, I remind myself of the thousands of times it didn't go wrong, but went right and left a lasting impression on a future custodian of our world...

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi again, WON -- Thanks for these wise, supportive words. I guess you're right; we make many compromises in doing even the best-intentioned things.
Your fine work in helping teach kids about those compromises and how best to balance their roles as both observers/learners and custodians of Nature is vital. Keep up the good work!

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