An Outdoor View: McPhee on catch-and-release

Author’s note: This column first appeared in the Clarion on Nov. 29, 2002. I’ve edited it slightly for brevity.

“The Founding Fish” is fascinating book about shad by noted non-fiction author John McPhee, who enjoys fishing for shad. In the last chapter, he takes the reader on a soul-searching quest for what’s right and what’s wrong about catch-and-release fishing.

McPhee starts the chapter by questioning why we fish. Searching the literature for answers, he quotes dozens of noted writers. He writes: “Thomas McGuane has called fishing ‘an act of racial memory,’ evoking the atavistic mission of the hunter-gather. Howell Raines has written that the ethos of the hunter-gatherer does not always travel well, especially if it is flying to Jackson Hole with a three-hundred-dollar rod.”

Cutting through all the rationale-seeking rhetoric, McPhee tells what does it for him: “If you like fresh fish, you might like to catch them yourself. That and the fact that fishing has the driving force of a treasure hunt is enough to put you in the stream.”

He observes: “Mainly, people seem to fish for the fight — shad fishermen manifestly included. In videos and in print, they mention primarily ‘the fighting ability of the American shad,’ carried out in ‘drag-defying escape attempts highlighted by aerial displays.’”

From there, he ventures into the subject of why fish “fight.” He notes the anti-fishing billboard of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the one featuring a dog with a hook in its lip. The sign says: “IF YOU WOULDN’T DO THIS TO A DOG, WHY DO IT TO A FISH?”

From “Orion” magazine, McPhee quotes Ted Kerasote: “We angle because we like the fight … The hook allows us to control and exert power over fish, over one of the most beautiful and seductive forms of nature, and then, because we’re nice to the fish, releasing them ‘unharmed,’ we can receive both psychic dispensation and blessing. Needless to say, if you think about this relationship carefully, it’s not a comforting one, for it is a game of dominance followed by cathartic pardons, which, as a non-fishing friend remarked, ‘is one of the hallmarks of an abusive relationship.’”

McPhee’s wife tells him catch-and-release fishing is like “humane” bullfighting, where the bull isn’t killed. Meat fishing is more like traditional bullfighting, she says. Then, going for the jugular, she says, “Fishing is crueler than hunting, in that your goal is to have the fish fight for its life. That’s the ‘fun.’ Hunting, you’re trying to kill a creature outright; fishing, you want to ‘play’ with it.”

“That is not a fair description of your husband,” he says.

“If you could just pull fish out of the water — boom — you wouldn’t be a fisherman. Don’t give me that, John,” she says, apparently knowing him better than he knows himself.

Some advocates of catch-and-release have become undeservedly sanctimonious about it, McPhee notes, but “… catch and release fishing may be cruelty masquerading as political correctness.” At its best, it’s the thrill of holding a beautiful animal in your hands for a moment, then watching it swim away. “At its worst it is dire — an unintended failure,” he says, knowing that there is no such thing as “no kill” fishing.

In a waking dream, McPhee thinks dark thoughts. “Never say playing,” he tells himself. “You are at best torturing and at worst killing a creature you may or may not eat. Playing at one end, dying at the other — if playing is what it is, it is sadism.” He berates himself to look for a different word, one that denigrates neither fish nor fisher.

He makes no bones about being a meat fisherman, but confesses to releasing male shad, which are smaller than females.

He thinks ill of anglers who release everything they catch, and those who are obsessed by numbers — the highest catch-per-day, the greatest catch-per-season.

He discovers that, in Germany, catch-and-release is not only universally unpopular, but also illegal. Quoting Herr Uwe Schuller, managing director of the Association of German Sport Fishermen: “You are never, ever to throw a fish back. We have none of this American style catch-and-release. That is verboten. That is a violation of the animal protection law and can be severely punished.”

According to the animal protection law, it’s an offense to injure fish for no good reason, and sport fishing in itself is no good reason.

McPhee made me think about things I never would’ve considered on my own.

Les Palmer can be contacted at

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