If you're taking a photo, have the camera ready and keep the fish in the water or just above it. (Photo courtesy Dave Atcheson)

Tight Lines: In defense of catch-and-release

Les Palmer’s recent article, and scathing condemnation of catch-and-release fishing, certainly stirred a great deal of debate and controversy. So, I will open this Tight Lines column by saying I think everyone has a right to his point of view, whether it’s on fishing or any other topic, and we should attempt to have open minds and look at each and every issue in as many ways as we can. I also have several friends, like Les, who have given up catch-and-release fishing or who have never, for a variety of reasons, participated in it at all.

And, though I am a fly fisher who regularly practices catch-and-release of rainbow trout and Dolly Varden, I will also say that I do understand their point of view. I get it. That’s why, when I teach my Beginning Fly Fishing class each spring, we always make time to discuss “catch-and-release” versus “catch-and-keep” fishing, and the merits of each.

Yet, to explain my views on catch-and-release to the class, I must first explain at least part of the reason why I fish in the first place. And for me, like a lot of other anglers, it goes beyond the simple need for food. For many of us, it is a connection to something greater than ourselves that we seek streamside, in wild places. It’s a powerful feeling that goes beyond words, and it is not something I personally experience indoors. I don’t feel it at work, at community gatherings, or even in church. It’s a solace that for me only occurs in the natural world, beneath the canopy old growth forest or within the gaze of our majestic snow-capped peaks.

Sure, it’s something that could be experienced, at least partially, in other outdoor pursuits, like hiking or photography. Yet, no activity I’ve found puts me so directly into sync with nature, and creates that inexplicable feeling quite like fly fishing: its rhythm tied to the pace of the wind, the surge of the river, and the lifecycle of the insects — or in our case the lifecycle of the salmon, their decaying bodies not only feeding the trout and Dolly Varden, but fertilizing the plants that bolster the riverbank, that feed the moose and beaver, and in turn, sustain this whole miraculous web of life.

When streamside, absorbed in this activity, engulfed by the mesmerizing chorus of flowing water, it’s easy to lose a sense of self, to be transported into another place and time, relinquishing for a moment all of our worldly burdens — our daily demands and commitments, our to-do lists — sometimes even to the point of epiphany. And because of this, when we return home from the river, we are all the better for it.

It is for these reasons that fishing, for many of us, goes beyond simple sustenance, and becomes a means of nourishing the very soul. And it is why we want to return to the river as often as we can. Yet, with an exploding human population and an ever growing number of people who want to fish, the only way we can continue this activity, is with catch-and-release.

Granted, there are very few among us who have not inadvertently, on a rare occasion, injured a fish. Yet most of us who practice proper handling techniques know that mortality rates (which vary widely between studies) are extremely low. When I worked for the Department of Fish and Game on radio telemetry projects, for instance, we actually anesthetized rainbow trout and Dolly Varden and performed an operation, implanting transmitters in their body cavities, before reviving and releasing them — an example of how hardy these fish are and what they can withstand, and certainly something much more invasive than simply and carefully removing a barbless hook.

Nevertheless, I will hear those who protest proclaim they “don’t play with their food,” and again, I say, I get it. It’s why I try to share with my class all points of view. I even include an article by an avid fly fisher who still ties flies, but now, rather than fishing with hooks, cuts them off and fishes hookless, claiming he still satisfies his need to fish. He often spots his quarry beforehand, briefly feels it when it takes, and by scouring the river, searching for rising trout he fulfills what he refers to as his undeniable urge to hunt. Many scoff at this, but I say no. He has a right to his point of view and we should accept it as completely valid, even though it may not be our own. It is OK for him, and we should be OK with that as long as he doesn’t impose it upon us.

We all have a line we draw. I, for instance, have chosen not to fish Kenai kings in recent years, though I miss it dearly. First, I’m not sure their diminished population can handle the added pressure. Second, because they are such a large fish and played so much longer, they likely have a much lower survival rate than trout. Still, as long as the Department of Fish and Game deems the population viable and keeps the season open, I will not begrudge my friends who continue to fish kings their right to do so.

Ultimately, catch-and-release is a personal choice. I also believe it is a choice about conservation and about making sure there are fish and fishing opportunities for us as well as for future generations. A great example of this is the steelhead that return each year to the streams of the Lower Kenai Peninsula. Their numbers had plummeted and their populations were on the brink of survival before the institution of catch-and-release. Today, this is a thriving fishery, with good numbers, and one of our best fishing opportunities.

Despite where we fall on this spectrum, for those of us who do choose to participate in catch-and-release, there are a few steadfast rules to follow to limit our impact:

— Use appropriate gear, matched to the species you are fishing, and land the fish as quickly as possible.

— Limit handling fish as much as possible, and keep them in the water if possible.

— If you must handle them, wet your hands first and avoid contact with eyes and gills.

— Use barbless hooks.

— If taking a photo, plan ahead, have camera at ready, and photograph fish in the water or just slightly above.

— Use a de-hooking device.

— If a net is needed, use a rubber catch-and-release net.

Dave Atcheson is the author of the guidebook “Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula,” and National Geographic’s “Hidden Alaska, Bristol Bay and Beyond.” His latest book, “Dead Reckoning, Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on its High Seas” is now available in hardcover, online, and as an audiobook. For more info: www.daveatcheson.com.

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Tight Lines publishes on the third Thursday of the month through April, and will resume as a weekly feature in May. Have a favorite fishing photo, recipe or tale to share? Email tightlines@peninsulaclarion.com.

When catch-and-release fishing, release fish quickly and use a rubber catch-and-release net. (Photo courtesy Dave Atcheson)

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