Author’s note: My views on catch-and-release fishing haven’t changed in the 27 years since the Clarion first published this column (June 22, 1990). I’ve edited it slightly for brevity.
Something about catch-and-release fishing has always bothered me. You see, at heart I’m what the C &R crowd disdainfully calls a “meat” fisherman.
What’s wrong with catch-and-release?
Fish don’t always fare so well when they are hooked and released, even when experts do it. Their eyes, gills, mouths, nostrils and other parts get torn and pierced. They are often “played” or “fought’ to death. They are taken from the water for photographs while they gasp for oxygen that they can’t get from air. In shock, they are tossed back. Some survive, some don’t, but both types are out of sight and mind. Most anglers put more thought into tackle than into the welfare of the animals they handle, or mishandle.
Don’t get me wrong. There are times when releasing fish is the right thing to do. I’ve done quite a lot of it myself. Still, blinding or otherwise maiming fish is not something I really get into. If we maimed and stressed mammals, there would be a hue and cry and a law against it, but with fish, hey, it’s okay. Frankly, I’d rather kill them and have it done with.
The primal urge to kill animals is the essence of the hunter-gatherer instinct, what hunting and fishing are about. To be ashamed of that instinct is to be ashamed of being human.
I’ve always considered myself more “meat” than “sport” fisherman. Fishing purely for sport, releasing every fish, leaves me unsatisfied. But fishing for meat is something else.
I grew up near Puget Sound. My father was a black-belt meat fisherman. I was 10 before I discovered that fishing line came in something less than 80-pound-test.
Dad would launch our 14-foot boat in the surf at Rosario Beach, near Anacortes, and motor eight miles out into the sound. We fished the kelp beds of Lawson Reef, with the forlorn gong of a bell buoy our background music. It was a wild place, close to civilization, but dangerous. More than once, we were lost in the fog. Storm waves sometimes rolled through the Straits of Juan de Fuca.
The fish were bottomfish, all of which we called “cod.” Ling cod. Kelp cod. Bull cod. Rock cod. They went anywhere from five to 50 pounds. The occasional cavern-mouthed monster would bottom out our 50-pound scale. All head and fins, they were mottled in shades of black and brown. They would eat anything, including each other.
We caught them mainly on lead jigs about three inches long, scraped shiny with a knife, jigged near the bottom. Sometimes the rise and fall of the waves was motion enough to make the cod bite.
When the bite started, it was fast and furious. We would fish until we filled two gunny sacks, then quit. That was all the fish we needed for the winter.
Since we lived within a a few minutes of the beach, Dad would wait until we were home to fillet the fish. This meant that we got to take them home whole to show to Mom and the neighborhood kids. Even in meat fishing, there’s the urge to brag a little.
Fillets of those fish, in coffee cans topped off with water, were stored in a rented, walk-in freezer. Those fish were a lot of our winter meals. Filling those shelves felt good.
That simple satisfaction of catching and storing our own fish was something I’ve never forgotten. Harvesting a garden crop isn’t quite the same. Making bank deposits doesn’t even come close.
Meat-fishing is good soul-therapy. You may discover something about yourself that you won’t discover any other way, something to do with instinct, hunting, killing, survival, fulfillment and other things that get mixed up and lost in our crazy modern world.
Or, like me, you may have known these things for years, and find yourself rediscovering them.
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.