A Fair and Decent Return (an investment story)

I have fished for a long time. As with many of us, it began with outings with my dad and brother – pumpkinseeds were what we were after. This drill has been practiced for generations by countless dads, uncles, grandfathers, big brothers, and some special moms and aunts, too. That early introduction has led me to waters near and far, from shaded trout streams in the deep woods, to farm ponds, big rivers, the coast, and far beyond to the deep blue waters of the Gulf Stream and the Pacific. I’ve fished with a hunk of meat and a hand-line, a wispy three-weight fly rod, bent-butt bluewater “stump pullers”, and everything in between.

Over the course of this odyssey I’ve acquired two simple rules that encompass everything about the angling experience, no matter where or how you choose to fish. I deeply believe in these “philosophies” that may be captured in just five words:

Rule 1Respect the resource                                  Rule 2Have fun

The second may seem silly to even mention – who willfully goes fishing because it sucks? That would be deranged. But there are times on the water when perspective is lost and cool heads don’t always prevail. Pressure to produce, competition for spots, difficult fishing conditions, difficult fish, rude behavior, and more can make a bad day on the water not better than a good day at work. I advocate a perspective that keeps recreational fishing fun – no matter what.

Rule 1, however, is a conscientious respect for our lands, laws, our fellow man, our waters and all of its inhabitants. I believe this awareness is a work in progress for most anglers, including me.

Lee Wulff said, “The fish you release may be a gift to another, as it may have been a gift to you.” Lee – a Titan in our sport – is regarded as the father of catch-and-release angling, a powerful concept, unchallengeable by anything other than radical activist thinking. The vast majority of anglers today understand its value and embrace the idea. With ever-tightening regulations, the majority of our catch these days no longer meets legal size limits, or may exceed established daily bag limits and must be returned to the water in shape to survive (Rule 1). But herein lays an issue . . . one that has become too prevalent and is the reason I’m writing this post.

I fish from shore a lot and the number of recreational fishers pursuing a limited and sometimes fragile biomass of game fish has steadily increased over the years. What I witness more and more is appalling, and it’s not just new participants who may simply be ignorant of their own behavior, it’s seasoned anglers, as well, who ought to know better.

Sadly, the release half of the catch-and-release proposition has degenerated. I’m not suggesting this is widespread or representative of the majority – it’s just become too common and the behavior is trending the wrong way from what I see. With some examples of what I’ve observed, I’m certain you’ll understand my concerns.

First, the catch – the scene usually begins with a bumpy landing – an angler brings a fish ashore either by reeling or dragging it up the shoreline till it’s high and dry where it’s easier to handle. When fishing from rocks, this approach gets uglier where the fish is landed with a “bang-bang” extraction from the water that bounces it off the stones till it’s safely in hand. Are there instances when anglers really have no choice but to do this? Occasionally, but these landings unfold even in the friendliest weather and water conditions . . . it’s unnecessary and obscene. Next up, hook removal – this often entails placing a foot over the fish, pressing it securely into the sand or against a rock, and ripping the hook(s) from the mouth as quickly as possible so as to get back to the business of fishing. Again – disgusting.

My immediate impulse is to coach these folks with guidance on proper handling techniques carefully infused with some Rule 1 philosophy. This is not always greeted kindly, I assure you. Certainly, if a fish is – by law – a “keeper” and is headed for the kill bucket, then do what you have to do, but showing the creature a little dignity in the process won’t hurt.

So what about the actual release? These anglers are releasing these fish, so everything’s not all bad, right? Well, sort of – there are some ugly release practices taking place out there on a regular basis. I’ll illuminate two common ones, but I witness plenty of others.

Fish destined for release because they were not the intended quarry, too small, or otherwise unwanted are sometimes treated to an undignified return to the sea. I refer to one practice often deployed with small fish as the “pitch back”. It’s simple – grasp the fish by the lip or tail and with an unceremonious softball-like underhand lob at a 45, toss the fish cartwheeling seaward into the drink . . . sometimes landing nose-first, usually not. While crude and undignified for the fish, it’s much kinder than the next example. Following hook extraction, fish lucky enough to survive the landing are treated to a “kick back”. An alternative to the “pitch back”, this technique is easier on the shoulders as there’s no need to lift the fish nor heave it seaward. And it’s “clean”, for those reluctant to get their hands dirty. The practice is basic – return the fish with a series of soccer-style kicks, completing the release with a nifty extended-leg toe-flick at the water’s edge that ensures dry feet while returning the fish to sea. It’s horrifying . . .

I don’t want to mislead you – even well executed catch-and-release fishing can result in casualties. But they’re minimized or eliminated with responsible, educated practices. I fish a lot and some years I do kill a fish or two despite a deeply conscientious effort not to. As a percentage of my landings, it’s next to nil. I know for a fact that I killed two fish last season – a very small spring bass that inhaled the fly and a hefty albacore hooked from a breakwall in ridiculously heavy northeast wind and accompanying sea state that was brutally difficult to land. The albie was too exhausted and did not make it – I’m certain. Both of these instances were preventable . . . or better-stated, avoidable, as I’ll describe.

I know some anglers who are fish-counters, and there’s nothing wrong with counting your catch, whether to measure your own success, share with others (bragging – it’s the clear purpose no matter how well you try to disguise it), or for that almighty social media post. Personally, I am not a counter. I’ve tried catch-counting over the years but I’ve failed miserably every time a fat count could have been tallied. It’s ironic, too! Zero, one or two fish is not hard to remember and I always recall those scores without issue, but it seems that counting when counting really matters becomes impossible for me. I invariably lose count after six or seven and when the number hits around 10, or so, I don’t really care anymore . . . I’m having fun and am not interested in bragging and I don’t media socialize. But here’s the important part – most of those big outings consist of catching a shitload of small fish . . . like the baby striper I killed last spring. So I’ve learned to appreciate those crazy-fun outings – and remember them without remorse – by calling it quits after a half dozen fish . . . while I can still keep a tally. This doesn’t necessitate leaving an exhilarating atmosphere. I usually stay, observe, learn, take pictures, or help others who may be struggling. Apparently, I’ve matured and no longer need gluttony to realize a great experience. And I leave the water feeling good.

Similarly, by not actually wetting your line in unfavorable weather and sea conditions that do not support a fair landing for you or your quarry – regardless of the game fish spectacle that may be unfolding before you – is a responsible choice in such scenarios. That big albie I caught last fall would live on had I made that decision. But that’s a really tough thing to do. I shoot a lot of images while on the water and it takes immense discipline to put the rod down and pick up the camera, especially when the action’s HOT, which ironically is when you most want to be fishing. So I’m no stranger to forgoing epic fishing and I should have forgone that opportunity with those big albies. It was a tough shore season for ‘core last year – the second in a row – and that’s my lousy excuse . . . shame on me. Alternatively, when the reality of a safe and reasonable landing does not materialize (albacore generally don’t cooperate and maneuvering them to an ideal landing spot is often futile . . . like giving a cat a pill), anglers can simply elect to break them off and I should have done that.

Despite being well publicized, I’m compelled to review sound and healthy release practices. And I have my own twist on these, too. First, try not to fully remove the fish from the water – cradle or secure it with one hand, remove the hook and set it free without ever lifting it out. Yes, some fish jump and clear the damn water – some in violent fashion, too – but keep in mind that your fish (including skates, robins and other undesired bycatch) just battled for its life . . . and lost. Now is when an angler’s kindness is most relevant. Resist ripping the hook out. Instead, wiggle it and gently pry it loose. Barbless hooks are the right choice for fly rodders, and circle hooks for conventional bait-fishers, and trebles should really fade away. Once the hook is out, the fish may need a bit of reviving to ensure a healthy return to its environment. The long accepted practice is to hold the fish by the tail and while cradling its underside, oscillate it back-and-forth with its head submerged so as to induce water flow over its gills. This is OK in theory, but I’ve discovered a better method that allows the fish to gather itself much more effectively, as evidenced by how quickly it forcibly bolts from your hand. I simply immerse the fish’s head facing into clean, clear, preferably moving water with a light grip of the tail. By gently wiggling the fish with a side-to-side swimming motion, rather than back-and-forth, it moves its body in a natural serpentine swimming fashion that engages its central nervous system quickly. This efficiently revives the fish, enabling it enough vigor to briskly swim from your grasp in less time than the traditional method described above. False albacore, bonito and other small tuna are unique fish that call for a unique release – a nose-first plunge directly into the water that directs the fish down into the water. A return plunge is facilitated by holding the fish upright with a grip of the tail peduncle while supporting the underside with your other hand and dropping or launching the tuna back to the water. Swift hook removal is recommended with these fish, as they’re more prone to suffocation than most soft-finned fish we’re familiar with. Please do YouTube searches for visualization of this procedure – I’m sure there are many videos available.

An angler says “so long” to a well-played, quickly-landed false albacore with a proper release

Summing up these thoughts – the better we treat our quarry, the more fun we’ll all have in the long run.  It’s the best investment we can make in our sport and it’s free…