Dave Micus, Plum Island Sound

February 9th, 2004

Catch and Release
By Dave Micus

In a Boston Globe Sunday editorial, columnist Jeff Jacoby declared that fishing for sport (catch and release) is cruel and inhumane. It seems an odd axe to grind on the Sunday editorial pages of a major metropolitan newspaper, but in his defense Jacoby probably has to write three columns per week and at least he doesn't fabricate or plagiarize like his former colleague Mike Barnicle.

Jacoby relies on the usual clichés, the ones so well honed by PETA, saying we would never hook a dog, or a bird, or any other animal the way we hook fish. And that's true, but we also wouldn't put a fish in a cage and expect it to sing, or take a fish hunting and expect it to point game. It's apples and oranges. And though Jacoby's article is focused on fishing and gives hunting a pass, the logic employed is a double-edged sword. We wouldn't hunt dogs or parakeets, either, and to selectively apply these analogies is hypocritical.

But Jacoby's article, per se, doesn't bother me. I don't think I'm alone when I say that I've come not to expect much from the Globe and its columnists. What does bother me in the article are the quotes from Ted Kerasote, a hunter and outdoorsman who I here-to-fore respected. The irrationality of one statement by Kerasote I find particularly irksome:

"Needless to say, if you think about this relationship [fish and fisherman] carefully, it's not a comforting one, for it is a game of dominance followed by cathartic pardons, which...is one of the hallmarks of an abusive relationship."

The use of the word 'relationship' in this context is baffling. Am I forming a relationship with the fish I catch? According to Random House, a relationship is 1. The state or fact of being related, 2. Kinship, or 3. A sexual involvement. None remotely apply. So what exactly is Kerasote talking about? The use of 'abusive relationship' only further muddies the waters.

I could be silly and ask Kerasote if I should woo the fish I seek with candy and flowers, or I could be mean and suggest that Kerasote, as a hunter, must subscribe to the O.J. relationship model-stalk and kill the object of your desire. But with that out of my system, I will try to explain the value of catch and release, though it surprises me that I need to do so.

I subscribe to the catch and release ethic, but I'm not extreme in my views. If you want to eat the fish you catch, that is your prerogative. And while I don't hunt, I have no problem with hunting. I enjoy reading hunting stories much more than fishing stories, and anyone who has seen a deer slowly dying of chronic wasting disease has to realize that hunters serve a valuable purpose. So I'm not taking the moral high ground because I release my fish.

I know two fly fishermen who caught 48-inch striped bass on the fly from shore. Considering the size of the tippet the fishermen were using, either fish could easily have been a world record. Each of these fishermen let their fish go. Why would they let the fish of a lifetime go? A 48-inch striped bass is over 16 years old, and so displays a strong survival instinct. A fish this size is likely to be a female, and could produce over 3,000,000 eggs a season. Is this fish more valuable on the wall of a den? On a bar-b-que? Or in the gene pool? Through catch and release we assure the propagation of the species.

Just a few short years ago the striped bass was on the verge of extinction due to the numbers of fish caught and killed by sportsman and commercial fishermen. It was only the implementation of a moratorium, followed by a size and creel limit that brought the striper back to the somewhat healthy population of today. What would have happened if we adhered to Jacoby's and Kerasote's philosophy?

Once while fishing a productive pool on the Ipswich River I met a fellow fisherman. I asked how he had done and he held up a stringer with three good-sized trout. "Nice fish," I commented, and he asked "Do you want them?" Without giving it any thought, without really wanting or needing the fish, he had killed them. I saw him a week later at the same pool, and neither of us caught any fish. "I don't understand it," he lamented, "I've taken my limit here every day this week."

The philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote, "To the sportsman the death of the game is not what interests him; that is not his purpose. What interests him is everything that he had to do to achieve that death-that is, the hunt." Ortega y Gasset goes on to say that the death is essential because it is the culmination of the hunt.

But I'd suggest that Ortega y Gassett refers to the capture, which, in hunting, is synonymous with death, as the conclusion of the hunt. Fishermen have the luxury of enjoying the capture, but releasing the quarry. Those of us who choose to release our fish do so not to salve a guilty conscious or to feel morally superior. We do so to assure that our children, and our children's children, will have the same opportunity to fish and enjoy the outdoors that we have been blessed with. Kerasote can call that an abusive relationship; I'd call it common sense. ~ Dave

About Dave:

Dave Micus lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He is an avid striped bass fly fisherman, writer and instructor. He writes a fly fishing column for the Port City Planet newspaper of Newburyport, MA (home of Plum Island and Joppa Flats) and teaches a fly fishing course at Boston University.

Previous Dave Micus Columns

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