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Catch and Release . . .or not

By Jim Clarke


It is only after a lifetime's flyfishing I feel I can contribute a little to this never-to-be-settled argument. There is no doubt catch and release is the "future provider" method of game fishing and that a fish caught and released will still be there to live on and perhaps to be caught again. But do we want that? Does it not smell somewhat of fish in a barrel? It makes me feel we are saying, "I have caught you once and inflicted fear and pain on you but I am not going to kill you, I am putting you back so I can inflict fear and pain on you again next week." Humane? I think not.

A few years ago I was a member of a small 30-man syndicate ( although we had 30 members and were so limited by the rules, roughly half our members never fished, they kept up their subscriptions "just in case. ") They were mostly well past fishing age but liked to feel they were still members, and of course it made the fishing less crowded, and cheaper, for the rest of us.

We leased and stocked a seven-acre lake in the beautiful Cheshire countryside. We had fished here for some thirty years, the older members at least, and all of us felt it was "our lake". Then, disaster! The estate, of which the lake was a part, was sold to a pop star. Horror of horrors! Not only was our lease not renewed but also fishing out the remainder of the season already agreed upon was made very uncomfortable. Eight-foot high razor wire fences (to keep out female teenagers) and large almost feral Alsatians (me bruvver breeds 'em, doesn't he) do not set well with the idyllic ambience we fishermen know and love. And so our fishing came to an end. For once in my adult life I seriously considered tears.

However, I digress. While we fished the lake there were the usual committee squabbles (why do all clubs suffer committees permanently at war with themselves?)

Fred, the Hon. Treas., wanted to put in a lot of little (cheap) fish and let them grow on. This in spite of the fact we took out at least one large pike each year, and the others that had to be in there were waiting with gleeful anticipation for Fred's view to prevail; in spite of the presence of a healthy population of herons and in spite of a nearby caravan park whose temporary residents found ample opportunity to avail of the free fishing we had so kindly provided.

Joe wanted brownies. He liked to fish a dry fly in the evenings and felt brown rose more willingly than did rainbows in the gloaming. In any case-- rainbows were foreign.

The rest of the committee felt we would be best advised to put fish in, "few and often," and large rather than small. We also, to a man, felt rainbows fought better, looked better, grew quicker and tasted better. They also rose to flies in the evening if they felt like it, and that little bit of uncertainty added the necessary spice.

We decided in the end, and this prevailed most years, to order, say, 200 fish of one and a quarter to two pounds, and fifty fish of two and a half to three pounds. We coaxed the fish farmer to let us have the odd older, larger fish that he might have surplus to requirements. He usually let us have five or six in the five-pound range, and so another degree of excitement was included in the mix.

Half of the committee felt we should refrain from fishing for four days after the fish were put in. This was to let them settle and to save us from catching too many fish too easily. (They would be confused and take anything they were offered!)

The rest of us took view that we were putting fish in the lake so we could catch them, and as we were all gentlemen (?) any fish, which gave itself up or didn't acquit itself sportingly, could be carefully returned.

For my part, I had come to know the lake well and knew, or thought I knew, where fish could be depended upon to be lurking at every time of the day. I could have fished in the more unlikely places, but who would? Be that as it may, three or four days after stocking, in the year when this dilemma first thrust itself into my mind, I arrived at the lake and carefully plopped a Hare's Ear in the perfect spot. On cue, as if scripted, a three pound rainbow decided that Hare's Ear was the flavour of the month and consumed it, first cast! Five minutes later another followed. I don't want you to think this was too easy, but I knew the lake and all its vagaries and the fish were willing.

But---- and it is a big but. The members limited ourselves to two fish per day, twice a week. I now had my two for that day and had only been there for, at most, fifteen minutes. What to do now? Obvious-catch and release or go home. Going home isn't in me at a time like that so catch and release it would have to be.

All fishermen will guess what happened next. Following a leisurely stroll round the lake, I came to a favourite spot, a spot which habitually held a fish, usually a good one. After a few exploratory casts under the trees a rainbow of some four pounds swallowed the fly and made it his own. Landed as quickly as possible to reduce the build-up of acid, it was to have taken the fly so far down the gullet that removing it was well nigh impossible, barbless though it was. What to do?

    1. Cut the nylon and hope the fish could work the fly in nature's way, a size 14 barbless should not cause too much of a problem, though I wouldn't like to have it work it's way through my system!

    2. Subject the fish to long forceps, causing massive trauma, probably condemning it to death anyway.

    3. Kill the fish and break the rules, which I had a hand in framing. A hanging offence!

Many fish will be hooked lightly in the lip or mouth edge and can be shaken off a barbless hook leaving the conscience clear, but the concept thereafter becomes a little blurred, at least for me. While I am catching fish I am 'Man the Provider,' taking food from Nature and intending to eat the results of my efforts. That we shermen have purposely made it difficult for ourselves is beside the point, I can justify the whole procedure on food grounds. Once my limit is reached, and two fish should be enough for anyone, to embark on a course of catch and release gives me the horrible feeling I am subjecting the fish to pain, trauma and possible death just for fun. Purely for my own pleasure and amusement. That surely cannot be right.

There must be more to sportsmanship than this.

Hard though it is on a day when things are not going well, I now feel the best and fairest course is to quickly return any fish which is lightly hooked, taking care to support it in the water until it is as fully recovered as possible, thereby allowing it the maximum chance of survival. A fish which is hard hooked or one that has been difficult to subdue and is obviously exhausted beyond reasonable chance of survival should be killed humanely and regardless of size, must be included in one's total bag.

When the limit is reached, home I go. Hard to do on a beautiful day when fish are co-operative, but I feel it is the right way. Undoubtedly it is easier to do when the first fish is three pounds and the second is a double. You can face your children's camera with pride.

If, however the first fish is a pound and a quarter and the second is not in good condition or even a flaccid stockie, what then?

This is what is called, "taking the rough with the smooth" or even "sorting the men out from the boys." It is to be a true sportsman if you can abide by it. ~ Jim Clarke


About Jim:

Jim Clarke

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, longer ago than he cares to remember, and on leaving school went into his family's business - Gunmakers and Fishing Tackle manufacturers. By the time he joined the firm it had become more retail than manufacturing , though the history and reputation of the company was somewhat patrician, which stood them in good stead in the face of the modern, retail only, fly-by-night businesses which proliferated in the fifties and sixties in the climate of leisure time explosion. A few years later, feeling somewhat stifled in a company run by father and two warring uncles, he left to take over an ailing gun maker in Chester, England. He was to stay there for thirty pleasant years, retiring some six years ago, ostensibly to have more time to fish. He had given up shooting, but in reality appears to have retired to garden, decorate and construct THINGS in the garden.†He has, nevertheless managed to fish in Ireland, Scotland Wales and England, with trips to Sweden and Alaska thrown in. You will find more of Jim's writing in our Readers Casts section.


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