Lighter Side

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December 3rd, 2001

The Ethics, Perhaps, of Fly Fishing
Ed Zern

By Ed Zern

I agreed to write something about the ethics of fly-fishing because I hadn't thought much about it at the time, and it's always pleasant to be able to impose, or try to, your own ideas and ideals on other people, especially from a stance that makes back-talk difficult.

But now, faced with a blank sheet of paper and forced to think about it, it seems to me that all the problems of living and dying and of work and play are ethical problems, and to attempt to separate out the ethics of fly-fishing is akin to prescribing a special inflection of voice to be used when addressing bishops or billionaires or Internal Revenue agents. And perhaps it isn't really ethics that we have in mind, but rather attitudes, a code of behavior, a concern for tradition and a hope for conservation of both fish and values. Perhaps, too, in my own case I tend to confuse ethics with aesthetics (and perhaps ethics is the aesthetics of behavior.)

Since such an approach is highly subjective I can hardly do better than to set down some of my own beliefs about fly-fishing; and "ethical" attitudes I have would grow out of these:

    1. The essence of sport is skill, and the voluntary imposition or acceptance of arbitrary conditions demanding skills. There is nothing immoral about shooting sitting ducks, but the sportsman shoots them flying, and may decline shots that require little skill.

    2. Fly-fishing generally requires more skills than fishing with lures or natural baits; fly-casting generally requires more skill than spin-casting or bait-casting; fly-fishing encourages development of collateral skills, in insect identification and imitation, in streamcraft and in fly-tying. It is therefore a more sporting way of taking those fish which sometimes feed on insects on or below the surface of the water they inhabit or on small fish imitable by streamer flies. (The fact that skilled fly-fishers may be able under certain conditions to take more fish than the bait or lure fisherman is irrelevant; the honest man is often able to accumulate more wealth than the thief, but this is a shoddy argument for honesty.)

    3. Fly-fishing, or any other sport fishing, is an end in itself and not a game or competition among fishermen; the great figures in the historic tradition of angling are not those men who caught the greatest number of fish or the biggest fish but those who, like Ronalds and Francis and Halford and Skues and Gordon and Wulff and Schwiebert, made lasting contributions of thought and knowledge, of fly patterns and philosophy, of good writing and good sportsmanship. There have always been men who could accumulate a larger number of dead fish than other men, because it was important to them; but no one remembers who they were, or should.

    4. One of the greatest privileges of the fly-fisher is to release his catch, not out of sentimental avoidance of the act of killing but out of awareness that in most waters of this continent, capable of sustaining a fish population from season to season, a game fish is for more valuable as sport or the promise of sport than as food for belly or vanity.

    The Best of Ed Zern 5. There can be no fly-fishing without pure waters in which game fish can live; there can be no such waters without proper management of watershed forests and farmlands, or without control of pollution through erosion or industrial or human waste. Therefore, the fly-fisherman should be deeply concerned with measures to conserve or restore pure waters, and will involve himself when possible in efforts to promote such measures, recognizing that they are inseparable from the conservation of all renewable natural resources. He will bear in mind the legend of the African chief who said, "This land belongs to my people. Some of them are living, some of them are dead, but most of them have not yet been born." ~ Ed Zern, - Random Casts, 1966.

    Credits: From The Best of Ed Zern published by The Lyons Press.

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