I'm right there with you.
I don't think of what I do as fishing for fun, so much as fishing for sport. Of course it's fun. Of course it's enjoyable. But I tend to think of it more as hunting in the water. We stalk our prey, we attempt to trap our prey, and if we're fortunate enough to catch one, we have the option of returning it to the wild to go after it again one day.
I think the problems start to creep in when we start ascribing human traits to our prey. It's called anthropomorphism and here's the Wikipdeia definition:
is the attribution of uniquely human
characteristics and qualities to nonhuman beings, inanimate objects, or natural or supernatural phenomena. Animals,
forces of nature,
and unseen or unknown sources of chance are frequent subjects of anthropomorphous. --
It is a common and seemingly natural tendency for humans to perceive inanimate objects as having human characteristics, one which some suggest provides a window into the way in which humans perceive themselves. Common examples of this tendency include naming cars or begging machines to work.
An example of an inanimate object assuming human characteristics would be Sponge Bob, while his friend Patrick would be an anthropomrphised nonhuman being.
What does all this mean? A little story might help. Years ago, my wife and I worked together in a pet store. She used to dip fish for customers and do something that would drive me nuts. She'd fill the plastic bag about a third full and then place the bag in the holder on the side of the aquarium tank. After dipping out as many fish as the customer wanted, she'd take the bag out of the holder, pinch the top together and then hold it up to her mouth to blow the bag up like a balloon. When it was full of air she'd spin it tight and slap a twist tie on it. Well, the bag wouldn't stand up and became really hard to handle - especially if you had two or more bags. I finally asked her one day why she had to blow the bags up... her answer - with a straight face - was, "Well, the fish need to breathe."
No, she's not blonde.
We've all done this from time to time. Ascribing human qualities to nonhuman beings. It's helpful at times to step back and remember that that fish probably isn't a "smart" as we've made it out to be or as "feisty" as we think (Which is really funny when you stop to think about it ... ascribing the nonhuman qualities of a mountain cur - the feist - to a nonhuman fish). I seem to recall a recent study that showed a goldfish's memory to be about 3 seconds. I'll have to look into that one... but if true, how much longer could a trout's memory be? I'm not talking about conditioned behavior or behavioral responses, I'm talking about remembered events. Hmmmm. I've heard tales of big browns being caught under the bridge at the second weir on the SoHo with holes in their jaws from prior C&R and some with old nymphs still in them that they couldn't shake out. If true, I'd say those browns aren't too bright. But, then, that would be attributing a human quality... see how easy it is to let yourself get caught in that cycle??
In any event, I C&R and I do everything I can to ensure that the fish is fully revived before I release. If I foul hook one and I have that sinking feeling that it might not make it after I've released it, I take comfort in the fact that there's another creature downstream waiting for a meal. We, as humans, are invading nature when we go fishing. Our fishing actually interrupts the natural order of things.
I am in no way trying to make light of your dilemma. I'm just saying that we need to keep this discussion in perspective and not let our ability to anthropomorphise cloud the issue. They're just someone's meal. If not yours or mine, then perhaps that blue heron that's cruising up and down the stream looking for a meal. And if we hadn't caught them, they likely would have been a meal for a bigger fish or some other woodland creature. They probably would never be able to die of old age in a nursing home...