View Full Version : Ethics of C&R

08-25-2007, 04:18 PM
Hi all!

Very nice with a new forum. I would like to start a new discussion regarding Catch and Release. I will make clear that I do not intend for this to become a flame war or any kind of hostility. I'm just interested in sharing a dilemma which has come over me lately. I have done C&R since early childhood. I did it back in my native Sweden where I some times took home fish to eat while I was fishing with spinning gear. I graduated over to fly fishing and when I settled in TN i became a fly fisherman full time. I haven't picked up a spin rod in ten years plus.

The last decade it has become more and more controversial in Europe to practice catch and release. The argument goes that it is unethical to fish for the sole purpose of fun. It is also proven that catch and release will kill fish. It is by no means harmless to the fish. The fish gets all kinds of eye injuries and other harmful effects as well as stress etc. There has been an organized group of fly fisherman and some of them locally famous in Scandinavia who has taken a public view and wrote a letter to oppose fishing for C&R.

I don't know why but the last month or so I have become more and more troubled within myself about the whole thing. I am a member of both TU and FFF and they stress C&R and no one seems to think it is harmful. I really don't know where to go with this and I would like someone's else's input or thinking on this subject. I can't be the only one who struggles with this. I used to embrace catch and release without thinking about it. Now I still practice it but with reservations within my mind. Please, someone help. I will appreciate any and all opinions and I promise I will treat anyone with respect, regardless of your opinion. I'm not really looking for a debate, I'm more in need of counseling. I almost got to the point today, where I felt something was missing while fishing. I'm afraid that this heat we are having have gotten to my brain. LOL.

08-25-2007, 04:40 PM
Hans, I understand your concern. I do most of my fishing in tailwaters, primarely the South Holston. Every time I hook a fish in such a way that I might injure it, I find myself saying "probably should just take this one on home". In our tailwaters I aslo catch a lot of fish that are greatly disfigured from previous catch & release efforts and I often think again "probably should have just taken that one home". Some will ask how do we know whether the fish would rather be disfigured or eaten. That is not part of the question for me, I'm fairly certain that the fish would rather not be caught at all. The problem I encounter is that I am not reallly prepared to take my catch home. Because I practice C&R all the time I do not have the equipment on me to properly kill and store the fish, therefore I am left with trying to revive and release a damaged fish, hoping that it will recover. Though I have no problem with people keeping their catch (within the legal limit) I will continue to practice catch and release.

08-25-2007, 04:44 PM

I'm exactly at the same spot as you are. I don't have the proper equipment although I could easily take a stringer or even a cooler for that matter when I fish tailwaters. In the mountains though, back and beyond as Horace Kephart said, it isn't so easy. I'm hoping we can get a lot of input on this one.

08-25-2007, 04:57 PM
Hans, there is nothing wrong with having a conscious. Personally, I practice c&r, but that is my personal choice. I have in the past, kept fish I knew were too injured to return to the water and have in the past, kept stockers since they rarely survive between seasons any way. For almost the last decade or so, I have not kept the fish. Again, that is a personal choice. Regarding the positions of TU and FFF. While I am also a member of both, I don't always see eye to eye on some of their positions. I don't think that makes me any less of a member or any less of a sportsman. As the number of fishermen decline, the fish population should be regulated to increase the healthier number of the population as well increase the over all size of the fish. That is the reason I do think it's acceptable to keep fish, if you are going to eat them. Again, I think it's admirable that this issue presses on your mind and you are concerned about it. To me, it's like the difference between a player and an athlete. A player is simply someone who participates in his/her given sport. On the other hand, an athlete is someone who works to make them selves the best that they can be in their sport, whether it's physical training or devoting one self to make their sport better. Simply put, an athlete is the one who will go the extra mile for their sport. You are no different than an athlete. You have a conscious awareness of your impact or footprint in nature and work to preserve or even better the environment for future generations. God has endowed us with the rights of stewardship for the environment and we should do what is necessary to protect it, for ourselves and for those coming after us.

08-25-2007, 05:36 PM
I'm not really looking for a debate, I'm more in need of counseling.

Hans, although I haven't had the pleasure of meeting you face-to-face, I have very much enjoyed your posts over the last couple of years and have a lot of respect for your insights. They have always been very informative and have helped me immensely.

While I have improved in abilities, I must confess I'm starting to have some of the same thoughts. I had never thought much about it in the past (probably because I wasn't catching that many fish), but the more I catch, the more I have started thinking about the fish, as well. Very few, of the fish I catch seem much worse for the wear, but every once in a while, I'll foul hook one, and it bugs me for a good while afterwards. Even using barbless hooks, we are still harming the fish, even if only slightly.

I caught part of a movie my wife was watching a few months back, called of all things "Catch and Release". The movie was quite forgettable, but what stuck with me is what one of the characters said-something to the effect of: "Catch and Release fishing is about the cruelest sport I can imagine. You hook a fish and play with it until its exhausted. The whole time the fish is fighting for its life, it doesn't know you are going to release it. You'd be better off killing it and eating it, at least the fish wouldn't be scared to death, suffer and be humiliated all in the name of fun"

I'm not sure I agree completely with the quote, but at times I also feel like we are causing suffering in the name of fun. Sometimes I prefer to not catch anything, or am happy about long distance release a fish. I enjoy being out in a stream, finding fish and getting them to rise, more than the actual catching part. I know that must sound lame to a lot of folks.

One thing that always changes my thought process about it, is knowing that there are 2-4k trout per mile of stream in the park. And that we all are very concerned for their well-being and do more to improve the lives of those trout than if there wasn't anyone fishing. Had no one ever engaged in fishing, we probably would have never seen the resurgence of trout in the Park (even if it is different species). Also, I know that there are also many folks who belong to Ducks Unlimited. That seems more of a stretch than TU, because, in the end, we are trying to not kill the fish (unless we are eating them). There isn't really any Shoot&Release programs...

I can't wait for the temps to come down...I think I've started losing it...

Brian Griffing
08-25-2007, 07:02 PM
When I was somewhere around ten, my younger brother and I climbed up to a high mountain lake in northwestern Montana that is the headwaters of our family's stream, in order to get above spring run-off and find some fish. My family doesn't own this stream, obviously, but we have always felt that it is "our" stream, and we get a little jealous when we see others fish it. Some of this is probably due to the fact that not many other people fish the stream. Most everyone thinks that all the trout were washed out in the big flood of 1964. They may have been (that was a little before my time), but there have been big fish in there ever since I could follow my dad upstream. Not many, but big old cutthroats.
Anyway, my brother and I got up to this lake and each landed and kept a nice Yellowstone cut. We had agreed that we would each keep one, as two fish was what we needed to round out a family breakfast the next morning. Not wanting to head right back down the mountain after walking three miles to get up there, we decided to fish a while longer, but put back what we caught, if anything. My brother soon hooked another fish and brought it to hand. It was a nice fish, bigger than his first. He was eight years old and very excited. "I'm going to keep this one". I told him to put it back, that we already had enough for breakfast. He pulled out his pocket knife and whacked the fish on the head. After a few strikes, this big cut gave a death shiver and squirt its eggs out all over my brother's hand, arm, feet, and the rocks below. My brother's eyes welled up, he cradled the fish like an injured pet, and he began to cry. "I killed the fish and all its babies."
It is the same way I felt when I shot my first deer. The same way I felt when the realization set in that it was dead because of me and my actions.
In the years since, I began to feel differently. I am still a little sad to take life, but more than anything else, I am grateful. Grateful to God for providing me with these experiences and putting me in this position. Grateful that I can interact with nature. Grateful that there are animals and places to provide me with these experiences. And usually, I feel this gratitude whether I was successful or not.
So I do not want to sound callous, cold, or indifferent, but death is a part of interacting with nature. It is not the same as viewing nature. Backpackers, day hikers, and the millions of people who see the Smokys through a rolled-down window are viewing nature. The hunter and the fisherman are temporarily shedding the trappings, the constraints, and the niceties of civilization and slipping back within the walls of Eden. Fishing isn't about catching or releasing fish, anymore than hunting is about killing an animal. It is about the experience of re-entering the natural world, as it was before cars, and lawsuits, even before original sin.
I have caught and kept, and caught and released a lot of fish in that lake. In fact, the picture of my brother and I at the head of this post was taken at the same lake about twenty years later. But I think of that fish my brother killed more than any other fish the two of us have ever caught. He wasn't wrong to keep the fish. It didn't go to waste and there are lots of fish in that lake to this day. He wouldn't have been wrong to put it back. He was wrong because of the way he felt afterwards.

Gerry Romer
08-25-2007, 09:36 PM
Hans --

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:

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of uniquely human (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human) characteristics and qualities to nonhuman beings, inanimate objects, or natural or supernatural phenomena. Animals (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal), forces of nature (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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." :eek:

No, she's not blonde.:biggrin:

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...;)


08-25-2007, 09:37 PM
Very good insight so far. I understand the dilemma of feeling guilty for killing a living thing. I guess I'm not really feeling anguish over that. It is more about the ethical thing of playing a fish and make it suffer just for the thrill of a bent rod. Is that acceptable or not. That is the problem I have had the last few months.

Like or not but even a viewer of nature indirectly causes harm to nature. You even can go so far as to say, with every step you take outside you run the risk of stepping on an insect or some other living thing. Then you can argue what makes a Trout more valuable than an ant?

No, for me the problem is not so much a responsible harvest of a resource. I eat meat so if that bothered me then I wouldn't eat living things. No it's the enjoyment of fishing just for sport and this is the problem we are facing if we are ever going to win over anti fishing groups. I am afraid that Catch and Release fishing will be used against us more and more by these groups in the future.

I understand all the reasons behind no kill regulations and the conservation ideas behind it, but what makes it acceptable to chase a fish and then release it back. It is comparable to Fox hunting. In Scandinavia we kill the fox we don't chase it for hours just to enjoy it being harassed. If I feel bad about that how can I continue catch and release fishing. Just a thought to sleep over tonight.

I'm very grateful for everyone's input. I am also glad that we are keeping it civil. It's not really about how I feel about what others do, it's more about my own feelings and how I should come to term with it.

Gerry Romer
08-25-2007, 09:53 PM
Did a quick search on goldfish memory and came up wiht this juicy tidbit in the Nakedscientistforum:

"You've got the memory of a goldfish" - Sorry, it's no longer the insult it used to be !

Indeed, recent work on fish learning and behaviour has refuted the long standing myth that goldfish are intellectually destitute. Far from being like Dory in "Finding Nemo" (who was condemned to a life of rediscovering the delights of the surroundings every few seconds) fish actually have extremely good memories.

In a recent series of experiments, Edinburgh University fish researcher Culum Brown (Animal Cognition 4 pp109) showed that Australian freshwater rainbowfish could rapidly be trained to locate an escape-hole in a fishing net as it was advanced towards them. The fish were then not tested again until 11 months later - at which point they could still remember how to perform the task as effectively as they had in the past - despite not having seen the apparatus in the meantime.

This is clear evidence that fish have a well developed capacity for learning and recall of information up to a considerable time later.

The 'three second memory' myth should therefore be laid firmly to rest !

08-25-2007, 10:06 PM
I am not so simple-minded as to think all fish released live, but most do. There are several studies on bass tournaments that can be found if anyone wants some specific numbers. I feel guilty sometimes if i injure a fish that i cannot keep, but I also assume that this fish will feed turtles or catfish or something that would otherwise be chasing live prey. That's one way to look at it or you can just eat it. They really are quite tasty. It's not that hard to carry a cooler and a stringer just in case. As for feeling guilty about having fun at the fish's expense here is one thing to consider that I don't think I have seen mentioned yet. If it wasn't for all the permits and equipment we as fishermen (and women) purchase there would be no money to make sure all these streams and creeks are filled to potential with the little fishes.

Gerry Romer
08-26-2007, 11:26 AM

Let me pose another question. When fishing for these mountain gems, we all - at one time or another - hook a monster shiner, or 4" fallfish, or chub. Some of these little buggers put up quite a fight and must surely be exhausted by the time we release them. And they seem to be real easy to foul hook.

Are you plagued by the same guilt when you release a 3" war paint shiner that you just foul hooked through the eye?

Do you feel guilty but just not quite as bad as you would if that had been a 9" brookie?

Not casting any aspersions here, guys and gals... just wondering if (for Hans specifically) there are degrees of guilt involved.

Similarly, if you're fishing for smallies and end up with a catfish on the line, do you feel as bad/concerned about releasing the catfish as you would about the smallie?

I really believe that we tend to place higher values on, and attribute higher order qualities to, fish that we have specifically targeted as game fish?

Final question: Or, am I just nuts? :biggrin:


08-26-2007, 02:36 PM

No you are not nuts, and I'm afraid I am as guilty as others of not respecting a shiner as much as a Brown Trout. yes to answer your question I think it is guilt on a degreed scale. The hierarchy goes something like this. Fish belonging to salmon, trout or char family are first. Fish belonging to Sunfish and or perch and pike family next, Fish that are non game etc etc. With risk of taking this discussion too far, It's kind of the same thing we do in the world as a whole. Regardless of our politics or upbringing, we value some people more than others as well as some animals more than others. It's not right but we do either consciously or more sublime without thinking about it.

To get back to the original discussion. Yes, I'm afraid I have put the trout and salmon species on a pedestal. This leads me to another though. Where on that hierarchy comes my wife in. LOL.

Brian Griffing
08-26-2007, 03:31 PM
If we rank fish by species, can't we also rank them by family? And as the native species, shouldn't the brook take top billing? If we declare the native fish to be number one in our hearts (as I have seen countless people do in this forum), shouldn't we then keep any rainbow or brown we catch (of legal size of course) in order to give our favorite a small leg up?
I am not looking to open the door again on the impact keeping fish has on overall population, now we are talking about theory and ethics, so the fact that killing a few rainbows will have little to no impact on the brookie population is beside the point.

08-26-2007, 03:57 PM

Yes, you are theoretically correct. It is as you know the other way around out west where they consider the Brook Trout to be a nuisance. I also believe that the park manager do actively manage the brook trout as for reintroduction and protection versus the non natives, brown, rainbow. I guess we are lucky to have the non natives. If we really look at the mandate for the park. To protect and conserve native flora and fauna. The rainbows and browns are really an invasive species here in the park. It's a complicated issue but I have many times thought along your line of thinking. I have more than once reintroduced a brookie in to the pool below me and taking out the rainbow and putting that fish even lower.

I doubt it has any effect but it's fun to do anyway.

08-26-2007, 06:56 PM
I too practice C&R, have been for years and years...I too believe and understand as one of the other posters mentioned that most fish caught and released do survive. It is unfortunate if we happen to foul hook a fish or damage a fish in the process, however a great benefit of C&R is that all or most of the fish that are caught and released still has the ability to spawn. To me this is one of the main reasons that most of us practice C&R to help ensure our little part in the survival of a species not one particular fish.

08-26-2007, 07:17 PM
Okay, I understand the part of why we use C&R and the potential benefit and the potential negatives with it. My intention or dilemma in my original thought is not really so much about that. My question is if it is ethical to play and stress a fish and make it potentially frightened and then release it just for fun. I realize that we can't know for sure if a fish can feel fear or anything like that. I guess we will never know. We all know that animals differ from species to specie on how intelligent and developed they are. I guess this will ultimately lead to the question of how intelligent a fish is? I can assure you that an elephant can feel depression and fear so can my cats when I take em' to the vet. Can a brown trout feel the same? We won't know for sure.

This have been a very interesting topic to me and i feel the same as I did the other day. I think I'm going to change my way of releasing fish. If I feel that a fish I have just caught cant' make it. I.e. if its' bleeding or have some other kind of internal or external damage I will try to keep it if it is legal to do so. I guess this is going halfway over to another side. Not saying that this is a revelation or anything, but sometimes it is good to change some habit in order to stay alert and alive.

appalachian angler
08-26-2007, 08:44 PM
I practice C&R 95% of the time and it is almost an involentary action. Perhaps Habit is a better word. I try and play fish as quickly as I possibly can. No "showboating" here. I use barbless or pinched down barbs on all my flys. I loose more fish that way, but I too enjoy the hook-up more than the fight. I have no problems with folks killing fish within their legal rights. I will occasionally take home a few stockers, or an injured fish. If I don't catch enough to feed the family (ie. taking 1 injured fish home) I will boil the trout and feed it to my cat. No waste that way. One of the reasons I practise C&R is to leave the fish for some youngster who might just be catching his/her 1st trout! At least this is what I like to tell myself and others. I would rather that fish go home in a kids' creel than my own.Most of the fish we catch have origins in the hatchery. Notice I said origins, not that they were stocked as adults. Non-native species thrive where native brookies can't. I see no problem with this since many will be killed for food...either by Humans or by otters, birds, or snakes. In the park and on the tailwaters, nature seems to find its balance despite human intervention. I only have a problem with C&R when it is practised with negligence and/or indifference. I must confess that I do wince from time to time when I see some nice "breeder" size fish on a stringer. I have been there and done that. I chose not to do that anymore because I prefer to fish on and not have to fool with a stringer! For the record I believe that ALL members of PETA are idiots. If our future generation loses interest in fishing because some quack has convinced them that fish have feelings, then conservation as a whole will become third rate, and the greed mongers will just continue to rape this planet till it becomes a total wasteland. Lets keep a few fish around for our kids to enjoy, and teach them stewardship and management of our precious resources. Fishing is fun...it's supposed to be! I don't feel guilty about releasing fish anymore than anyone should feel guilty about killing one. Personal choices should be respected as such.


08-26-2007, 09:08 PM

I appreciate this discussion as much as any I have seen on the board because it gets to some of our basic feelings about fishing. First of all, as discussed earlier, I recognize in my own mind there is a hierarchy among trout in the Smokies with brookies on top, brown next and rainbow on the bottom. For most of the Summer, I have fished the upper rivers of the park partly because the temps and water have been so much better but also because of the chance to catch brookies. While I actively hunt them hardest, I also am most careful about returning them to the water as though they are somehow more worthy of caring for after the catch. Go figure.

I have fished in the Smokies for over 30 years, most of that with spinning rigs, and have practiced C&R the whole time with only two exceptions. On my birthday back in the late 90's, I caught an 18" brown on a Rooster Tail and had the strange feeling that it was somehow a birthday present to me. Haven't caught another brown since. That one was grilled out and made a delicious meal. On one other trip with my kids, my son and I caught several very nice rainbows (12"+) out of Little River and took those home for dinner. Other than that, I have always felt that I would rather return them to their stream to give someone else (or possibly me again) the pleasure of another catch.

I have a little, no actually a lot of trouble with the concept of an extended fight with fish that are, on average, between 6 and 12 inches in size. It's the catch and not the fight that I enjoy and so I land them immediately. When one of those guys explodes from the bottom of a pool to the water, whether it takes my fly or not, my heart feels like it's going to pound out of my chest. I have laid awake at night, knowing that I was going fishing the next day, with that same adrenaline pump just imagining that experience. That and the fact that I'm steadily increasing my skills to make a successful catch is the real pleasure for me.

Fighting one of these little guys just for the fun of it seems a little pointless, i.e., over 200 lbs. against a few ounces. Hardly seems like a fair fight. Now, I imagine the experience would be different if I was on a deep sea excursion with much larger prey. But SM trout?

Guess the bottom line is, my policy is catch and release with as little impact or dammage as possible on the fish vs. catch, fight and release which seems cruel and pointless for something so relatively small. It's the hunt and the success of a hook that provide me with the most satisfaction. It's much more fun to say, "Grow up, I'll be back.":smile:

Brian Griffing
08-26-2007, 11:10 PM
I think I now understand what you are asking. Is it morally right for a human to toy with an animal? Is catch and release just an acceptable and legalized version of kids throwing rocks at a dog?
To address your question, or what I think is your question, I have to ask another. Are you different than a fish? That is a stupid question on the surface, but what I really mean is do you believe that you are an animal, no different than a bear, or an elephant, or a dog? Or do you believe that you are something different, something higher, something created with a divine spark?
If we are just another animal, separated from our wild cousins only by opposable thumbs and the fact that we are not afraid of vacuum cleaners, then the answer is simple. Ethics are man-made and are determined by societies. There are no ethics in the wild. Animals do what animals do, without a moral dilemna. Personalities differ, actions differ, reasons differ, but none are immoral. Cats play with mice. Killer whales smack seals around, and wolves eat elk while they are still alive. You may choose to release a fish out of pity's sake, or so you can catch it or its offspring again later, or because you don't want to carry it with you. If we are just animals, then morality is based solely on law. So if what you are doing is legal, it is moral. The reason behind the action is irrelevant, it is the action that determines its morality.
But if you believe we are something different, that we were created separate from the animal kingdom, that our bodies are no more than vessels for our eternal souls, then the reason for your action is far more important than the action itself. Are you fishing because you enjoy tormenting fish, or because you are awed by the natural world, and have a desire to experience it first-hand? Law doesn't determine morality, one's own sense of right and wrong determines morality. In this option there are legal immoral actions, and moral illegal actions.
For my own part, I think God created trout so that we could truly appreciate streams. And I don't think that the fish hold it against us.

09-19-2007, 12:44 PM
I usually adapt my c&r tactics to the stream conditions but as a rule of thumb i release most all my fish with no regret. however i did start guiding this past summer and to some degree i feel responsible for the dumb things clients will do, ie: not weting their hands, playfish until they are dead, keeping the fish out of the water for pics way to long, running a finger through the gill cover, throwing fish and the list go's on.what are these people thinking. Mostly its the new fisherman if you could call them fisherman at all. But before every outing i go through the routine of explaining ethics, tactics, responsibility and so on. Well anyway i'm going to go pull my hair out.