This essay is not being written to preach or to anger anglers—I also choose to angle and to some degree this choice has a negative influence on the steelhead I encounter. These are simply some angling issues that I regularly wonder about. I use a Buddhist framework for this discussion because it seems to me Buddhism understands human nature better than any other school of thought I have encountered.
For an action to be ethical, a choice is implied between at least two options neither of which is a necessity. Ethics deals with the wants of a person or society, not the needs. Angling with flies for steelhead, I argue, is an ethical concern unless the fish landed is truly necessary to stave off starvation.
A person living about twenty-seven hundred years ago in what is now northern India thought he heard the Awakened One say something like it is a desire for happiness and to avoid suffering that unites mankind and it is the only thing that does so . Perhaps this could be simplified to the following statement: all people want to avoid suffering. I find myself thinking that the true avoidance of suffering is having peace of mind and not necessarily happiness. I believe that minimally all mammals, all birds, all reptiles, all amphibians, all fish, all arthropods, all mollusks, and all anglers are also united in wanting to avoid suffering. As used in Buddhism, compassion means helping another being to avoid suffering. Love means helping another being to achieve happiness. Both compassion and love are forms of kindness.
Does ethics in angling, at its roots, come down to this? Being kind to the fish by using the materials and techniques of modern fly angling in such a way as to lessen the negative effects of raising, hooking, struggling with, and landing a steelhead. An angler who is compassionate about the fish she or he is fishing for wishes to help this fish species to avoid suffering.
I believe that all human beings are kind by nature if the negative emotions of grasping and greed, hatred, anger, or fear are not aroused and sometimes, rarely, even when they are. This leads to a conundrum—Can hooking a fish be a form of kindness?—that rages at the heart of all angling that is not carried out as a matter of necessity. This is, I think, proven by the fact that I rarely but regularly hear anglers bring up the question of whether a steelhead or other fish can feel pain. This question is meaningless: does a steelhead squint and curl its lips and say “ouch!”? If a steelhead did, would we be able to see it in the water? A way, perhaps, of making a person who asks this question think more deeply is to say, I am more concerned about whether a fish that is hooked experiences the stresses that lead to flight, or fear . I believe the struggle of a hooked fish is clear evidence that this fish is experiencing “fear.”
I have heard fly anglers for steelhead on the North Umpqua River say that they are fishing to catch hatchery steelhead and remove them from contact with the wild steelhead that call the river home. Do these people have a way to ensure that only hatchery steelhead come to their flies? Doesn’t this reason for fishing support hatcheries? I have also heard anglers say that they are fishing so that they can teach steelhead to avoid flies. I don’t know how serious the people who say this are. Truly, despite what we have heard from the time we were children, does even a human learn from experience? For us, doesn’t learning from experience depend on the experience?
We all know dogs that appear to have an obsession with snapping at flying insects, including hornets. I believe that, sometimes, it is being stung by a hornet that initiates this snapping by dogs at flies and that this snapping is an attempt to get the potential stinging creature before it gets them. For steelhead, could the experience of being hooked, instead of teaching the fish to avoid a fly, influence some/most/all of them to attempt to get the fly before it gets them? Once, fishing Joe Howell’s Interference Run, I hooked and landed a small heavily spotted wild male steelhead with a pronounced kype at the very top of the run. About forty minutes later at the tail of the run, I landed this same steelhead again on the same fly and blood was coming from his gills.
Some anglers appear to avoid some kind of nebulous issue having to do with sport angling by saying that they are meat fishermen, that their purpose is to get food only. Insofar as this statement is construed as ethical, wouldn’t a person need to fairly ask if there are surer, easier, and less expensive ways to get an amount of nutrition equivalent to a given fish? If the answer is yes, then I suggest that being a meat fisherman is no more ethical than the other rationales for angling discussed in this essay.
Lots of anglers I have encountered mention the steelhead is a warrior fish, that the steelhead is purposely challenging them and testing their ability as anglers. This suggests that the runs and jumps of a hooked fish represent personal choices on the part of the steelhead and not fear. Does the dominant theory for why a steelhead takes a fly come from this point of view or a similar one? This principle theory is that the fly is taken because the steelhead is aggressive or territorial or angry. Many times each season I hear a visitor say that a steelhead that just rose to the surface in the pool was attempting to take something that made it angry. Usually, there was nothing there to take and the steelhead was probably rising to get air or to get a better look at the visitor. If you think a steelhead is a warrior fish, then doesn’t it stand to reason that they would appear to have an aggressive reason for taking a fly? It strikes me that this warrior-fish/aggressive-rises explanation could well be a projection on the part of the angler; that is, the angler is the one who is aggressive and who views himself as a warrior.
I know of a few people who gave up angling all together when catch and release regulations were put in place for all wild summer steelhead on the North Umpqua River. These people have told me that catch and release angling, for them, was too much like torturing a fish. While I support the no-kill regulation for wild steelhead, I respect this point of view and consider it—as an end result—ethical.
Some people believe that fishing is better than hunting because the angler can release the fish. There is, however, an incidental mortality to all angling. The last season I fished with points on my hooks, I came to the river with the intention of killing no fish, yet I ended up killing three steelhead—two of them wild—and I brought a steelhead’s eye in on the end of my hook. Something hunting has that angling can never have is an ethic of the clean kill. High-powered rifles make it possible to kill an animal cleanly and with little or no suffering if a hunter is proficient with his gun and only shoots when she or he is sure of hitting what is being shot at. Clean kills in angling are not possible.
Bear in mind that catching and releasing a resident trout and a steelhead are two different things. After being released, a resident trout can recoup the energy it lost by feeding. Steelhead do not eat in freshwater other than incidentally. They have grown so large in the ocean that if an eight-pound steelhead entered freshwater needing to feed to survive, it would starve to death. Truly. Think of the hundreds of steelhead that hold in Big Bend Pool for months at a time. What conceivable source of food is available in the pool that would keep hundreds of fish weighing an average of eight pounds alive for months? Further, the effectiveness of their digestive enzymes drops to only 1% or 2% on entry into freshwater. Is it possible for a steelhead to recoup the energy it lost by this haphazard incidental feeding? I don’t know, but in most cases I think not.
Is fly fishing more compassionate, does it cause less suffering, than other kinds of fishing? Perhaps so in that there is a tendency to hook a steelhead on the edges of the mouth. Fly angling was probably less effective when the fly-only regulation was put in place during the early 1950s—the thirty-mile stretch set aside for fly fishing was done to protect juvenile Pacific salmon rearing in what is considered the nursery stretch of the river. Casting flies is no longer a less effective way to catch steelhead. There has been a flowering of techniques and materials over the last sixty or so years that makes a fly rod and flies in the hands of a competent steelhead angler just as effective at hooking and landing steelhead as any other technique with the exception of dynamite, snagging, or nets.
We live now in a world where the ethical consequences of personal choice are far different than they were as little as half a century ago. With respect to angling, there are many more anglers and far fewer wild populations of fish. And there are far more hatcheries and fish farms, each of which put fish in a far more stressful environment—and an unsanitary and disease-rich environment —than is true for naturally propagated fish. Wild fish rear themselves and make themselves resilient and strong by having to catch their own food and by fleeing predators and by dying when these efforts or their health fails. All these things are selective pressures and they are inherent in the stream and the near-stream environments of their natal fluvial systems. These natural selective pressures may be considered to be suffering and, to a degree they are, but they are natural and are not imposed by us. Natural systems and selective pressures—the action of Mother Nature—are completely outside the pale of ethics, human choices are not. And wild steelhead rear themselves for free.
ETHICS OF CASTING FLIES FOR STEELHEAD
Setting aside for the time being whether angling itself is ethical, let’s discuss some of the ways that ethical decisions anglers can make do effect steelhead.
Water Temperature. If the temperature of the water an angler is about to fish is 65° or higher, it might be worthwhile to decide instead to take a nap, grab a meal at the Inn, or to travel well upriver to where the temperatures are cooler. A steelhead’s comfort zone appears to be somewhere between 47° and 57° with juvenile rearing temperature and spawning temperatures varying somewhat from stream to stream. At 70°, a steelhead has difficulty extracting oxygen from even well-oxygenated water. The incipient lethal temperature for steelhead is 75° . A struggle with an angler in warmer water can have disastrous metabolic consequences for a steelhead.
Fish The Swing. Abandon upstream casts for the purpose of getting a fly deep. Fish using quartering-downstream casts which keep the fly in the upper five inches or so of the water column as it swings into the bank downstream. In Big Bend Pool, the only fish that hold near the bottom are exhausted, scared, or sleeping fish. Only when a steelhead is quite worn out does it actually lie in contact with the substrate. When I have identified such a fatigued fish so that I can recognize it, often it holds close to the substrate for several days and these substrate steelhead do not stir as a response to minor spooking events that affect the other steelhead in the pool. A good friend, the late Michel Saussereau from Paris, France, put it this way: Bring the fish to the fly, not the fly to the fish. By bringing the fish to the fly you are potentially offering it more of a choice. I have seen a steelhead holding near the substrate in the pool take a leaf that has just drifted into its face and expel it with a sideways head motion, apparently getting it out of its face. This is a very different reason for taking an item than when a steelhead approaches an item some distance away from it. Is it reasonable to think that a steelhead that moves several body-lengths to examine or take an item is rested and more likely to have energy to spare?
Get The Fish In Quickly Or Break It Off. The clean-kill ethic of rifle hunters does have a very loose parallel in angling. It is the intention to get a fish in as quickly as possible or to break it off. Use 7-weight or stronger rods and use terminal tippet that is at least twelve-pound test if it is a limp monofilament or at least ten-pound test Maxima. Since I know that steelhead which have spent the last two years in the ocean are not leader shy, I use twenty-pound tippet.
And, No!, it is not more sporting to use lighter gear to catch a steelhead. The lighter the gear used, the lighter you set your drag, and so on, the longer the time it takes to get a fish in. This increases the number of fish that die as a direct consequence of their encounters with these anglers. In general terms, the faster an angler can get a fish in and release it, the better the fish will do on being released.
There are fifteen and twenty-pound or larger summer steelhead in the North Umpqua River. Again, steelhead are not leader shy, ever. Keep the drag on your reel set up high so that no steelhead will take much line off your reel after the first run. If you encounter an angler that tells you about two or more recent fish that have taken more than ten minutes to get in, make a point of suggesting that he or she set their drag up higher.
Make a point of breaking a fish off if you haven't gotten it in within eight minutes. Point your rod at the fish, take a wrap of line around your hand, and give a quick backward jerk. This will generally snap even the twenty-pound tippet that I use.
Hooking and landing a fish is never going to be easy on the fish and, again, the faster you get it in and the less exhausted it is when you release it the better.
Photos? If you take pictures of fish, make a point of never lifting the fish out of the water.
Don’t Fish Over or Behind Spawning Fish. When fish are on their spawning gravels, leave them alone. There is probably no more unethical thing an angler can do—other than to purposely kill a wild steelhead on the North Umpqua River—than to fish over spawning fish. Even if fish are not visible, do not fish in proximity to cleaned gravels or the tails of pools during the time the species of Pacific salmon you are fishing for spawns.
Kill Quickly And Cleanly. If you make a decision to keep a hatchery fish, carry a suitable tool with you. Even on the rocky North Umpqua, suitable rocks or sticks are generally not readily available nearby. I know someone who carries a six-inch-long by half-inch-diameter copper bar for this purpose.
And you do not have to kill every hatchery fish you catch if doing so begins to make you feel bad. No matter how many anglers killed each and every hatchery fish they caught, hatcheries and hatchery fish would continue to have a negative influence on the wild populations of summer steelhead on the river. The only sure way to stop the pernicious influence of hatcheries and hatchery fish is for us to stop making and planting these domesticated fish in the first place. We have that option as a society.
Hatchery fish need the diverse gene pools of the wild fish to produce each hatchery generation; wild summer steelhead have no need for hatcheries or hatchery fish and are harmed by them in every way that has been studied and measured by reputable researchers. For the record, the literature also makes it clear that hatcheries and fish farms are pretty much the same thing. The hatchery at Rock Creek is like plutonium to the many populations of wild summer steelhead in the North Umpqua River and in neighboring river systems that straying North Umpqua River hatchery fish go to.
Conservation Regulations. A bit over a decade ago, local fly anglers worked successfully to modify the regulations in the fly-water stretch of the North Umpqua River so that weighted flies were outlawed for the warm-water months of July, August, and September and fishing with indicators was outlawed year round. Both of these regulations were adopted as conservation regulations to give the summer steelhead a break when waters were warm and levels were dropping during the summertime. Abide by the letter and the intent of these conservation regulations.
Don’t Be A Game Hog. When you have landed and released two steelhead in a day, a rare event on the North Umpqua River, put your rod away for the day or fish a fly tied on a hook without a point.
Talk In A Friendly Manner With People Who Don’t Agree With You. Ask yourself fundamental questions, questions about angling and what you believe, and call into question those answers to fundamental issues that you have not thought out for yourself. Consider carefully the angling issues that make you uneasy.
Ethics are the same even if you have just started casting flies for steelhead, but give beginners some slack. Ethical issues are not like a dump truck full of rip-rap falling from a clear blue sky. Once you have caught your first few steelhead with flies, simply examine the questions your mind prods you with and beware of conclusions that allow you to continue to do the things that started your questioning.
Discuss these issues in a positive manner when an appropriate situation arises. Don’t simply wait until you are pissed off or defensive. For meaningful communication and change to occur it will be necessary to talk with people who don’t agree with you.
Consequences. If things continue along the path they seem to be on, one day in the future, angling may have to cease on the river or, at least, fishing may be curtailed in March and April and the Camp Water Holes may be closed year round. The number of anglers and the time they spend angling increases incrementally but steadily and the long-term trend in the numbers of wild summer steelhead is declining and has dropped to a very low level compared to what information we have about the historic run size of wild steelhead on the North Umpqua River and other rivers. At some point, there will simply be too many anglers for the numbers of wild steelhead in the river. Hatcheries are not a solution, hatcheries will do nothing but make this problem worse.
Wild steelhead are remarkably strong and resilient. As my good friend Dave Longanecker put it, the best hope for wild steelhead is an informed angling community to care about them.
Take care, go well,
November 20, 2010