Fly fishing has a heritage of a fairly caught fish, and I want to be a bearer of this – even, if sometimes it is a burden and even, if it sometimes means long stretches of fishless days. I suppose my Midwestern Protestant upbringing understands and feels right at home with this, with the weight of expectation in action upon my shoulders -- that there are things you just don’t do, out of principle and also, tradition. Sometimes the answer, “it’s just not right,” needs no explanation.
Fishing to a female on a redd, angering her to the extent that she eventually eats your fly just to get it out of her face, doesn’t fall into the category of fully fair – at least, that is, to me. John Gierach once wrote, “Casting to spawning trout is a little different than what most of us are used to. The idea isn’t to fool the fish into eating something that looks like food because he’s not too hungry at the moment. You’re trying to make him mad.” And even if the fish “eats” it of of anger, there is still a smell of un-fairness in the air. I see a difference between presenting a convincible midge pattern to a fish who then decides it’s food, and essentially force feeding through annoyance. The former, the trout has the decision to make; the latter, you leave the trout no other.
When anything in life is forced, there inevitably comes a sense of guilt. Forcing love, forcing loyalty, forcing a fish to feed, any of these things takes away the free will of the individual and also, the satisfaction in knowing that it is true. As Ted Leeson writes, “I released the fish with no sense of achievement, but only the same mixture of shame and profound regret one sometimes feels after “winning” a protracted and particularly bitter domestic argument.” When you forcibly bend another’s will to yours-- be it of husband, wife, or trout – ruefulness comes shortly after. There is no achievement in wearing a spirit down. Absolutely none.
This is one of those subjects that I’m learning fishermen (at least in the U.S.) just don’t talk about. (It’s much like – and also related to -- the pegged bead issue, which Jay Zimmerman philosophizes about much better than can I, in “Pegged Beads (And My Turmoil About Them)"). Perhaps this subject is left lay because people just don’t know it is an issue, don’t want to have to think about it because it might ruin their fun, don’t know what their stance is, or secretly they feel a little guilty. In any case, it’s hushed to bed, lulling the issue to rest with alluring songs of big fish. But here now, remember what the sirens' sweet song did to Odysseus. Beautiful women, and big fish -- are not always worth the catching.
I got started thinking about this issue when I read that a blogger friend from Scotland was rearranging his plans to go fishing for browns, and instead went fishing for grayling because he saw that the browns were starting to spawn. While at the same time, I was surrounded by hoards of fishermen planning trips towards them. While many European countries have spawning restrictions and laws, precious few American states have spawning date regulations. Wherefore comes this schism in ethics? And since it is there, shouldn’t it be seriously thought about, debated, and considered? To date, I have only heard this whispered about. And yet I think that whenever there exists such a disagreement, one should seriously consider one's stance, making sure one is in rights according to one’s own conscience.
I’ve done much reading and research to assure mine it is so, and in doing came across an older editorial by Karl Licis in the Denver Post. He writes specifically about the Dream Stream and the South Platte and I’d encourage you all to go read his well written piece, "Ethics: Don't Fish Spawning Areas." As Licis states, many of the areas fished hard during spawns still have a decent population (of browns, and the rainbows are stocked anyway), combating the belief that catching spawning fish hurts their numbers and success rate. However, I cannot help but think of the principle about stress on an organism – that, stress on a body disrupts its function, causing ruptures in mental ability, digestion, reproduction, etc. And who is to tell what their numbers would be like were they not stressed during their spawn.
In fact, there are several scholarly articles relating to stress and its impact on spawning trout. One, in the in the journal Biology of Reproduction, “Stress Reduces the Quality of Gametes Produced by Rainbow Trout” (Campbell, Pottinger, and Sumpter), states that such stress “resulted in a significant delay in ovulation and reduced egg size in females, significantly lower sperm counts in males, and, perhaps most importantly, significantly lower survival rates for progeny from stressed fish compared to progeny from unstressed control fish.” Now, are trout stressed when under normal conditions they are caught? Of course they are, but when done carefully and correctly, no harm is done to them nor their eventual offspring. Catching large spawning females comes at cost to them, their offspring, and thus in the long run, yourself. Abstaining from fishing spawning areas for a period of time, may indeed make for healthier fisheries.
All of this writing (and perhaps rambling) of mine is not to convince you, reader, of anything -- the area is grey, not gospel; but rather to urge you to, if not done so already, figure out exactly what the issue is, where your stance on it is, and even moreso, if it has legs strong enough with which to carry you. And I will consider this well written if only we can all just step aside our programmed instant gratification selves even if but for a moment, to assess the reaches of our decisions, whatever they end up being.
So after much thinking, reading, and research, I sat on that high country stream bank a few weeks ago and I made my decision: I will not cast to spawning fish.