The interweb has been buzzing recently with news of a tremendous wild steelhead caught on Washington State's Hoh River. Normally such a fish would be worth celebrating, but these are not normal times. Though I was initially intending to stay out of the fray on this one, it occurs to me on second thought that I'll be touching on some of these issues in print soon, so I might as well wade into the controversy now.
The behemoth pictured above was hooked, landed, and...killed. The angler has been quoted saying the fish was bleeding from the gill and he thought it would die if released. We'll never know. It was tallied a day later, weighing in at 29.5 pounds, a state record. The fish was not eaten; it will hang on a wall.
The death of such a magnificent animal—and its pre-spawning removal from a diminished gene pool—saddens me. Wild steelhead are in bad shape throughout most of their range. This fish came from the Olympic Peninsula's "West End," the rainforest rivers that drain off the western edge of the Olympic Mountains into the Pacific and contain, by all accounts, the last best habitat for native steelhead in the Lower 48.
Incredibly, on a handful of these rivers it is still legal to kill one wild steelhead a year, a concession that no one would argue is a political bone thrown to the down-at-the-heels timber town of Forks, Washington, where town fathers are convinced a catch-and-kill fishery is necessary to attract paying anglers from around the world who want nothing more than to catch and kill a trophy steelhead. One wonders if these same "sportsmen" would leap at the chance to legally take one of the last Siberian tigers or Javan rhinos.
I'm not opposed to killing fish. Quite the contrary, I enjoy fishing for healthier runs of salmon in the fall to stock my freezer. Mostly, though, I release fish, especially those from beleaguered runs—even if the regulations allow for their taking. No shortage of huffing and puffing has been expended by supporters of catch and kill to point out the hypocrisy of those of us in favor of catch and release. Fly-fishermen in particular are deemed elitist. Now you may wonder why I advocate ending catch-and-kill steelhead fishing but still support catch-and-release. It's not pretzel logic. Anglers are probably the steelhead's best friend. Author David James Duncan has already given an eloquent response to this question.
So here's my position:
First, I believe wild steelhead should be no-kill wherever they are found in their native range. Take hatchery steelhead home for the barbecue; leave the wild fish in the river. This is my practice whenever I go steelhead fishing, which isn't much anymore. The wild steelhead I've caught on the OP and elsewhere have all been returned to the river. I do not keep wild fish, even where it is legal to do so. If I had caught that fish, I would have let it go—bleeding gill or not—and hoped for the best.
Second, I am not opposed to future limited kill fisheries if steelhead conservation measures are successful. Unfortunately, I don't see this happening any time soon.
Third, I recognize catch-and-release fishing is a blood sport. In pursuing my interest in fishing, I have inadvertently killed released fish; it's a statistical probability. I don't deny this. But legions of anglers such as myself are also responsible for the conservation victories throughout the land helping wild fish and watersheds. This may sound like a paradox to some, but it is a fact nonetheless.
Fourth, I cannot imagine staring at that great fish on the wall every day. Far from being a remembrance of a beautiful day on the river, it would make me sick. Those who hunt and fish only to adorn their walls with "trophies" should skip the "manly arts" altogether and turn directly to the back of the classifieds for ads on penis enlargement surgery.
If you're interested in steelhead and salmon conservation, check out the Wild Steelhead Coalition and the Wild Salmon Center.