Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Sad Record

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.


R. Gabe Davis said...

If a fishery is in trouble this is one fisherman who would back a fish and game agency not allowing people to keep these fish since they could I suppose be caught on accident. However I will never understand people who wish to hook and torture a fish just to let it go. I have read studies ranging from 10-70 percent mortality rates on catch and release fish. I never bait a hook unless my intention is to fully utilize the resource I go after. I will fight for the rights of others to fish just for the sake of dragging a fish to the shore then throwing it back to live or die from the stress because I believe it is their God given right. But I will never understand these people. They are usually the first ones to throw the rest of us outdoorsman under the bus as butchers. I think using an endangered steelhead as a toy to play with makes less sense than eating one or providing a poor town enough income to improve the life of its human inhabitants.

Farmer de Ville said...

I strongly agree with the idea that wild fish should be off limits...

And as for mounting instead of eating... well... I'd like to take the trophy down and slap him with it...

Cheers -


Langdon Cook said...

Thanks for your input Envirocap, but may I ask you to try a little harder to understand those of us who c-n-r? After all, we number in the millions, so we're not an insignificant part of the fishing community, and contrary to your generalization about us "throwing you under the bus," we're largely responsible for the wild fish and riparian protections you enjoy today through organizations such as Trout Unlimited.

Most studies of c-n-r fish mortality put the rate at 5% or less for barbless fly-fishing, although I'll grant you that it rises, not surprisingly, with baitfishing (but such tactics are understood to be catch-and-kill). Another thing you may not understand about fishing for anadromous fish in the Pac NW is that the runs are mixed with wild and hatchery fish, so the regulations are often selective anyway. Catch a hatchery fish, take it home; catch a wild one, put it back. That's the law.

Of course, we're all welcome to our opinions, so thanks for sharing yours.

Langdon Cook said...

Farmer, good to hear from you again. Have you ben fishing?

R. Gabe Davis said...

"One wonders if these same "sportsmen" would leap at the chance to legally take one of the last Siberian tigers or Javan rhinos." This is the statement from your post that leads me to people throwing other outdoorsman under the bus I wished to opine that even if we don't understand why we as fisherman want to pursue the experience the way we do we should support anyone who is not breaking the law (which killing a siberian tiger would be illegal). let the animal rights activists put the word sportsman in quotations when they take a jab at a fisherman.
much respect, your brother in the outdoors

R. Gabe Davis said...

PS. don't take me as negative I am just very argumentative, I have you as required reading on my blog.

Langdon Cook said...

Envirocap - No hard feelings at all. In posting this I knew I was inviting a spectrum of opinions on what is, let's face it, an emotional issue. You're right about my not-quite-correct analogy: shooting a tiger is illegal while killing a wild steelhead on the Hoh River is not. This is why I took pains not to dwell on the angler in question and instead outlined my own view. As for c-n-r, I do sometimes wonder if future generations will condemn the practice as Paleolithic. It's a tricky snake dance we're doing: too many people, too few resources. C-n-r is a management tool that's become a larger philosophical flashpoint. As the Chinese curse goes, may you live in interesting times.

ladyflyfsh said...

Well I am all for catch and eat hatchery fish which I've caught and eaten plenty myself, but any time I've ever landed a wild fish of this size I've ALWAYS released it. And yes, I landed a 33 pound Atlantic salmon on an eight weight that I released after photographing it. Chinook salmon as well.

I don't know that I can remember ever having landed a fish that was hooked in the corner of the mouth, not line wrapped, that had to be put to death because it was bleeding from the gills. That one just doesn't add up.

Anonymous said...

Since actually taking an action and working to change the state regs is much harder than just complaining about what this guy did, it is not surprising how many email complaits/comments this incident has received on the web.

The reality is that this fisherman's actions were legal under the state's fishing regulations. For that reason, it is my feeling that any compliant anyone may have with him whacking this honking big steelhead is nothing more that yet another chapter in the eons-old debate about whose fishing philosophy is "right."

Langdon Cook said...

Ted, thanks for chiming in. You may be right, but let's not forget that the entire edifice of social morality (above and beyond fishing) is built on eons-old debates, so I say have at it. BTW, I included links to the Wild Steelhead Coalition and Wild Salmon Center for those who want to "actually take an action" besides fomenting about it.

Heather said...

I always figure all wild salmonids are a no-go. Even my dad (redneck he is) respects wild fisheries and will only keep hatchery fish. He also eats his catch, which is half the reason he hauls them out in the first place.

Good on you for taking a position and sharing it. Too many people are afraid to ruffle feathers.

Peabody said...

It is sad that it becomes a trophy. I am one for hunting/fishing for use as a food source, not a prize.

mdmnm said...


Various random thoughts:

Good on you for recognizing catch and release as a blood sport. Like you, the numbers I've seen on artificial lure fishing mortality have run 4 or 5% for catch and release. So, one of every twenty fish you catch is dead.

"Fly-fishermen in particular are deemed elitist." Unfortunately, they often are and sometimes without cause. Catch-and-release-only folks, in particular, seem to get infected with holier-than-thou-edness and it's pretty easy to run into such types who aren't shy about telling a person that it's wrong to kill a fish or animal and seem oblivious to charges of "playing with your food" or of inflicting distress on a wild creature for (mere) amusement. Like you, I practice catch and release as well as keeping some fish from some resources for food. I find it harder to defend the former.

I'm not a big fan record books, whether for animals or fish, although I recognize our innate tendency to measure, compare, and categorize. When that's added to the tendency to compete, bad things ensue. A few years ago a guy in Texas released a record sea trout. That's the sort of behavior to which we ought to aspire.

Last, you write "Those who hunt and fish ultimately to adorn their walls with "trophies" should skip the "manly arts" altogether...."

The crucial qualifier in that statement to me is "ultimately to adorn their walls", which is akin to hunting or fishing only to get an entry in a record book. Apart from the "only" qualifier, I'd note that mankind has been decorating his walls or person with various trophies from prey for about as far back as we have an archeological record and the choice to do so is pretty personal and, to my mind, having a trophy mounted (although skin mounts of fish are kind of silly and plastic "mounts" even more so) is entirely easily justified.

Langdon Cook said...

Heather - We're in a fix b/c the hatcheries have their own problems, an issue that I didn't even address in this post. The days of keeping *any* salmon and steelhead could be limited unless we right this ship...

Peabody - Amen.

Mdmnm - Thanks for the comments. I've changed "ultimately" to "only" in that graph about trophies to correct any ambiguity. As you inferred, my point is that killing an animal just to hang it on a wall is ego-driven and disrespectful imo. The head of an elk that fed your family well for a year is a different story. Of course, the hunter who's looking for meat will be hoping for the tender young spike rather the multi-pointed granddaddy, right?

Anonymous said...

So your arguemnt for writing:

"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."

is that you are trying to affect some sort of change to the "edifice of social morality?" Sorry LC, but that statement is just a heap of judgement against people that act differently than you and seems to be based on another eons-old argument called "we are right and they are wrong."

It seems to me that real contributions to improving our societies moral condition are based on not just taking a stance but taking action. To that end, I am certain that the only way you will stop wild steelhead from getting killed on the OP is to get the regs changed. If providing links to websites is the only action you are willing or able to make, then so be it. But if real change is your true goalI would suggest that you tone down the rhetoric a little and spend less time making personal attacks on people who was acting within their legal rights and more time taking meaningful action addressing the underling issue.

On another note, I found your blog from a post on WestFly. You do a great job reporting on your adventures as a means of introducing others to something you are obviously very passionaate about.

Langdon Cook said...

Ted, believe me, I do more for conservation efforts than posting links on my blog, including volunteer work, paid employment, sitting on boards, testifying, writing letters, etc. That said, I could be doing more.