Two days past the Seattle Times reported that one Peter Harrison had caught a 29.5 pound steelhead on an 8 kilo tippet, and the fish died at his hand. By all measures this was a world record, and may even be an all-class plaque. The Washington Fly Fishing Forum subsequently exploded in fury, with speculation as to the validity of Mr. Harrison’s account of the fish’s condition post-landing circling the web, and fueling the fire.
I’m not a steelhead angler. One fish-less day on the Root River in Wisconsin, and a movie, are the extent of my experience. I can’t run to the Washington Fly Fishing Forum and effectively inject my version of reason – it’s simply not my place. I can say, however, that I’ve chased a lot of species in my relatively short life, on both conventional and fly tackle. I’ve killed plenty of fish, and eaten well that night. None were world records, but not for lack of trying (and before realizing that particular endeavor was nothing more than a guaranteed dead fish, edible or not).
No, rather than opine blindly on the matter, I asked a friend who avidly supports striper conservation efforts in his own home waters off Massachusetts, has spent an extraordinary amount of time fly fishing with me, and has more than fifteen years of Great Lakes and Canadian steelheading experience under his belt. He said:
“I wouldn’t have killed the fish – even if it had only a 1% chance of surviving a damaged gill, that’s still better than its chances were once permanently removed from the water. But assuming pictures of a clean fish are proof positive it wasn’t near death are ridiculous, particularly after the described lengthy fight.”
I concur. We also agreed, having caught several trophies (or at the least, highly photo worthy subjects) while in each other’s company, that we might have cleaned the blood away so an otherwise catch and release target didn’t look for posterity like it had been slaughtered. My colleague said that replacing the hook for a real prize shot was well within the bounds of possibility. You know, like this:
Dying like Marilyn Monroe
Let’s rearrange the body
Now step into the shoes of a sportsman, and ask yourself if you’d accept this proposal…
Commercial harvest would be prohibited, and fines for accidental kills increased beyond reason (plus mandatory jail time). Development would be permanently halted. Private property transfers would include easements on prized areas. And you’d be restricted in your sport during government mandated times of the year only. You can enter the lottery for a license, or you can guarantee a spot by paying something like $10,000 for the chance at a trophy target. Sound good to you? I didn’t think so, and yet that pretty much sizes up the state of affairs trying to bag a 390+ B&C elk in some parts of the US. Of course, trophy elk are hardly an ‘at risk’ species, but are you still wondering why?
If you really want to save a threatened creature – one so close to endangerment that the death of a single (albeit beautiful) specimen is justifiable cause for such an online ruckus – then just quit fishing for them. All the time you previously spent tying those flies and casting that rod (as well as screaming bloody murder about your fellow anglers’ possible lax behaviour) can then be devoted to specific conservation efforts, including focused legislative action, organizing boycotts of commercial enterprises that harm sacred waters, and maybe even running for office yourself. Bonus: think of all the money you’ll save in materials, hooks, rods, reels, line and…blood pressure medication. And when the steelies are back, you can star in the final scene of A River Runs Through It, Again.
Having your cake and eating it too is for birthday parties. And I’m suddenly glad I’m not on the invitation list.