Fish Pain and Fish Release

October 29, 2003 By: Marshall Cutchin

John Randolph’s stoic defense and Paul Schullery’s clear-spun interpretations of catch-and-release in the September issue of Fly Fisherman magazine remind me again of the inscrutability of the sport, and to quote Mr. Randolph quoting Walton: “That’s which is everybody’s business is nobody’s business.” And then recent inductees to the IGFA Hall of Fame remember the controversy caused when Roland Martin released 2 bass on television in 1971.
Catch-and-release is a new concept, as is the reaction to it in the forms of animal rights protests and even the neo-don’t-play-with-your-food movement. One wonders how we could have killed and eaten animals for tens of thousands of years without conscience. Of course we didn’t. Mr. Schullery comes closest to the mark, in my mind, when he summarizes: “I cannot fully explain how I can do this, but I know I must.” This whole debate — particularly the puckered scientific theories about whether animals feel pain — smacks of the modern human need to compartmentalize our lives into tidy, manageable packages. But after all, it’s never tidy, and I don’t believe it was meant to be.
When I was gathering support for the release of permit by guides — a new concept in the early 80s — old-time Key West harbor tarpon captain Bob West replied in front of the group, “It’s up to each man’s conscience.” It rang true then, even when I knew I wanted to try to change guides’ consciousness about what we were doing out there, and it still rings true, though it irks me less. I believe now that the day we all fish for the same reasons is the day it becomes less fun for all of us.
As much as fishing, and particularly fly fishing, makes a dandy soap box for proselytizing, I’m thankful that it’s still a place where moralizing is eventually recognized for what it is — bound more closely to our individual lives than to any ultimate truth.