What Trout Want: A Beautiful Fiction

New Zealand Lake Brown

Lake brown that took took a Grey Boy Buzzer. Photo Bob Wyatt

Self-Conscious Trout

MOST OF WHAT has been written on fly fishing for trout is based on a single premise: Trout are intelligent, suspicious, even capricious creatures that are wise to our tricks. But that’s not all—it seems the harder we try and the more flies we throw at them, the harder they are to catch.

For a lot of us that difficulty is precisely why we find the sport so fascinating. It’s what justifies the expense and effort we put into it—the thousands of fly patterns, books and videos on strategies and tactics, expensive gear, and travel to exotic destinations. Tackle collecting feeds our hording instincts and love of fine weapons. The intricacies of fly tying and entomology appeal to our inner artist and scientist. The whole thing is a hell of a lot of fun.

But, it’s also serious. Fly fishing has evolved into something that separates it from all other outdoor sports. These days it’s almost entirely an aesthetic experience, unlike hunting, its ancient parent form, which necessarily involves the death of the quarry. Shoot and release, as they say, isn’t an option. Once a true “blood sport,” fly fishing was really about catching and killing fish to eat. Not anymore, although most semi-carnivorous people would agree there is nothing wrong with eating the occasional trout.

Fly fishing, particularly for wild trout, has been “reconstructed.” For one thing, it isn’t just about men, or even just about the catching, but about the total experience including the rather strange practice of releasing the fish. Not every fly fisher does this, of course, but it’s widely viewed as the only acceptable thing to do when dealing with wild fish. An increasing number of trout anglers are concerned about how the trout feels about being caught. It’s not just that a fish is too precious, but too self-aware.

It’s our own fault. If you take what we say about them seriously, trout have enough self-awareness to have “feelings.” It has become a bit of an issue, especially in some European countries, and driven by animal welfare politics. Many anglers sincerely worry about whether they are being cruel in catching fish purely for enjoyment. An admirable concern, but it begs the question: What possible difference could our enjoyment make to the fish?

By a self-justifying bit of sophistry, killing a trout for food is considered somehow less cruel, or at least justifiably cruel—thereby letting the rapacious commercial fishing interests off the hook. This almost sounds like it makes sense, but the idea of justifiable cruelty to a self-aware fish might be more credible if it had anything to do with necessity. It would take some skill to argue for necessity in the economics of fly fishing for trout.

So, having decided that our enjoyment is the overriding concern, and that catching and killing fish for food is less or at least justifiably cruel, Germany and Switzerland banned catch-and-release fishing. These humane lawgivers seem to have overlooked the point that up to the moment it is killed or gently returned to the water the fish goes through exactly the same experience.

If you ask me, being killed simply to somehow justify and assuage any guilt for the discomfort it might have suffered isn’t that great a deal for the fish. It’s clear that fish haven’t had a vote in this, but we can guess what choice they’d make.

Throughout the rest of the world, fishing’s benefits to individual and societal wellbeing outweigh the ‘cruelty to fish’ argument. For one thing, it is widely acknowledged that recreational angling goes a long way to preserving healthy waters and viable fish populations.

Today’s fly fishers genuinely try to eliminate or reduce any harmful effects on the fish. We have adopted barbless hooks and knotless nets to avoid injury. We don’t “play” fish anymore because we realise that the fish aren’t “playing.” We don’t let them bounce around on the rocks when we land them. We get them back in the water as quickly as possible and spend long minutes making sure they are completely revived after their short but exciting encounter with us. Fish survive this sort of careful handling extremely well.

Today’s catch and release ethic was probably kicked off in the angling press by Lee Wulff, but what began as Wulff’s simple and elegant idea that a wild trout or salmon is too precious to be killed for food or glory has taken on the nature of a rigid protocol, with almost religious overtones.

These days it seems that there are nearly as many anglers out there as there are fish, so putting them back ensures there are some fish in the water for next time. But, it isn’t just a matter of pragmatism; there’s an undeniable feel-good factor in knowing a fish is alive and healthy after being caught and released.

This new sensitivity toward our quarry is grounded in a myth that has been the bedrock of fly fishing’s long history of theory and practice. The idea that trout are very savvy critters has always been with us, and from all accounts they are getting smarter by the day.

By now you are maybe expecting a dissenting point of view to be trotted out, and you’re right. So here it comes.

New Zealand Brown Trout

Roadside brown taken with careful presentation. Photo Bob Wyatt

An Alternative View

For starters, like any fly fisher, I don’t believe catch and release fly fishing is cruel, even unintentionally. Strictly speaking, cruelty requires the intention to be cruel—the merciless indifference to, or even pleasure in inflicting suffering. No angler I’ve ever met intends to be cruel.

As pain and suffering are largely psychological, cruelty also requires self-awareness on the part of the recipient. Fish don’t have a clue what’s going on when we fish for and catch them. They aren’t injured, and, as any angler knows, if handled carefully they don’t suffer any physical and certainly no “psychological” ill effects after we release them. This is despite the findings of researchers like Britain’s Lynn Sneddon, who observed trout reacting to injections of bee venom and acetic acid into their lips.

Bee venom. I don’t know about you, but when I read that the first thing I thought was, if you were trying to prove that fish hooks cause “pain,” which she undoubtedly was, wouldn’t it make more sense to employ, say, a fish hook?

Putting aside a trout’s reaction to bee venom poisoning, fish certainly don’t have the self-awareness to experience anything like what we humans experience as pain and suffering. Both have a large psychological component in humans and higher mammals, but attributing such psychology to a fish is certainly stretching things. Furthermore, and for the same obvious reason, “fear” to a trout and fear to a human cannot be remotely the same thing.

When actions are driven by ideas we really want to be sure that those ideas are based on observed reality. When we observe trout in their appropriate context, we notice some similarities with other animals, say snakes, lizards, and frogs. Apart from areas related to specific motor functions such as swimming, a trout brain is quite similar to a frog brain. As far as I know nobody makes the intelligence case for frogs.

Like frogs, trout can’t possibly have any idea what we are, or what a fishing line is, or what an artificial fly is. Nor do they associate us in any way with the lures at the end of our lines, or have any reason or ability to “suspect” them. They certainly haven’t got the cognitive horsepower to perceive our fly as a fake. In fact, they don’t have “ideas” at all. In other words, in the terms we use to describe human intelligence, fish aren’t smart.

As much as the next guy, I appreciate and love the grace, elegance, traditions, technical eccentricities and all-round quirkiness of the sport, but something niggles at me whenever I run into that “educated trout” thing in a fishing conversation.

Some anglers get positively indignant when I say that trout aren’t smart. So, just to be clear, I’m not saying they’re stupid—just not intelligent as we apply the word to humans and, okay, dolphins. We’re applying the wrong language to describe trout behaviour, and it makes a real, practical difference to how we approach them.

For those of us undeterred by arguments against the morality of fishing for self-aware creatures, the smart trout also creates a practical problem: how to trick such an intelligent being into eating that fake fly in the first place.

Excerpted from What Trout Want: The Educated Trout and other Fly-fishing Myths to be published in 2012.