The ethics of catch and release fly fishing

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By Jack Miller
Editors Note: The following is from Issue 16.
In 1973, three Yosemite climbers and I were forced to camp and hike for several weeks in Torres del Paine as the winds, snowfall and the infamous Patagonian rime or “refrigerator ice” kept us off the peaks. During this down time, the one serious fisherman in our group, Yvon Chouinard, hiked down the Rio Serrano, but brought back no fish. He just shrugged and claimed he was “throwing them back.” “Yeah, Right!,’” we chided. “You didn’t catch anything,” we told him.  That was my introduction to catch and release fishing. (However, the next day –under pressure from the rest of us-- he brought back two of the “smaller” fish he’d caught: beautiful sea-run brown trout. My journal reminds me it was “about 3 kilos, a substantial feast for us all.”).
As fishing for sport has boomed over the past few decades, Patagonia has become an even more popular destination. And Chouinard‘s outdoor clothing company, Patagonia, has escalated along with it, and inevitably added a line of fly fishing gear. Fortunately, the prescient fishermen like Chouinard were aware that “tossing fish back” is an obvious, much needed practice if the burgeoning numbers of fisherman are going to continue to have quality fishing well into the future.
Chouinard recently told me about the waste he saw while fishing in remote Tierra del Fuego:  “I have fished the Rio Grande many times, beginning in the 1970s before there were lodges. Doug Tompkins and I once walked along the Rio Chico for five days where we ran across some “gear” (heavy lines with huge brass spoons and multiple hooks) fishermen who had about 10 big sea run browns hung up on a clothesline to photograph. Then they threw them away!”
I had a similar experience in the 1980’s while scouting a route into remote Lago Blanco. Following the Rio Grande, in Chilean territory along a muddy wagon trail, recently rutted by fresh jeep tracks, we came upon a camp of fishermen. They too were using “heavy metal” tackle, and had caught several huge brown trout, some over three feet long. They’d hauled the fish to shore, and then just left them to rot.
This is no longer tolerable. Ethics change as the demands on the resources change. Too many people are killing too few fish.
I come from a fishing family in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Trout and venison were plentiful and fed my folks through the Great Depression and then through food shortages during World War Two. As a kid, I could walk from our home in town to a creek and catch fish, often enough for the family table. Fish, also venison and elk, were always part of our diet. The only “regulation” I knew was: ‘Kill only what you’ll eat; waste nothing.”  A similar ethic of “leave enough for tomorrow, and for others” seems to be universal among native peoples and those who live off the land. With our current population explosion, fishing regulations - such as bag limits, season restrictions and habitat management - have become essential all over the world.
If you’re fishing just for sport, where all the rewards lie in stalking, catching and landing the fish, then admire them and put them back to catch another day. Do it for yourself and for your fellow fishermen. As Lee Wulff, who was considered the premier proponent of catch and release fishing in the United States, once said: “The finest gift you can give to any fisherman is to put a good fish back, and who knows if the fish you caught isn’t someone else’s gift to you.” 
Wulff also saw that “traditional” fishing – with live bait, metal lures and snagging, often with multiple, barbed hooks - was creating too much damage to individual fish and to the entire fish populations. Hence, Wulff and others promoted ethical catch and release fishing in which the fish are caught on barbless hooks, then not “tossed” back -- perhaps photographed, but then gently, fondly even, the fish are hand-held in the water until they recover and swim off.
Wulff’s counterpart in Chile is Adrian Dufflocq, who in the early 1960s pioneered the country’s first fly fishing lodge in Chile, Cumilahue Lodge, near Lago Ranco. Dufflocq calls for overall protection of the river environment. In particular, the boom in salmon farming in southern Chile has at times tried to expand to fresh water lakes, with all of their negative ecological consequences such as the spread of disease and the escaped salmon threatening the survival of other fish. Says Dufflocq: “Quality sport fishing and tourism are not compatible with the existence of fish farming in the same waters.”
My fishing pal in Colorado, Curt Carpenter, tells me that by 1974, fishing was nearly ruined —“fished out’ -- in most streams around Aspen and western Colorado.  In desperation, three local men decided to act, and got fishing regulations, seasons, bag limits and enforcement in place. This first experiment was a three-mile (5 km) section on the Roaring Fork River.
The result: the fish got a chance to rest, feed, breed and multiply. Within a couple seasons the catch and release rules were also soon adopted on several other rivers. Along with it, sport fishing suddenly became a new and lucrative adventure tourism attraction, a cash crop for local hotels, restaurants, and shops, and employment for fishing guides. As well, hatcheries have been established to re-stock fish, and biologists have found ways to restore river environments, such as improve spawning gravels in the river beds.
Chile is on the right track. Yvon Chouinard says that the fishing is better now in Chile than it ever has been. In part, that’s because fish that were introduced in the 1930s are now more naturalized, but even more so it’s because catch and release fishing is becoming the norm, not the exception in the country. “With fly fishing more popular the conservation ethic has also changed now,” says Chouinard.
Recycling of any resource is admirable. Recycling of live fish is downright benevolent.
This is the exciting thing about “catch and release’ fishing. We are “borrowing” or “sharing” from the natural world rather than destroying the resource. As this concept is understood, the ethic evolves and may contribute to preserving other resources: animals, soils, plants and eventually our atmosphere and climate.
The author, Jack Miller, is a contributing editor to Patagon Journal and has written for National Geographic, GEO and American Alpine Journal.

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