Outdoor enthusiasts throughout the North Country were saddened by the recent news that Dennis Aprill, the Press-Republican’s longtime outdoor writer had passed away over the weekend from pancreatic cancer.
Dennis, a friend and colleague, was both an accomplished outdoorsman and an award-winning writer with several books to his credit. For more than 20 years, he offered an unbroken series of outdoor columns. His record of producing more than 1,000 consecutive regular weekly columns is both startling and admirable.
As a regular reader, I looked forward to seeing what topic Dennis would be covering every week. His columns managed to satisfy all user groups, not just the hook and hand gun crowd. His words were always informative and encouraging. He led by example by regularly featuring stories and photos that included the outdoor activities he enjoyed with his own children.
While Dennis will surely be missed on the river banks, the mountaintops or at his hunting camp near Black Brook, his loss will be felt mostly in the many homes across the region, where we would all settle down on Sunday mornings with a cup of coffee and turn to the back page of the sports section in the Plattsburgh Press-Republican.
Catch and release revisited
Catch-and-release angling is a practice that has gained wide acceptance among the angling community. The practice is intended to provide recreational anglers with a conservation technique that protects fisheries from overharvesting and to protect and enhance the sustainability of native and wild game fish.
It is believed that the practice of catch and release angling can greatly enhance a fishery by protecting larger fish that have the capability of producing offspring. The practice is especially important to protect genetic integrity in waters where populations of wild fish still survive.
By releasing fish to fight another day, anglers help to conserve a valuable natural resource and insure that the recreational resources are not exploited. On many rivers, catch-and-release regulations have had to be put in place and enforced to allow fishing to continue.
It is not a modern concept, the ethic has been around for centuries. However, many anglers, flyfishermen in particular, believe that the practice of catch and release began with Lee Wulff’s 1939 admonitions that, “Game fish are too valuable to be caught only once,” and “The fish you release is your gift to another angler and remember, it may have been someone’s similar gift to you.”
In fact, it was an Adirondack tourist who first proclaimed the need for American anglers to adopt the concept of catch-and-release angling. Back in the late 1860s, William H.H. “Adirondack” Murray wrote of the need to restrict harvests of fish and game strictly to what is only necessary for food. He spoke of releasing “fully half of his catch.”
Murray’s book, “Adventures in the Wilderness” published in 1869 has been considered as possibly the most influential book in the conservation movement of the early years after the Civil War.
Of course, in those days anglers’ take limits were not based on the number of fish taken. Rather, the daily limit was ascribed in pounds and fishing creels we developed on a basis of the total weight carrying capacity.
In the final 20 years of the 19th century as stocks of fish and game began to diminish from overharvest, editors of many popular outdoor magazines campaigned for releasing fish as a means of conservation.
Another Adirondack visitor offered similar advice in 1936 when he published “Just Fishing Talk.” In his book, Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the United States Forest Service referred repeatedly to the practice of releasing fish.
Pinchot, known as the Father of American forestry, has also been credited with coining the term “conservation ethic” as it is applies to the protection of our natural resources.
“We love the search for fish and the finding, the tense eagerness before the strike and the tenser excitement afterward,” he wrote. “The long hard fight, searching the heart, testing the body and soul; and the supreme moment when the glorious creature, fresh risen from the depths of the sea, floats to your hand and then, the hook removed, sinks with a gentle motion back from whence it came, to live and fight another day.”
In theory, after playing and landing a fish, the prey is gently unhooked and safely returned to the water before it experiences any serious exhaustion or injury.
Waters that require the practice are often described as “No Kill Areas.” Proponents of the catch-and-release ideal typically prefer to use barbless hooks, which are much easier to remove than the barbed variety.
The West Branch of the Ausable is one of our region’s most popular No Kill waters, although it is better known as the “Trophy Trout Area.” In many western states, No Kill waters are also restricted to flyfishing only (FFO), on the belief that fishermen using spinning lures with treble hooks cannot effectively release fish safely.
Studies show that anglers who regularly return their live fish are also more likely to support efforts toward habitat conservation, stream restoration, watershed integrity and scientific research into the health and protection of the fisheries they frequent. Often, they are members of Trout Unlimited and volunteer time for such stream improvement efforts.
Catch and Release angling is also a standard practice for the majority of bass anglers. In bass fishing tournaments, which have spawned a multi-million dollar enterprise, anglers are only credited with live bass that are presented at weigh-in.
Most major bass fishing tournaments now provide special holding tanks for bass which are infused with highly oxygenated water as well as a mild chemical sedative that is intended to reduce the stress caused by being in such close proximity to many other large predatory fish.
Currently, there is a great deal of research being conducted to access the environmental impacts of bass tournaments. Locally, such negative impacts have received a lot of attention when numerous dead bass were discovered after a major tournament was hosted on Lake Champlain.
Opponents of catch-and-release fishing claim that fish are highly evolved vertebrates and that they share many of the same neurological structures that are associated with pain perception in humans.
Animal advocacy groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) point to studies that appear to prove that fish are actually quite similar neurologically to “higher” vertebrates and that blood chemistry studies reveal that hormones and blood metabolites associated with stress are quite high in fish that have fought before being brought to the net.
These are the same outfits that campaign against all fishing and hunting activities. Their recent anti-angling campaigns have included taglines such as “Fish are our Friends, not our Food” and “Fishing Hurts.” The organizations have primarily targeted children with these emotional appeals.
The groups have chosen to attack traditional sporting endeavors such as hunting and fishing on moral grounds, however there are no comparable opportunities for hunters to practice catch and release.
Corky Pugh was a Commissioner of Fish and Wildlife for the state of Alabama when I met him in Burlington, Vt. He had just delivered a speech to a gathering of fish and wildlife biologists when we spoke a few years ago.
Before the address, Mr. Pugh warned the audience that a lot of people were not going to like what he was about to say, and then he began.
“In my opinion, I believe that the practice of catch and release fishing is the worst thing that has ever happened to our sport,” he explained in a commanding voice.
Jaws dropped and there came an immediate and palpable buzz from the crowd as he continued in a southern drawl.
“Now, before ya’all string me up, please hear me out. I was only 5 years old when I caught my first bluegill in a small farm pond. Back then, if anyone had told me that I couldn’t throw that fish in a frying pan and eat it right up, why I woulda wrestled ‘em right into the ground.”
The noise in the room grew louder as Pugh continued.
“An you know what? To this day, I’d wrestle with any man who would attempt to deny a child a similar opportunity!”
By then, the assembled Fish and Game managers were stirring in their seats.
“Now, please let me explain,” he calmly continued. “Fishing and hunting are intended to be consumptive sports that require participants to harvest a renewable and sustainable natural resource. That is the goal of angling. It is not intended to be an opportunity to exert control over another species and enjoy that control, even if only for a short time.
“If we promote catch and release only, we are doing a great disservice to our sport. We are also promoting a cruel endeavor, for we are telling our children that it is acceptable to use another living thing simply for our own entertainment. And that is wrong.”
Enjoying the bounty of wild fish and game are in fact the ultimate fulfillment of these long-held sporting traditions. I recall a quote that captures the essence of this ethic, although the author is a long lost memory, “We do not go hunting to kill. We kill in order to have gone hunting.”
We hunt and fish because these are activities that in some unrealized way satisfy our inner craving for adventure by combining stalking, stealth, exploration and the exhilaration of accomplishment.
They are activities that satisfy a predatory instinct that remains hidden within all of us. Some choose to feed it and some prefer to repress it.
However, I often wonder if it is possible to satisfy the instinct by hunting or fishing without killing any prey?
Ernest Hemmingway, an avid hunter and angler, once explained this concept claiming, “It isn’t the kill that I seek, but rather the thrill of the hunt.”
Yet Hemmingway also took the kill shots and hung many blue marlin off the pier posts in Key West. Is it acceptable for proponents of catch-and-release fishing to enjoy a comparable thrill without ever taking a fish home to the frying pan? Surely, it isn’t necessary to kill every legal fish or animal you see, but is it truly ethical to pursue a blood sport without a receiving a single bloodstain?
The question is key to a life or death quandary that continues to vex many modern day sportsmen and women. Is it really fair to call it a sport if you’re not willing to accomplish the kill? Or is it acceptable to use the sport as a means of attaining pleasurable entertainment that is accomplished at the expense of another living creature?
Guide Joe Hackett displays an Adirondack brook trout destined for release. Anglers who adhere to the practice of catch and release are concerned with conserving our valuable cold water fisheries.