Seeking absolution

The catch and release debate, inside and out
rainbout trout release
The release of a wild rainbow from the Smoky Mountains (photo: Rueben Browning).

There’s a tension at the heart of fly fishing, a baffling, bulbous, gordian knot that we can’t untie with logic or reason or emotion. Yet most of us — in fact, the vast majority of us — are not even aware of the issue.

The theory of plate tectonics explains how huge chunks of the earth’s massive, ever-shifting crust sit atop a sphere of molten and semi-molten rock, creating tension where those plates intersect; grinding and twisting and buckling until a sudden release jolts us without warning. That’s the kind of sub-surface strain I’m referencing, with the only real difference being that I’m talking fly fishing rather than continental drift.

When I catch a fish and kill it for my dinner, I’m consciously depleting a precious resource; a resource I’d much rather protect. At the same time, when I catch a fish and release it, I’m showing the world that my desire to hook and play that fish — a clear manifestation of my ego — is more important that whatever negative impacts may arise from my actions. When you think about it, there’s a fair bit of “damned if we do and damned if we don’t” inherent in that choice.

Catch and release fishing is, in a very real sense, about imposing our will on the natural world and then, after the fish is off the hook, yelling, “No harm, no foul!” From a thirty-thousand-foot-in-the-sky perspective, the whole thing looks awfully tenuous, as if we are a legion of cats playing with a similar number of unhappy mice. At the same time, though, I think it’s important to point out that we are cats.

Or at least we’re close enough for the comparison to hold water.

For better or worse, we are natural-born predators trying to reconcile our genetic imperative to hunt and feed with an equally important, if perhaps less genetically-driven desire - the desire to husband our resources and leave something of real value for tomorrow, and for future generations.

The very nature of the human experience — part predator, part caretaker — creates an internal tension. The question isn’t whether that tension is real — it obviously is — but whether we, with all the excess baggage we haul around on a daily basis, are willing to look honestly at the conflict and then align our actions with our values.

And that brings us to the question of the day. How do we fish in a way that allows us to practice catch & release fly fishing while continuing to feel good about ourselves and our sport?

You can disagree, but in my mind there are three major legs supporting the catch & release stool. The first is “expertise,” and it’s relevant because of a mantra you’ll hear shared freely in the world of medicine: Primum non nocere. “First, do no harm.”

When we have real on-the-water skills, it’s becomes far less likely that our actions will have a negative impact. Experienced anglers tend to hook a fish in the lip, play it as quickly as possible, and then release it unharmed without the need for hauling it out of the water for extra handling or gratuitous photos. The ‘Keep ‘em Wet’ ethos reinforces what serious fishermen have known for years. With very few exceptions, fish should stay in their natural element.

Then there’s number two: awareness. At its most basic level, awareness is seeing what’s happening around us. Why is that important? Because the more we see, the more empathy we develop.

Awareness is the protein that builds our “I love this place!” muscles. It’s the foundation that helps us care deeply about nature, and about our fisheries. And from a moral perspective, it helps ensure that our personal scales tilt towards “Good” rather than “Greed.”

As our awareness grows, we walk - or wade - softly, we treat the landscapes and waters with more respect, we recognize that everything around us is tied together and that whatever indignities we heap upon the fish or the frog or the fern, we also heap upon ourselves.

There’s a flip side to all this, of course. Awareness creates empathy, and empathy means we realize that it isn’t just the trout or the tarpon with a hook in his face. Whether or not we feel it, our lip suffers as well. As Si’ahl, the Dkhw'Duw'Absh chief, once said: “Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

Please think about that for a second.

And then, at the very end, there’s advocacy. I suppose you could look at advocacy as ‘pay to play,’ or as ‘buying indulgences,’ but I think of it more as living the Golden Rule; as standing up for our fisheries in the way that we wish others would stand up for us. And I should be clear. Advocacy, at least in my mind, represents the heavy finger that tilts the scales in favor of catch & release. It’s us — that’s you and I — protecting the resource, and the fish, and giving our children and grandchildren a chance at experiencing the natural world through something far more personal than books, and far more visceral than a computer screen.

I honestly don’t think we’d work so hard to protect our waters and our landscapes if we weren't anglers. Our time on the water, where we literally wade waist deep through life, solidifies our connection to the natural world and shows us how important it is to stand tall for our fisheries.

So now we need to ask ourselves one final question. Is all this a load of crap? Are we rationalizing behavior that we can’t defend? Or does catch and release, done as ethically as possible and with an eye toward the greater good, really make sense?

Sorry, but I can’t answer that question for anyone else. From where I sit, it’s shades of gray rather than black and white. For now, though, and in this moment, I am at peace with my catch and release.


I had this exact feeling fishing yesterday. I know that we are placed here to have dominion on the Earth, but I feel like we have to save it from ourselves. Very well written article with great views. Thanks for writing!

Ask yourself, "Who are best stewards of these resources?"

Fishing is foremost a "blood sport." In catch and release fishing, generally speaking, there is less blood spilled. But there can still be harm, and some mortality, to varying degrees, depending upon your approach. We may consider how to reduce our impacts on fish by employing less damaging equipment and techniques, such as; single point, smaller, short shank barbless hooks, artificial lures or flies only, and not handling the fish unnecessarily, nor removing the fish from the water. If catch and release fishing is neither good nor bad, then it is at least less bad. And we can always do better.

Well said. Appreciate your musings and conclusion.

Todd, these are all real questions and ones that catch & release practitioners arrive at sooner or later. From my perspective your logic is spot on. I will go further and suggest empirical evidence is overwhelming on your side: as the US lead 'catch and release as a management tool' for a reason, being that waterways, especially those that are easily accessible, where appropriate fishing regulations do not exist, are mostly devoid of once native trout and/or at best have marginal trout populations. Catch and release (even poorly executed) is significantly better for the survival of the species we love. And yes, that's sufficient for me to sleep well, even more so if all anglers would "keep em wet" as you suggest.

Genesis 1:28
God blesses them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground."
God made all of this for us and put us here to be stewards of it. Do not feel ashamed of catch and release or taking a fish. As long as we are taking care of our resource and not abusing the species or privilege we are not in the wrong. It is possible to over reason things to the point of unreason. Go fish!

WTF does any of this have to do with religion. "subdue it", "rule over the fish.." - what an entitled a$$hole. Grow up.
Take care of the planet and its resources and it will be there for future generations. Fishing is a blood sport, but maybe C&R can protect enough fish so our children/grandchildren can experience catching a wild trout. Great writing as always Todd! Too many shades of gray for sure. Love the quote: “Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

Beautifully and intelligently written. The respect you have for nature, God's creation, is poetically emphasized in your writing. May all mankind come to awareness as you have.

I guess I agree with the article and all of the comments with the exception of the religious crap. The idea that the Earth was put here for us is what created this mess we are in, and I'm not just referring to fisheries, look around. I've been fly fishing for 45 years, I've fished all over the world, and admittedly, I've killed a few fish along the way, some intentionally and some unintentionally. I think the jest of Todd's essay is poignant in that we cannot sustain or justify our practice unless we evolve. At this point in my fishing life, it is no longer a numbers game, or size, or even species, but location, solitude, and a sense of connection without being the central player in the narrative.

thanks Todd. Advocacy is my excuse too, but the whole idea of C&R is an ethical minefield. We have to kill to live, but we don't have to torment another creature for our entertainment. Some days I just go catch a few brookies, kill and eat them, to avoid having to think about it.

As I wrote (see link from my name),
Normally I would not kill native trout like this, preferring to slaughter the invasive Eastern brook trout, but the boys wanted to eat their catch. The ethics of catch-and-release fishing bother me every time though admittedly not enough to actually stop fishing. It seems unpleasantly close to torture as I pull in a struggling frightened creature, for nothing but my entertainment: in a way it's a relief to simply kill and eat, putting our needs above the trouts' needs as they put theirs above the damselflies'.

Yes, this. If I'm having a great day on the water, I now find myself thinking about keeping one or two fish and quitting for the day. Or just hanging it up for the day.

There is no justification for catch and release or any other blood sport. I don't fish because I do not want to have fun harming fish. Anyone who thinks there is a justification is simply practicing self deception.

Hey, guys.

Lets not forget (and not stop the fight) of F&G stocking over our wild and native fish to begin with.