Does Harvest Have a Place in Fly Fishing?

Does Harvest Have a Place in Fly Fishing?

This text was originally delivered as a speech at the 2022 International Fly Tackle Dealer trade show hosted by the American Fly Fishing Trade Association. MeatEater adapted it into an article format for publication.

Good afternoon and thank you for coming. My name is Sam Lungren and I’m the supervising editor on MeatEater’s web publishing team. I’m a writer, a lifelong fly fisherman, and a former AFFTA board member. While I release more than half of the fish I catch on average, I paid most of my way through college and grad school by working on commercial fishing boats in Alaska. I’ve also been studying and writing about the declines of native steelhead and salmon my whole professional career. Hopefully, that sets up the paradox we’re about to discuss.

Our topic today is whether harvest has a place in fly fishing. The simple fact that someone would ask me to answer this question in such a setting demonstrates the pervasiveness of the catch-and-release ethic among fly anglers. I’m not here to answer it for anyone, though. The choice to kill a fish, where legal, is up to each individual angler with each individual catch. However, whether we as people, businesses, and institutions accept, promote, or condemn the practice is most certainly a relevant discussion for our industry to have. While three out of four fly anglers are still folks that look a lot like me, new and potential entrants to the sport are more diverse, more female, and statistically more interested in eating the fish they catch.

Origins of Angling According to the journal Science, there is evidence of early humans catching and eating fish going back nearly 2 million years. Many anthropologists and biologists actually credit the complex puzzles involved with acquiring fish and animal meat for the appearance of substantially larger hominid brains arising some 1.8 million years ago.

With those big fat brains, we learned how to make spears, nets, traps, and a variety of other tools to acquire fish. Archaeologists on Okinawa Island, Japan, in 2016 found what they believe to be the oldest-known fish hooks, carved out of sea snail shell, which carbon dated in the neighborhood of 23,000 years old. That technology spread the world over and humans almost everywhere have been catching fish on hook and line ever since, for more than 10,000 years in many regions.

It's not clear when we started using those hooks for fun and not entirely for food. As anglers, I think we all know it was always fun for humans on some level. That thrill we still feel when the line comes tight is likely tied to some highly evolved reward for your success in food procurement.

But it seems like folks were fully leaned into fishing for enjoyment by at least the birth of Jesus, evident in writing from Romans as far back as the first century CE that expressed pleasure and relaxation in connection with catching fish. Practices resembling modern fly fishing in Macedonia and Japan trace all the way back toward that time, too. In one of my favorite pieces I read on this topic, called “Ancient Indications of Angling Ethics” by Jon Lyman—on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website, of all places—the author claims “There were very early discussions about the need to limit one’s catch. Releasing fish alive may be nearly as old as the sport itself.”

Likely the first complete written records of fly fishing in English comes from Dame Juliana Berners’ “Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle” in 1496. The nunnery prioress concluded her famous essay with some highly conservationist advice:

“Also ye shall not be to rauenous in takyng of your sayde game, as too muche at one tyme whiche ye may lightly doo yf ye do in euery poynt as this present treatyse shewed you, whiche should lyghtly be the occasion to destroye your owne disportes and other mens also. And when ye haue a sufficient messe, ye should couet no more at that tyme, Also ye shal helpe your selfe to nouryshe the game in all that ye may and also to destroye all suche thynges as bene deuourers of it.”

In case that’s a little tough to read, here's my best swing at a trim and translation.

“Also, you shall not be too ravenous in taking of…game, as too much at one time…should…be the occasion to destroy your own sport and other men’s also. And when you have a sufficient mess, you should covet no more at that time. Also, you shall help yourself to nourish the game in all that you may...”

It's clear from Berners’ work alone that fly fishing, harvest, and self-restraint have been intertwined for at least 500 years.

Origins of Catch-and-Release Scholars point to common practices and written works in the United Kingdom back into the 18th century that directly discussed releasing fish. Thaddeus Norris wrote in his seminal 1864 book “The American Angler” that he released as many fish as he harvested. But that didn’t coalesce into a full-on dogma until somewhere around the nineteen-teens. Lyman claims that the first documented example of catch and release with no intent to harvest comes from George Parker Holden’s 1919 “Steamcraft:”

“Do not be afraid to join the slowly growing fraternity of those anglers whose password is ‘We put’em back alive!’” Holden wrote.

Gifford Pinchot, father of the U.S. Forest Service, wrote in 1933 about how he seldom killed the fish he caught. But much of the acclaim surrounding pure catch and release still goes to one of the great godfathers of modern fly fishing, Lee Wulff. In 1939 he wrote the famous words: “Game fish are too valuable to be caught only once.”

Catch and release as a catch phrase came on the scene shortly thereafter. In 1952, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources instituted the first-ever catch-and-release regulations in order to conserve native trout and reduce expenditures on stocking. Soon many other states followed suit for on fish populations suffering from overharvest or whose economic value exceeds its value as a food source. Research led by Dick Vincent on Montana’s Madison River in the late ‘60s eventually led the state to stop stocking trout in its rivers and manage for wild fish, primarily through catch and release. Many other states adopted the practice. Ray Scott brought the idea to bass tournaments in 1969, and that ethic branched out to many other marquee species, especially those involved in competitions including walleye, redfish, stripers, and muskie.

No-kill fishery designations continue to advance today. Florida didn’t ban the harvest of tarpon and bonefish until 2013. Washington State didn’t completely ban killing wild steelhead until 2015, and Oregon hasn’t yet fully removed that practice despite many anglers calling for it. Texas and other states have been publicly debating more protective measures for alligator gar, bigmouth buffalo, and other fishes formerly known as “rough” or “trash.” Plenty more fisheries where C&R has become standard practice for most serious anglers still allow some level of take.

“It’s primarily contextual and situational. I think we as anglers and humans are always looking for blanket statement or easy answers, but often in nuanced situations that leads to ill-informed decisions,” fishing writer and author Miles Nolte said. “The concept of catch-and-release angling has been undeniably positive for fishing broadly. But, in certain situations, that pendulum has swung too far and become a dogma. We have to realize there are certain waters where limited, thoughtful harvest is actual better for a fishery than thoughtless, knee-jerk catch and release.”

Humans and Fish Consumption More than 3 billion people rely on fish protein for vital nutrients, according to the United Nations. A 2014 study by the USDA found that 74% of Americans reported eating fish in the last 30 days, a number that held relatively steady across races and ethnicities. The CDC recommends eating seafood twice a week in its official dietary guidelines.

And, if people are going to eat fish, personally delivering the coup de grâce carries a massively lower carbon footprint and ecological impact than buying it from a restaurant or supermarket, whether that fish is wild-caught or farmed. Importing fillets from Chile and Thailand clearly isn’t light on the greenhouse gasses. Open-water and inland aquaculture operations are credited with invasive species introductions, disease and parasite transmission, pollution, and other damages from British Columbia to the Mississippi River to Norway.

Seafood consumption is slightly higher among wealthier people in a statistical sense, but it’s also critically important for many lower income and subsistence communities as well. A recent study in Florida found that many anglers in urban areas fish in order to avoid hunger for themselves and their families. The same must hold true in rural areas across the country, especially in subsistence cultures. On reservations and tribal treaty rights areas, the traditions around fishing and eating fish are often closely tied to religious beliefs.

A 2017 study in Connecticut found that 43% of anglers cited fishing for food as an important motivation for fishing. Southwick Associates’ 2021 Special Report on Fishing found that, out of some 969 million American fishing outings last year, more than three out of four participants were successful in catching at least one fish on their most recent trip. Forty-five percent opted to release their catch, meaning that more than half of the folks who caught fish last year kept at least some of those fish.

In 2020 during the complete chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, many state game agencies credited their massive spike in fishing participation at least in some degree to concerns over supply chain instability and food security. Major outdoor retailers gained the same understanding through private research. Of the 4.4 million first-time anglers last year, 21% of respondents said that catching their own food was a primary motivation to start fishing.

Female Participation The 2021 Southwick report found that women made up about 30% of the 7.8 million Americans who went fly fishing last year. That’s up 10% percent from 2011, however. First-time anglers in 2021 were 41% female, though women made up 36% of total participants, demonstrating that this market segment is still growing. However, the report states that “Far more women expressed an interest in fishing than actually did it. In 2020, 48% of those who said they’d like to fish were female but just 36% of those who fished were female.”

A 2001 study of anglers in Minnesota found that Women rated motivations related to catching fish for food higher than men did. Women still rank highly in the “consumptive angler” category of demographic research. This motivation often ranks behind the social aspects of angling for women in studies but is nonetheless influential. Anecdotal evidence suggests that women, especially mothers, may enjoy bringing home food from a fishing trip at a higher rate than men.

“One of the main reasons I started fly fishing was to imitate a fish’s diet. This method allowed me to fish bugs and small baitfish that wouldn’t loop onto a bait hook or cast beyond my feet," fly fishing personality April Vokey said. "Back then, I fished specifically to take fish home, so it wasn’t vanity or excitement that encouraged me to fly fish, rather an opportunity to increase my catch rate. It wasn’t until I started fishing for wild steelhead that I encountered mandatory catch and release and experienced varying levels of snobbery around retention. Does harvest have a place in fly fishing? I think harvest has a place in all fishing. Method doesn’t dictate dinner.”

Minority Participation Fly fishing is 75% white, according to Southwick, pretty closely resembling the U.S. population, though fishing as a whole was at 79%. Of people who went fly fishing in 2020, 8% were Black, 4% Asian, and 11% Hispanic. That’s slightly higher than conventional fishing, which came in at 8% Black, 3% Asian, and 9% Hispanic—though it’s worth mentioning that of the anglers who left the sport last year, 9% were Black, 4% Asian, and 11% Hispanic.

Like women, more people of color expressed interest in fishing than actually participated. That said, after peaking in 2013, fly fishing participation among African Americans, Asians, and Hispanics has declined steadily in recent years.

A 2020 study from the University of Georgia that looked closely at minority fishing preferences, found that Black anglers prefer to keep the fish they caught more than white people. Hispanic and Asian anglers responding to polls also usually express a desire to bring home fish for themselves and families, which stands to reason given the huge role of seafood in the culinary traditions throughout Latin American and across Asia.

There are geographical and cultural realities at play here, and we can’t expect everyone who likes to fish to try fly fishing. There are real and perceived barriers to entry beyond the much higher costs involved with fly tackle. Still, if we are going to put our mouth where our money is in regard to racial inclusivity, the acceptance of harvest as a motivation and practice will be all the more important as the country continues to become more diverse.

“We need to redefine fly fishing to meet people where they are,” Lucas Bissett, executive director of American Fly Fishing Trade Association said. “When we’re looking for new participants and opportunities, we need to acknowledge that a lot of people experience fishing through harvest. We need to be open-minded as an industry to offer open arms for new participation.”

Does Harvest Belong in Fly Fishing? Look, I’m biased here. My other great passion in life is elk hunting, and I pretty much only eat meat I harvested myself. That includes a lot of walleye, burbot, and rainbow trout. I work for a business that grew out of the notion that wild game and fish are the finest foods there are and should be honored as such. Many like-minded individuals agree with this sentiment.

“Eating certain fish that I catch is essential to the experience. Releasing those that won’t be eaten is equally essential,” legendary angler Flip Pallot said.

Adaptive Management: A game warden complimented me one time as I walked out of a prolific river stretch with a 6-weight in one hand and a big, dead rainbow trout in the other. “There’s so many damn fish in here and no one ever kills them,” I remember him saying. “The biologist wants people to take them.” It’s a biological truth that selective harvest will frequently produce larger and healthier fish, especially with species like northern pike and largemouth bass, which can become stunted in confined and overly competitive environments.

Managers on the South Fork of the Snake River in Idaho now offer a bounty on the prolific rainbow trout in order to protect native cutthroat. You still must kill lake trout in Yellowstone. It seems catch and release came about concurrent if not slightly after the era of planting whatever-the-hell kind of fish wherever anyone felt like it. Hence, harvest is generally encouraged where exotic species compete with natives. And that’s not to mention the fact that most states invest millions on hatchery stocking efforts every year, and often expect some level of harvest as a return on investment.

That said, harvest doesn’t make a lick of sense anymore with native species that have low fecundity, slow growth, or are threatened in any way. Our community and industry cannot stop championing no-kill regulations for many of our most popular and pressured sport fishes.

Defensibility: It also feels worth mentioning for context that the practice of catch and release is currently illegal in Germany and Switzerland. The German Animal Welfare Act states: “no one may cause an animal pain, suffering or harm without good reason,” which has been legally construed to prohibit fishing for reasons other than food consumption. So, while some may instinctively believe that catch and release is more palatable to a non-fishing audience and voting public, the opposite may actually be true. Some animal rights groups actually target the practice as unnecessary and cruel, while often stopping short of condemning fishing for the purpose of food.

Releasing a fish does not absolve anyone for the act of catching it. All studies into catch and release mortality record some level of stress and death in fish put back in the water, though the numbers vary widely. One universal, however, is that the span of time the fish spends out of the water and the care with which it is handled directly correlate with its chances for survival and further reproduction. If a fish takes the hook in the gills or falls hard on the boat floor, where legal the ethical choice is to keep it.

Inclusivity: Despite much marketing and numerous state and federal government campaigns, fishing remains strongly male and Caucasian dominated. We much acknowledge the fact that women and people of color are more interested in harvest than your typical fly angler of the past. A more accepting stance toward that practice would help welcome more involvement from those groups.

Clearly though, on some level, fly fishing is bigger than harvest. In many situations it’s a deliberate handicap, a harder way to catch fish that strikes closer to art than death. Catch and release will always stay in close connection to fly fishing, but paradoxically, harvest will too. If bringing home food for dinner motivates people to try the sport, that is as valid a motive as any to drag a fish out of the water by the nose.

Consider the effect if you’re selling a rod at a show or a line at a fly shop. Think about what you say in a magazine, on the river, or in the sewer of social media. Most of the guides I know or have fished with over the years don’t allow killing fish on their boat. That makes an abundance of sense with cutthroat trout, muskie, sailfish, and permit, but with regenerative species like mahi mahi, snapper, redfish, or panfish, harvest can provide sports with a satisfying take-home, a way to enjoy and remember a day on the water long after leaving it. On a multi-day float trip or hike to a backcountry lake, consider the net-zero ecological effect of bonking a bass or trout or two. You may experience a higher level of connection with that place and a heightened sense that we as humans are not yet entirely tame.

We have always caught fish and eaten fish. We’ve also been releasing at least some of them, likely for millennia. I personally believe it’s useful for the fly fishing industry to embrace that historical reality and allow space for nuanced discussions about fisheries management.

For anyone out there who just fishes for fun and to connect with nature, that’s fine too. Just don’t look down on someone who wants to eat a fish. Don’t forget where you come from. Fly fishing is and has always been a bloodsport, no matter how hard we try to sanitize it.

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