Fishing Conservation

Do we anglers, ourselves, amount to a ‘conservation challenge’?

Angling Trade magazine (of which I am also editor) recently conducted a poll of folks with a stake in the business of fly fishing, asking what they considered to be the greatest conservation issue of the day.

Answer number one… climate change.  No surprise there, but that probably wouldn’t have been the case even several years ago. 

What do you think number two was? Snake River dams?  No… that came in third. “Other” came in fourth. Protecting the Everglades was next, and Pebble Mine rounded out the condensed field, though for the record, we should all know that fight isn’t done yet at all. I swear, I’ve been covering Pebble for at least 15 years, long before I ever joined TU, and that mine just keeps popping up like the bad guy at the end of a B-grade horror movie. 

Alas… conservation concern number two, amongst those who make a living in some form or fashion through fly fishing, was “angling pressure.”

In other words, to be blunt, how badly are we pounding the fish? How sustainable is all that (or not)? And do we risk loving some of our rivers and flats to death?

I certainly don’t mean to be a kill-joy, but I’ve been tuned into that concern for a long time now.

I’ve seen rivers where the fishing isn’t what it was, and I know that wasn’t caused by fire, flood, or other natural disaster. I’ve seen that happen in the salt too. I’ve said that playing a “numbers” game is not sustainable… I’ve warned that catch-and-release is not a foolproof “get out of jail free” card.  Some fish die, even fish caught and released, and if you’re only gunning for numbers, you’re depleting the resources, whether you admit it or not.

I know… I know… I know…

“How many?” has been the benchmark for measuring success since Isaak Walton or before. When I call my own mother and say, “I went fishing today!” I know the first thing she’s going to ask is, “how many did you catch?”

I also know this very simple truth: People absolutely love to be taught how to fish, and they absolutely hate to be told how to fish. 

If I tell you to pump the brakes when you’re on your hard-earned fantasy escape to Montana, you’ll be mad at me. If I tell a guide to maybe spend a little more effort teaching people how to fish with various techniques (actually guiding… guiding to me is about teaching) rather than netting fish and taking photos, catching as many as possible because that’s the only way Mr. Sport is going to hand you a crisp Ben Franklin at the end of the day… well, they don’t want to hear that.

But the truth of the matter is that in some places—not all, but some, throughout the country—a race to experience “how many” is a conservation concern. Or it should be seen as such. Because we can plant all the trees, fix all the bad culverts, advocate to remove dams, and all that good stuff, and if all anglers do is show up with the notion that pounding the living snot out of as many fish as possible is how to define success, none of the good mojo matters.

So what’s it going to be?

At face value, if you don’t want to pressure fish, don’t go fishing! Buuuzzzzzz. Nope. That’s a non-starter. I, like millions of other anglers, love fishing. Been in my blood forever, and I’m not going to change. Fishing, done with a sense of ethics, is, in and of itself, supremely vital, and anglers have been hauling the mail on ALL conservation from rivers to the ocean for generations. 

But maybe we do pump the brakes a little bit. How? I don’t think permits and limiting angling days are the best answers, but believe me, those options are on the table. 

Instead, I’m hoping that more anglers, and guides in particular, will see a more sustainable “less is more” plan. Follow the lead of the hunting demographic. Heck, follow the lead of the steelhead and salmon crowd in the Pacific Northwest, who have learned the hard way that the numbers game is a dead-end street for anyone with a conscience who wants to share the resource with others and see it last for generations. 

Mix it up. Try various techniques.

Triple-down on learning the vast, wonderful options, and tackling the many challenges fly fishing has to offer.

That’s so much more rewarding than winning some imaginary contest where you bag 50 fish in a day using some rudimentary technique that was conjured up, by its very nature, to afford any person with no angling skill whatsoever, to feel the thrill of catching a fish. Endeavor to transcend.

Different rivers have different tolerances. Same for the flats. If it’s on, and you’re on… go baby go.  So yeah, sure, there can and should be bonanza days.

But it’s time we all started picking and choosing where and when that happens more carefully, and understand that we… you… me… every angler who steps into a river, is indeed a “conservation factor.”

That’s the elephant in the room, and it’s time for all of us to admit it’s there, and work together to figure things out.