A few years ago, I took a vacation with my wife and son to London, England, and one of the top things on our to-do list was see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. So, we went early and staked out a spot on the Queen Victoria statue, directly in front of the palace gates, along with other people from all around the world.
Soon enough, the vaunted Coldstream Guards pounded up the pavement in full redcoat regalia. The pageantry was inspiring, enough to make the hairs stand up on my arms. And right as the band reached our spot, 90 percent of the people promptly turned their backs on the marching soldiers so they could take “selfie” photos to capture themselves in the moment.
I found that to be sad, lacking respect, and a curiously odd reflection of just how much handheld devices have facilitated a culture of over-the-top self-absorption.
While some people will inevitably back themselves off the rim of the Grand Canyon as they say “cheese!” into their “smart” phones, or invite a bison in Yellowstone National Park to give them an impromptu lesson in aerial acrobatics, I don’t see that changing.
But some folks whom I respect very much contend that things have gotten out of hand, especially lately. My friend Joe Demalderis, a great guide who works the Upper Delaware River, put it bluntly in a recent exchange: “Instagram and smart phones have created a conservation catastrophe. Grip-n-grins are off the charts with people taking pictures of every single fish they catch. Keep them wet seems to be a foreign concept to many. I was once someone who although I didn’t take pictures of every fish, I took too many out of the water. Reforming your ways is very liberating.”
So, let’s talk straight about snapping photos of fish out of water. For starters, I’ll say that nearly every time we show a photo in TROUT magazine, or on the TU website, or in our E-newsletter (sign up to get each weekly edition here) of a fish above the waterline, I get a nastygram from someone who thinks showing any fish out of water—even if it’s dripping profusely, and virtually shimmering in the shot—is tantamount to burning the flag.
I also know, full well, that many of you have heard pledges from TU and other sources not to ever show airborne fish anymore. But even my friends at #KeepFishWet jumped in and suggested at the time that was a bridge too far.
I’ve tried to swear off the grip-n-grin (though I know there’s a large catalog on the Interwebs of me holding various fish). As editor of TROUT magazine, I do my best to cut down on the fish-above-waterline shots we use. You’re probably never going to see a grip-n-grin shot on the cover of TROUT so long as I am editor. But there’s a simple reason for that: I think they’re cliché.
All of that said, I’m also a realist, and truth number one is, if you don’t want to risk harm to a fish, you shouldn’t be fishing in the first place. To me, that’s a non-starter. Like most of you, I love the act of fishing. I love watching the eat and the feel of the tug. I love taking a close look and appreciating the fish I catch, not because they are mere objects, rather, because they cause me to appreciate nature, and adventure, and especially the people who mentored me along the way. Many rivers and lakes throughout the world are in a better place right now because people enjoy fishing, and that’s a fact.
In my humble opinion, the person who disregards the many reasons why people might want to snap a simple photo and criticizes a shot of a fish above the water surface yet endeavors themselves to catch dozens of fish in a day by whatever means necessary is pretty much talking out of both sides of their mouth. Catch and release is not a cure-all, but done with care and consideration, it does help the overall sustainability of a sport fishery.
Truth number two is there’s a heck of a lot more that determines the survivability of a caught and released fish than the seconds above waterline they experience as a photo is snapped. How long did you take to land the fish (fight time)? What is the water temperature? Is that a spawning fish? Has that fish been caught before, and how many times? Is it a wild, strong fish, or a stocker? What type of fish is it?
Truth number three is that, in our catch-and-release world, the photo is often the only keepsake we end up with. I remember the days when I started out, and the only way the “fish story” was truly verified was when I opened up the refrigerator door and saw the gutted trout Uncle Charlie had caught, splayed out on a paper plate under plastic wrap. That’s not to say I have anything against keeping and eating fish when done within regulations. I don’t. But if we’re going to go down the path of catch and release and taking photos as we go, let’s be mindful of our own habits and practices, because even a little bit of concern and moderation can make a big sustainability impact that benefits others.
Sascha Danylchuk of “Keep Fish Wet” (keepfishwet.org) relayed an eye-opening statistic that’s really stuck with me. She said, “If anglers could reduce catch-and-release mortality by one percent, that would amount to 20 million more fish alive and swimming, every year.”
We anglers might hope science can give us black-and-white guidelines for all of this, and for sure, there are good practices like wet hands and quick windows for taking photos. But rather than putting the onus on others and pointing fingers, I think the most practical path forward boils down to two words…
Handing a trout to someone who has never handled one, in a moving drift boat, to snap a photo when the odds of that fish clunking around in the bottom of the boat are pretty high… doesn’t make a lot of sense. Photo-documenting every single trout caught on your annual march through Montana… not a ton of sense. Holding the salmon you just fought for 45 minutes (because you wanted to catch it on 6X tippet) over your head… lacks common sense.
Conversely, getting all worked up over a photo of someone beaming with excitement as the fish is clearly dripping, close to the waterline, and about to be released relatively unscathed doesn’t make a lot of sense to me either. And anglers arguing with each other doesn’t make much sense ever.
I think we’re learning. I think positive examples will prevail. And I trust the common sense of the vast majority of anglers. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.