Trevor Sithole, a very bright young lad from the most rural of environments in Natal, recently posed a question on social media about catch and release. Essentially asking for advice about how to respond to people who question the logic of capturing a fish only to let it go, you know the thing “why catch it if you aren’t going to kill it?”
I am sure we have all faced variations of this question in our angling lives and some of us might still be battling with that very same conundrum within our own minds.
Trevor comes from a tribal background , deeply rooted in animal husbandry, having grown up in Thendela in the Kamberg. A place were communal values still hold sway, where the elders enjoy both respect and influence, an environment where the spirit of “Ubuntu” (Human Kindness) combined with a level of understanding and respect for the powers of both the natural and supernatural drive behaviours and social structures.
Image courtesy of Thendela Fly Fishing www.thendelaflyfishing.co.za
Trevor’s people live to a large degree in harmony with nature. Certainly they harness it, control it to some extent, breed cattle selectively to get the results that they want but despite most lacking a formal western education, or perhaps because they lack that western view, they see themselves as part of the natural world not apart from it. It is incredible how important that space after the “a” can prove to be.. That all got me to thinking, “why would we go to the trouble of catching a fish only to release it?”
Let me say that my views weren’t always along the same lines, there was a time where I pursued trout with worms and spinners, by fair means and foul. Where any fish of “legal size” was dispatched to be enjoyed later with brown bread and butter. My thinking has however changed over the years.
I can recall a “postscript” in the book “The Trout and the Fly” by Goddard and Clarke on the subject of “barbless hooks” and thinking “ what a couple of tossers”. (I have to confess I am a little embarrassed to recall those thoughts, but they are part of my history none the less.)
I can still see in vivid detail the very first sizeable trout that I released, the monumental psychic struggle to give up my bragging rights not to mention supper. This all well before the advent of waterproof digital cameras and social media. Equally at a time where such actions weren’t mandated by regulation. I put that fish in and out of the water half a dozen times before I managed, finally, to release my grip and in that moment life changed. Watching my prize swim free was suddenly worth giving up any thoughts of lunch. To me, watching that fish swim away was the most amazing thing to experience; it looked far better finning in the crystal clear water than it ever would have in a frying pan. From that day on I have rarely killed a trout and never one from a breeding stream.
Fishing is probably unique in that it is the only field sport where the demise of one’s quarry isn’t assured. Once you have captured your fish you now find yourself in, the perhaps unenviable position, of tremendous authority. You now have the power of life or death literally in your hands. You have the influence of the Gods, the Thumbs up, Thumbs down , life or death paradox of the Roman games and with such power comes undoubtedly tremendous responsibility.
Just because, as human beings, we have the power to destroy something, doesn’t absolve us from the responsibility of consideration as to whether or not we should. The majority of fly anglers can’t claim that they “need” the fish for food, the price of the average fly line would keep you knee deep in sushi for the better part of a year.
Outside of the medical professions, and the occasional homicidal and sociopathic dictator, anglers are some of the few who genuinely get to hold the choice of life or death over another being within their grasp, and it is a power that really needs to be considered very carefully.
It is perhaps equally a metaphor for much else that we humans do to our planet, our technological advances have given us massive power over our domain. We can drill holes into the very floor of our home to extract oil and gas, we can rape the seas of all life and dangerously we convince ourselves that we can protect each other from the consequences. We imagine that we can kill all the fish in the sea and then make up for the loss of food by genetically engineering other sources. With such power comes great responsibility and one has to wonder if most of us behave as responsibly as we should.
Going back to Trevor’s apparently naïve query it turns out that the question isn’t quite as simple as it first appears. All creatures, given the opportunity to breed hold within them the very matrix of survival. They represent the seeds of future generations and something that the tribesmen of Thendela understand, which sadly most modern westerners don’t, is that a living animal with breeding potential holds within it the power of compound interest. That a bull left unslaughtered can produce more of its kind, that when nurtured instead of exploited the natural world can provide for us almost endlessly. Indeed it has done so for tens of thousands of years.
Were a herdsman to kill all his stock he could potentially have a fine feast, but of course the very next day he would be poor. So it is with fish, if you kill a fish , not only do you deprive everyone else of that fish but equally of its potential. You steal the existence of that fish’s progeny not just from other anglers but from future anglers, from your children and grandchildren. And of course you end a blood line that has evolved over millennia. In effect, just like the herdsman who has a feast and becomes poorer as a result. When you kill a fish you make all anglers poorer, indeed you make the very planet poorer.
It is nice to imagine that, what we consider to be, more primitive people, live harmoniously with nature in some utopian fairyland, understanding that they are part of the whole, that over exploitation will see their own demise. It is simple to think of these people as foolish or naïve, failing to take more than they need in fear of upsetting some imagined deity. To dream that the Salmon People of North America don’t take too many salmon in case the salmon spirits cease to visit their home rivers. To think that the Yanomami tribesmen of the Amazon basin view the forest as their nurturing mother, seeking constantly to avoid offending her.. It is a nice notion, and to a point true, but equally they don’t have the power to exploit. They don’t have the technology to catch or kill more than their share and are therefore not obliged to exercise the same restraint which seems all too lacking in modern westernised society.
In reality then, it is our very advancement which brings with it greater responsibility, with our technology, our cars, our freezers. With our carbon rods and fine nylon tippets, our chemically sharpened hooks and hi tech plastic lines, we have enhanced our effectiveness to the point where we are able to do real damage. Add to that our numbers and one quickly realises that it would only require that each angler took one fish to decimate a population.
All of that is too much for a conversation in a pub or on a river bank, so I have found that when asked “why don’t you eat the fish you catch?” I generally just say “I don’t kill them for religious reasons”.. Remarkably everyone seems to be quite happy to accept that as an answer.. If I told them it was for the future of the planet they would more than likely laugh their heads off.
In the end, the argument for releasing the fish that you catch is the same as it should be for much else. Humans have the power of life or death over great swathes of our natural heritage. We have the technology and numbers to rape the oceans, to fracture the foundations of our home in search of gas, to chop and burn and drill and slaughter to our hearts content. We have the power to kill and destroy, to consume and exhaust all manner of natural resources. But as I said to Trevor: “Having the ability to do something doesn’t mean that one should do it, and certainly doesn’t absolve one of the responsibilities that come with such power.”
Basically I don’t kill the fish I catch because I choose not to, and that’s about the best answer I can come up with.
“When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money”.
“If you like flowers you cut them and put them in a vase, if you love flowers you leave them in the garden and water them daily”.
“With great power comes great responsibility”.
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