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Trouts Journal

Fly Fishing Ethics 101

Ivan Orsic / Sep 22, 2011

“The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat” – the old catch-phrase of ABC’s Wide World of Sports – pretty much sums up the sport of fly fishing. The angler is there for the sport, not the spoils, so it’s very important to take the experience and leave everything else in the shape it was found or, if at all possible, in better shape. The sport angler, as opposed to the beer-bash fisherman, has a duty to pay attention to a higher calling than rod, reel, line, and bait, else whatever is left of pristine nature will cease to exist. By any name it would be as sweet, but for the sake of clarity let it be known as Fly Fishing Ethics 101.

Defeat, of course, would be a spoiled environment: Trash strewn in the river or on the bank, fish taken which could live another day in fighting condition, or even the intrusion of one angler on another’s piece of heaven. When tackling the stream, river, pond, lake, or coastline, the object is to “be one with nature,” not some malevolent change agent.

Unfortunately, mankind has long been a negative influence on nature. It isn’t unusual to go deep into the woods and find the modern detritus of callous humans, and the more pernicious effects of modern living can be seen in such things as pollution and, for the purposes of fishing, declining fish populations – even in the back country far from civilization. While it is problematic or even impossible for any individual sportsman to stem the tide of civilization, the goal of the fly fisher should be to leave nothing behind but footprints, and take nothing but memories.

Yes, it is a higher standard than everyday trolling, but anyone who has embraced fly fishing already knows that. Fly fishing isn’t an amusement, but rather an avocation – an inspiration, an epiphany – and it comes with responsibilities.

Here are the Basics of Fly Fishing Ethics:

  • Leave no trace. Take your gear and whatever other necessities you need for a successful and, dare it be said, spiritual fishing experience, but take it all back to civilization when you leave. Trash, excess fishing lines, tools – whatever – should be hauled off and disposed of properly.

  • Catch and release. Did you really come out for a trout dinner? In most places fish populations are at risk, and often propped up by Division of Wildlife hatcheries and stocking efforts, so the better course of valor is to have the experience and let the fish live to fight another day. (It should be noted that some experienced anglers advocate not releasing hatchery fish back to the stream, but rather returning the dead fish to the water for nutrients for other fish and insect life. In some places, there is a requirement to keep track of the hatchery fish and tag them; know the local rules).

  • Leave spawning fish alone. It is tempting to, of course, to land the spawning species when they are running heavy and preoccupied with the natural task at hand, but give in to reason. Spawners are at a disadvantage, fisherman to fish-wise, and it would be better for the fish and the fisherman alike to let nature take its course and deliver more combatants for next season.

  • Use barbless hooks. Hooks with extra barbs give the angler an extra chance to land the fish, but what’s the sport in that? Besides, the extra barbs rip fish flesh unnecessarily and leave the fish less equipped to survive or fight another day.

  • Watch you net. It’s best to avoid a net altogether, as that fishing apparatus can harm a fish. If you must use a net, try a rubberized one that won’t de-slime the fish.

  • Minimize the recording. When landing the big one it is often customary to take a picture of the fish for posterity or bragging rights, but that time out of the water – even for a few minutes – is very damaging to the fish. Better to unhook it and return it to the water as soon as possible to ensure a healthy specimen, keeping the fish and just the memory alive.

  • Keep your distance. It’s a drag to find someone else has reached your secret spot ahead of you, but those are the breaks. Go downstream out of sight and let them – and yourself – have a peaceful piece of river to enjoy.

  • Don’t trespass. Best not to cross private land for fishing no matter how tempting the access. Besides, many experienced anglers report that simply asking for permission is enough of a classy gesture to obtain the access, and perhaps a friend in the process.

  • Don’t just observe – act! While you are practicing Fly Fishing Ethics 101, others may not, but if the circumstances warrant it – in other words, don’t seek out a dangerous situation – point out to fellow anglers the error of their ways. Often times it is simply a sin of omission rather than commission, so done in the proper way the gesture will most likely be appreciated.

Those who have taken to fly fishing already understand – innately, personally, spiritually – that they engage in a sport that is above the ordinary. With that realization comes responsibility, and basic Fly Fishing Ethics demands that the endeavor also be above reproach.

For everything fly fishing – gear, education, camaraderie – contact Trout’s Fly Fishing of Denver, CO, the west’s premier fly fishing shop, instruction center, guide resource and community resource since 1995. Call 877-464-0034 for complete details.

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