On Playing with Our Food

How can we really justify recreational fishing?

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

If you hang around commercial fishermen much, you’ll notice that a lot of them have complete disdain for recreational fishing. From a practical standpoint, you can’t really blame them. Yes, we play with our food. Some of us get a lot of enjoyment from stalking fish, fooling them into eating something with a hook in it, then “fighting” them to the boat or shoreline. That’s sort of bizarre really when you think about it, not to mention, ehm, maybe somewhat cruel. If you want to read something incredibly entertaining, that kind of explains what I’m talking about here, check this out: (disclaimer: do not read if you are at all offended by the F-bomb) What Kind Of Sick (Expletive) Would Put A Hook In A Juicy Squid Where A Fish Could Easily Eat It?  

What’s probably perceived as even more ridiculous by some is that we often let fish go after needlessly “torturing” them. That’s not even “playing with our food”; it’s just weird! Sure, the whole catch-and-release thing may seem admirable to us. … To others? Not so much. I can’t tell you how many cocktail parties I’ve been to where I get that blank stare from a non-fisher who might have accidently asked what I do. “Yes, I make a good portion of my living from fishing. … No, I don’t sell fish. … Most of them go back in the water.” Rarely does the conversation make it much farther than that.

The point is that a lot of people out there just don’t get it, because when you consider recreational fishing objectively, it makes little sense. Certainly it’s way cheaper, and much less of a hassle, to stop by the fish market on your way home from work. And the whole release thing? What the H is that about? If you’re not an addict, it’s pretty hard to understand.

I suppose I often feel the need to rationalize it (I’ve done so before in other venues) – not really to others, because, frankly, I don’t give a crap about what others think of it, but more for myself. I’ve pretty much structured my life around fishing, however pathetic that may sound.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Let me start with the “cruel” part. Dionys de Leeuw, in his essay Contemplating the Interests of Fish: The Angler’s Challenge, makes the case that “hunters are significantly different from anglers in the respect that they show for an animal’s interest in avoiding pain and suffering. While hunters make every effort to reduce pain and suffering in their game animals, anglers purposely inflict these conditions on fish.” His assertion, on the surface, appears accurate. Hunters strive to make a quicker, cleaner and painless kill, while anglers value the “fight.”

Without a doubt, I make it a point to mostly target those fish that struggle and exhibit the most extraordinary response to stress – running away from the boat as fast as possible, leaping out of the water, etc. The species that most exhibit these fighting qualities are the fish I consider to be the most awesome. De Leeuw notes, “Not only is there no respect shown by anglers to minimize or avoid the fear, pain and suffering that fish experience while struggling for their lives, but it is precisely the physical expression of these conditions for which game fish are valued.” Yes, light tackle anglers (especially fly fishers) add fuel to this argument because their preferred method involves playing with fish in a “sporting” way with flimsy rods and light leaders, which inevitably extends what Eugene Balon, in his essay Defense of Fishes or the Questionable Ethics of Sportfishing, describes as the “cruel and immoral fight.”

Even us “high-and-mighty” folk who regularly release fish are responsible for some post-release mortality from trauma arising out of the very sporting qualities we desire. But without a doubt, release nonetheless results in having more fish in the water, however “unpleasant” for the fish it may be. Balon argues that we don’t even release fish because we are concerned for their well being, but so that the fish can live longer and get bigger, so we can hopefully “torture and release” them again for our own self-satisfaction. I suppose I genuinely want that fish to survive, but is that for the fish’s sake? To some extent maybe, but I kind of like the prospect of catching, or having someone else catch that fish several years later when it’s a big-ass monster of an animal. So, I think Balon is somewhat right here. However, it doesn’t really matter why we release that fish: just that we do it. Because if there wasn’t such a release ethic in, say, the striped bass fishery, that stock would unquestionably be in way worse shape than it is now. The point: The catch and release ethic is good for the fish and fisherman. It doesn’t matter why we ultimately do it.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Arguments against sport fishing, especially light tackle fishing, focus on the lack of “respect that anglers show for the interests of the fish.” While certainly I respect those fish that I target, I can’t say I’m all too concerned about that fish’s feelings. What kind of rational, non-hysterical human being would be? Come on man. The fish’s brain is the size of a pea. The problem with that line of reasoning is that it’s touchy-feely bullshit. It doesn’t take into account the simple fact that we are the top predators in a completely natural food chain. In the natural world, predators never have and never should take into account the prey’s feelings.

A well-fed housecat doesn’t ask whether a mouse wants to “play” but merely acts according to its nature. An angler “playing” with a fish is acting just as naturally. It may be a little tough on the fish, but that’s just the way the natural world has arranged itself. We are merely acting out our genetic code, something we’ve done since the beginning of our time on this earth. The natural order of our world doesn’t require those at the top of the food chain to respect the wishes of those below them, right? I don’t get off on causing animals pain, and I do want the fish to survive. But do I really care about the fish’s comfort? Not really. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t do it.

So yes, we may inflict some needless discomfort on the fish, and, sure, there are plenty of fish that die post-release as a result of our “sport.” De Leeuw mentions that this is “avoidable because numerous other non-sporting methods of catching fish are possible such as weirs, traps, fyke nets.”  But consider the non-sporting alternative that de Leeuw recommends – killing fish quickly and painlessly with easy, deadly efficient gear. If we all did this then we’d probably wipe out sport-fish stocks pretty quickly. And it doesn’t sound like very much fun. I’m a firm believer that every pleasurable human behavior is somehow related to some sort of age-old survival technique. Certainly that’s the case with fishing (providing food), thus the reason it’s so much fun to us. Not even just fun, but simply a requirement for sanity in what has essentially become a concrete world, where most are required to sit on their asses all day in front of computer screens. Maybe the fact that it is more fun to target single fish that fight in an extraordinary manner rather than net fish in large quantities is a human condition, designed to keep us all from exhausting the resource. Or maybe that’s a stretch.

Of course there is the option of not fishing at all. Certainly the vast majority of the human population has chosen that route. But, to do that, at least in my case, would be to deny my ingrained hunter-gatherer instincts and render me less than nature designed me to be. I’ve tried abstinence. From when I was 14 to maybe 20 I pretty much went cold turkey because it interfered with the whole girl thing. (Note: being sleep-deprived, disheveled and smelling like fish is not conducive to picking up chicks.) I can’t honestly say it was the lack of fishing, rather than me just being a brooding teenager, but I was pretty damn unhappy. When I go for long stretches without fishing, and this winter is a good example, I’m a pretty miserable, directionless person. Just ask my wife.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Seriously, though, whether we keep fish or not, fishing provides the opportunity to be directly “connected” through a simple hook-set to a symbolic or real source of food, an increasingly rare opportunity to reaffirm our place in the natural world, a place too-often forgotten in these times of the modern “supermarket-based” food chain. That’s pretty important to a lot of us.

Fishing is a natural urge that is as old as the human species. Thomas McGuane calls it “an act of racial memory,” evoking the mission of the hunter-gatherer. It’s a survival instinct that is as much a part of our makeup as eating or sleeping. In this day and age, it’s not exactly a rational urge, because we don’t need to do it to survive. But we are probably hundreds, maybe thousands of years away from having it bred out of us – if it ever can be. Denying our instinct and desire to be outdoors hunting for fish removes us farther from our natural world. And the reality in this day and age of corporate indifference – and the need to make a dollar from even the last of a dying natural resource – is that the more folks are removed from that natural resource, the fewer advocates we’ll have for fish and fish habitat conservation. And that’s pretty damn important in my mind. I said a few good things about ENGOs in my last blog. But if it wasn’t for recreational fishing advocacy groups or, hell, just individuals, we probably wouldn’t have the marine resources we do today. Yes, most “enviros” are good conservation advocates, but it’s the guys with real skin in the game who will fight tooth and nail to avoid losing it.

De Leeuw challenges us to provide ethical justification for angling. My response is that having a group of concerned anglers that directly embraces and indirectly protects the resource is important and probably critical to the long-term survival of the resource. It is a consideration that overrides any objection based on needlessness and cruelty. To deny our place as hunters on the top of the food chain is unhealthy and unnatural; prohibiting the symbolic gesture of catch-and-release fishing, and taking the sport out of the fight would have far greater consequences then the temporary discomfort and subsequent release mortality of a fish that has a brain the size of a pea and forgets the entire incident 30 seconds after it has happened. That’s my view anyway. Take it or leave it.


After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

Posted in Articles, Conservation
4 comments on “On Playing with Our Food
  1. avatar Mark Cahill says:

    By De Leeuw’s argument, I’d say we should only be using gill nets…or maybe dynamite…since it’s so quick to end the torture. Interesting piece.

  2. avatar jeff Nichols says:

    Good blog as always John,

    What a mind______! Yes catch and release, when you really think about it (look, but whatever you do don’t , don’t stare!) is a real trip. What are we doing? You explain it well. Quite simply: it is what we do. That was my take away.
    I started doing catch and release last year (because I could not sell anymore fish, personally I liked selling my limit more than the fishing, I liked the action)and it was exactly half the fun not doing it. Luckily great cell phone Cameras helped satisfied egos and need to document trophy fish. (take that away, what is sportfishing? But what about com guys? They trough away dead sometimes 3/4 of what they bring in with nets, granted they are forced to by often stupid bureaucratic laws, and simple truth re: supply and demand, but how stupid is it to kill tons of fish and through it back dead? Shame on the world for allowing this to go on forever! Here is my first experience, that was published in a letter to the editor back in 2000. While Weakfishing off fire Island as a deck hand on a dragger, I was so hoorified at the by-catch waste I wrote this letter to editor , they published typos and all. If you think I caught crap for the book “Caught”? .http://www.secondchoicecharters.com/images/Jeff%20Nicholspress.pdf

  3. avatar Bob Jones says:

    Dear Captain John:

    “If you hang around commercial fishermen much, you’ll notice that a lot of them have complete disdain for recreational fishing.” Captain John your words do not reflect the opinion of most of the commercial fishermen I know.

    Many are avid recreational fishermen themselves. Our members would like to cooperative with angler groups that are open to sit at the table with us in a cordial manner and discuss mutual issues. Our commercial fishermen have disdain for a few angler GROUPS who want all the fish and work tirelessly to ban commercial fishing. Those groups are getting to be recognized for what they really espouse so more open anglers are moving away from that effort. I have been an avid recreational angler for 65 years so I know the thrill and pleasure and serenity that comes from “fishing” which does not always mean catching.

    I’ve worked for Southeastern Fisheries Association for 50 years trying to maintain the ability of its members to provide and distribute seafood to consumers and to save our heritage and culture.

    I am always willing to talk about fishing with anyone that gives us the same respect we give them.

    What great things we could do for the fish and ourselves if we could work together on key issues such as stock assessments and accountability.

    Smooth seas.

    Bob Jones
    Tallahassee, Florida

  4. avatar Martin Custodio says:

    I’m a fly fisherman! Therefore I get free a pass;) Next time I decide to do something different for recreation – like putting a piece of meat on a hook tied to a rope a feed it to a dog, maybe even your dog, then tie it to the bumper of my car and have some fun seeing how hard he fights while I drag him around, and happen to be questioned by the authorities, I will call you to justify and rationalize what I did as something we just do period.

    Please just admit that what we do (catch and release) is as stupid and absurd as bullfighting (in some countries they don’t kill the bulls, so they can torture them again), pitbull fighting… but don’t try to rationalize it. That makes the absurdity and stupidity even worse.

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