Les Palmer: Angling ethics

Angling — fishing with hook and line — has a long history. It was already highly developed when Stone Age artists were painting fishing and hunting scenes on the walls of caves. The idea that angling is more than just gathering food is ancient. In 500 B.C., in what could be the first written reference to what we now call a “sporting chance,” Confucius wrote: “The master angled, but did not use the net; he shot, but not at birds perching.”


The activity known as sport fishing means different things to different people. To one angler, it might mean bait-fishing for crappie on a farm pond in Ohio. To another, it might mean stalking bonefish on a saltwater flat in the Caribbean. To still another, sport fishing might be harvesting a winter’s supply of salmon on the Kenai River.

Over the years of its existence, a widely accepted code of ethics for sport fishing has evolved. While opinions may differ on various aspects of fishing behavior, the following list represents the angler’s credo in general terms.

The ethical angler:

■ knows about and respects the fish and their habitats,

■ respects private property,

■ respects other anglers,

■ uses tackle accepted as “sporting” for the fish and the water involved,

■ may give away fish, but doesn’t sell them,

■ avoids fishing with unethical people and confronts anglers who act unethically,

■ keeps no more fish than can be used, and stops fishing when fish can’t be harmlessly released,

■ passes on ethical fishing traditions,

■ knows and observes the law in both letter an spirit.

All of these terms can be expanded upon, of course. Take the first. Learning about fish and their habitats is a lifetime activity for the ethical sport angler. Without such knowledge, you can unknowingly do harm. Ignorance is only temporary bliss. Along the Kenai River, studies have shown that overhanging grass and bushes provide vital food and cover for rearing king salmon. Standing on a vegetated bank while fishing kills this vegetation. It follows that, if you know and respect the fish and their habitat, you’ll either fish from a boat, or while standing in the water, on gravel bars or on fishing platforms.

The angler’s credo is constantly evolving to keep abreast of population growth, new technology and other factors. For example, fishing on crowded waters requires that we “go along to get along” by learning the “rules of the road.”

The rules of the road are unwritten, and every place has its own. Usually, these rules make such good sense, they’re obvious. Sometimes, you learn them the hard way. If everyone else is wearing hip waders and standing in the water, you won’t make any friends by standing behind them and casting between them. You’ll also be unpopular if you troll through a crowded Kenai River fishing hole when everyone else is back-bouncing.

The pressures of crowding on Alaska’s road-accessible salmon streams require anglers to be extra diligent. Someone who is ignorant of the written or unwritten rules can spoil the day for several other anglers.

When ethical anglers see someone who doesn’t seem to know the rules of the road, they’ll politely suggest the right way of doing things, of “going with the flow.” If they see someone doing something illegal, they’ll report it to the authorities.

Why have a sport-fishing code of ethics?

With human populations continuing to grow, responsible behavior and unwritten rules are an absolute necessity. Without ethics, sport fishing becomes just an expedient way of killing fish.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.