Reflections on sport fishing

Author’s note: The column below originally appeared in the Clarion on Jan. 11, 2002.


Sport fishing, like freedom, is not free. Those who would enjoy it must exercise a degree of responsibility.

You won’t find this in any statute or regulation, but as a sport angler, you must strive to distinguish between right and wrong, to think and act rationally, and to hold yourself accountable for your actions.

And you thought all you had to do was hold onto your fishing rod.

Angling — fishing with hook and line — has a long history. It was already highly developed when Stone Age artists began painting fishing and hunting scenes on the walls of caves.

Also ancient is the notion that angling is more than just food-gathering. 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 we call “sport fishing” is not the same thing to any two people. To one, it might be bait-fishing for crappie on a farm pond in Ohio. To another, it might be stalking bonefish on a saltwater flat in the Caribbean.

Despite all its variables, sport fishing has a time-honored, widely accepted code of ethics. Though 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 temporarily bliss.

Taking this a step further, along the Kenai River, studies have shown that overhanging grass and bushes provide vital food and cover for rearing king salmon. Fishing from a vegetated bank kills this vegetation. Thus, if you know and respect the fish and their habitat, you’ll 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 with the flow,” “go along to get along,” and learn the “rules of the road.”

What are these rules? Every place has its own unwritten rules. Usually, these make such good sense, they are obvious. Sometimes, they are learned the hard way. If everyone else is wearing hip waders and standing in the water, it’s wrong to stand behind them and cast between their legs.  It’s irrational to drift through a crowded Kenai River fishing hole when all the other boats are back-trolling.

The pressures of crowding on Alaska’s road-accessible salmon streams require sport anglers to be extra diligent. One bad apple, say, someone who is ignorant of the written or unwritten rules, can spoil the whole barrel. Rather than looking the other way, the ethical angler will politely and helpfully suggest the right way of doing things. Rather than letting an illegal act ruin the sport for everyone, the responsible angler reports it to authorities.

Without a credo for responsible behavior, sport fishing becomes merely the expedient killing of fish.

In sport fishing, being ethical isn’t an option, it’s a vital part of the game.

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.


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