Catch and Release

April 25, 2009

I love fly-fishing. No news to those who know me. I only started two years ago, but the pastime is somewhere between covetousness and obsession. I still have a lot to learn, but it is one topic that I enjoy studying.

Fishing of all sorts is very popular here in KwaZulu-Natal. At St. Lucia/Cape Vidal we watched a bunch of “sportsmen” who were surf casting. They were using something like telephone poles with 30 pound test to catch a few fish in the 4 – 6″ range.  They were using bait–and fishing within a few meters of people swimming including us. I wasn’t impressed. I also saw a guy with monofilament line casting some sort of bait out and catching what can only be described as aquarium tropical fish along the coral reef–and keeping them. Why he wasn’t just using a net was beyond me. The barbed hook was likely to do a lot of damage to a 1″ “keeper”.

Those who know a little about fishing may be getting the sense that I practice what has become known as “catch and release” fishing. This is an ethos that evolved in the fishing community in the early 1980’s and particularly amongst trout fishermen, and particularly trout fly fishermen. The idea is relatively simply. Anything that you catch, you release without injuring. The logic is also sound. In the 1970’s, many of the famed trout streams across the United States were becoming fished out. There were many stories that began with, “back when I was younger, the average trout caught was 18″, now we are lucky to get a 12″ trout…” That was heard all around the land. If the story was tiresome, it was also true. Trout grow to 10″ by the end of the second year, and in rivers where fish were caught and cooked, very few trout survived past two years without gettting caught.

Thus the catch and release ethic was born. If you want to enjoy sportfishing, you need to return the fish to preserve the breeding stock. The logic and ethic has taken over in the fly fishing community to the point that by the time I started the sport, it is almost unheard of to kill the fish that you catch.

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I went Natal Yellow fishing today with a graduate student at UKZN. His name is Matt. A local. He grew up in Pietermartizburg, and is an avid fly fisherman. He wanted to introduce me to the Yellow Fish. It is a bottom feeder in the carp family. Not the type of fish that one would typically think of as a sportfish and definitely not an eating fish. But they are indigenous to Natal, they can grow quite large–the record Natal Yellow Fish was over 9 pounds caught about 40 minutes north of Pietermaritzburg, and they can be caught on a fly rod. Those are more than enough reasons for me to go Natal Yellow fishing.

Matt took me to a private stretch of water below the dam at Albert Falls Nature Reserve. The water comes over a waterfall and into a pool, and it is here that there are some large yellow fish enjoying the highly oxygenated and food rich water coming over the waterfall. The fact that it is private means that only those who have permission from the owner can fish here, and it is under a strict agreement that all fishing will be catch and release. That is not a stipulation that I would find difficult to abide by.

We arrived early on a beautiful morning. After Matt gave me the run through of the type of flies that I would use (San Juan Worm with a nymph dropper for those interested in the technical details), we started fishing. I’ll spare you the suspense. I never caught my first Natal Yellow Fish, and I still have yet to catch a fish using a nymph. That is not really the main story here.

About forty minutes after we arrived, a group of four young Zulu boys arrived with cans of worms and various and sundry fishing gear. Technically they were poaching–illegally fishing on private property. Practically they were hungry. Frankly they did not have a very good chance of catching much. Three of the boys had sticks with about five feet of fishing line. The fourth had a well-worn spinning reel. They seemed a little in awe of the rhythmic spectacle of two men fly casting 15 meters of line toward the water falls. I don’t know whether they had seen fly fishing before, but it was far different from what they were doing. They moved out of sight to poach a different hole.

About forty five minutes later they returned empty handed. As it happened, Matt had just hooked up with his second big yellow fish. His rod was doubled over and was quivering under the tension of a large fish. The boys came to a stand still about three meters behind him watching in rapt attention. I was about 10 meters away, and likewise stopped to enjoy the show. I never tire watching someone play a large fish. This fish was no exception. He worked the fish for probably close to four minutes and finally carefully landed a 26″ yellow fish in his catch and release net. As he disengaged the hook, I could see the anticipation in the boys faces. And then four jaws dropped incredulously and the Zulu furiously started as a flick of the tail sent the fish into the murky water below. The boys chattered to each other and walked away dispondently. About five minutes later I saw the boy with the spinning rod catch a 4″ yellow fish and then smack it against the rock and put it in his can.

The catch and release ethic makes perfect logical sense, unless it smacks up against the reality of a pervasive poverty in South Africa. This was not an ethical decision that I had to make today due to my incompetence yellow fishing, but I began thinking what would I have done if I did catch a fish. We were fishing on private water with the permission of the owner on the agreement that we could fish as long as we released anything that we caught. And yet, here are four hungry young boys who in several hours caught one 4″ fish…hardly enough for two bites of food when cooked.

Matt must have had the same thoughts swirling through his mind, because in the car home he brought it up. I asked him if he saw the looks on their faces when he let the fish go. He said that he didn’t have the heart to look at the boys.

What should we have done? What would you have done?

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