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Angling Ethics

From Angling Ethics and the Golden Rule by Jim Bashline

(This was written at least 25 years ago and is still good advice. CB)

Angling for any fish species can be very basic or as complicated as one would like to make it. And it becomes more so each year. New methods, new tackle and new horizons as anglers learn more are continually adding refinements and different approaches to this simple sport. You can usually predict the arrival of budding anglers when you hear them say something like, “Wow, I didn’t know there was so much to this fishing thing. All the lures, flies, different kinds of rods and reels and everything. This is really interesting.” Indeed it is.

During the hasty years of youth, learning how to catch more and bigger fish is the major goal, but eventually most anglers develop an ethical code of their own. Where they fish, for which species and the type of tackle they choose are variables, but their codes are patterned after a common blueprint. It’s the well-tested Golden Rule.

Time teaches the growing angler that decent conduct on streams and lakes means better fishing and better-quality experiences for those who share the water with them. Today’s angling scene includes a different blend of participants. The kids and the “old-timers” are there, as they’ve always been, but there’s a new sort of entry-level group. It’s the fledgling fishermen between 25 and 45 years of age, who have decided recently to become anglers.

Now, a crusty rod holder who’s been stalking Pennsylvania waters for nearly a half century might say, I’m not going to rail against this wave of beginners. Sure, we’ve got to share the water with more license buyers, but these people also represent additional allies in our never-ending battle to conserve, maintain and add to the total fishing resource. I fervently believe that the defense of clean water is not vice and anglers should try to enlist all of the help they can find.

The “ethics of angling” undoubtedly sounds terribly lofty to some, and frankly, it may be. Perhaps a better choice of words would be “good manners.” As a large share of new anglers are attracted to fly fishing, so a large number of beginner sins are committed while wearing waders. In most cases, it isn’t that the novice is trying to be annoying, he simply doesn’t know. At the risk of sounding paternalistic, I’d like to insert some guidelines.

Wading noisily to a spot thirty feet away from another angler, who is obviously casting intently, is poor form. If the pool is large enough to accommodate additional anglers, it’s a good idea to observe the angler for a few minutes, determine whether he’s working his way upstream or down and then ask if he would mind if you fished “behind” him. Most anglers will be accommodating in this instance. Thank him and then quietly position yourself well away from him in the water he has already fished through. After all, he was there first.

A new fly fisherman can learn a lot by watching an accomplished veteran. If you see someone catch a fish from a particular spot, for heaven’s sake, don’t wade in next to him and start casting. It isn’t polite to ask flatly, “What are you catching them on?” A much better approach would be to make the observation, “Nice fish” or “It looks like you’ve got the right fly today.” Such an opening usually brings some worthwhile information and perhaps a sample of what fly the angler is using.

If the pool approached is not large enough to comfortably accommodate extra anglers, move up or downstream to another location. Yes, it’s a free country and all that, but on streams open to the public there is an unwritten “rule” that says: This particular spot is mine until I choose to give it up. Respect this rule and you’ll discover that others will too.

Where the regulations require the return of fish under or over a certain length or on no-kill waters, make a strong effort to learn how to handle the fish properly. Sure, we’ve all had to discover how to do a lot of things, but improper handling of released fish marks the beginner like no other indiscretion. It’s much easier to work with a fish in a net and remember that you shouldn’t keep a fish out of the water for longer than you can comfortably hold your breath. If you absolutely can’t get the fly out, cut it off and gently release the fish making sure that he has recovered.

If two or three anglers are fishing together, the proper procedure is to take turns in being the first to “work” a particular stretch of water. Yes, there is some luck involved in angling and a large measure of skill, but the first fly or lure to pass through a pool on any given day stands a better chance of scoring.

Ethical angling behavior should not be a mask that’s slipped on from time to time when others are watching. Actually, when others are watching is the easiest time for all anglers to do a bit of proper posturing. It’s those times when one is alone or thinks he is that true ethics are showcased.

Several years ago, as I fished a small tributary of Lake Wallenpaupack, I rounded a bend and saw an old angler wading behind a huge brown trout that was grounded on a shallow riffle. The fish was apparently attempting to move upstream for spawning. The autumn season had barely arrived, but this trophy-size fish had come from the lake a bit early.

At first it appeared that the grizzled angler was trying to grab the trout. As I silently watched it was soon obvious that he was coaxing the fish with his landing net in an effort to guide it into the next pool. Finally, when the fish began to flounder in less than two inches of water, the old man reached down and gently lifted it with both hands into deeper water. He watched the fish vanish into the depths and then, with great effort, pulled himself to a standing position by leaning on his wading staff.

“Hey, that was some trout.”

Startled, he turned and smiled, “Well, yes, it sure was. The biggest one I’ve seen in this creek for 30 years. Fact is, I gave some thought to just scooping it up in the landing net and . . .”

“Well, why didn’t you?”

The old timer smiled broadly and patted his chest. “That big trout is a healthy spawner and this is sort of my home stream. With some luck, I may have a chance to fish for its offspring. And besides, taking a big dead fish home without having hooked it fairly just wouldn’t be right. . . now would it?

No, it wouldn’t be. The defense testimony for ethics rests.
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