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A Thin Line Between Fishing Heaven and Hell

This article is certainly the most difficult I have ever sat down to write. I think you will see why as I progress

Most times when I get into discussions about things fishy, it is with fishing people. But this time I was out to dinner with a group of ten people, only one of whom was into fishing.

I was in full enthusiastic discussion with the fishy one on the subject of a colleague's article in NZ Fisherman Magazine on his dream trip to the Three Kings Islands - 80km off the Northern tip of New Zealand - fisherman’s heaven.

My second hand description of an eight-hour saga on a marlin on light tackle and the pain and endurance required by the angler was picked up on by the others and the vehemence of the reaction to our discussion floored me.

"All very well for the angler, but what about the poor fish, it went through hell", summed up the reaction.

Without exception each of the non-fishers at the table thought that subjecting a fish to a long fight on light tackle was certainly not sporting, and there could be no justification for a human to use an unwilling animal with no choice in the matter to derive pleasure.

To subject any animal or fish to the stress and pain of trying to escape from capture for nothing other than a sport fishermen to gain some kind of "perverted" pleasure was something these people found totally unacceptable.

My partners in dinner could not be described as animal-rights dogmatists, or "greenies" at the silly end of the scale. No, just reasonably intelligent people with a reasoned point of view.

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My attempts to persuade the group that the level of skill required to land fish on light tackle was the pinnacle of the anglers art were met with a wall of derision. Further attempts to explain that fish may not feel pain from hooks were flagged as nonsense.

It was not the pain from the hooks that was the problem, it was the simple notion of subjecting a fish to all that punishment so a human could look good amongst his mates.

I guess the argument that ended the discussion was promoted by a lawyer (who else?) who used the analogy of placing a halter on a Kaimanawa wild horse, connecting the halter to a line and ‘playing’ the horse to a standstill.

The public outcry would kill that branch of the sport. Perhaps more pointedly he posed the question what would happen if we replaced the marlin with a ‘warm fuzzy’ such as a dolphin?

My arguments subsided, and the conversation moved on to things to do with nothing of particular interest to me so my mind wandered around the mauling I had just taken in defence of my sport.

Perhaps my attempts at justifying light tackle fishing were to no avail because my arguments were hamstrung by my own feelings of hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy? Unfortunately yes. For some time now I have begun to question my ethics and the morality of fishing with light tackle. This self doubt has been reinforced by several factors.

My first worry is the deepening doubt I have developed over the validity of the notion of sportsmanship that seems to accompany arguments for light tackle fishing.

The basis on which many who make a case for light tackle fishing is the idea that because the tackle is lighter the fish has greater chance of escape.

This may well be true in principle if the angler did not reload the dice in his favour but filling up large reels with hundreds of metres of light line. The pressure that cannot be applied to the fish by weight, will be applied by making it run for miles.

Either way it can add up to pretty much the same result, except for the time element. But even the time element is a two edged sword.

The longer a fight goes on, there are more chances for a fish to escape, but just as true is the longer a fight goes on the fish is less able to take advantage of those chances.

Another part of the sportsmanship argument talks of the high skill levels required to land fish on light tackle. But current trends in light tackle sport fishing are anything but sporting.

Recently I read of a new World Record that simply strains every boundary of credulity. The capture was a 420 kilo black marlin on 2 kilo line. That is right, 900 pounds of black marlin on 4 pound line.

Assuming a drag setting of around half a kilo is it reasonable to believe that the fish did not even know it was hooked, let alone believe that the angler actually played any role in landing the fish, apart from hooking it?

The story of the capture made edifying reading. Seems the crew came upon the fish quietly fining along. A live bait was manoeuvred in front of the fish who ate the bait with little deviation from its course, and having eaten the bait the fish stayed on course.

Once hooked the skipper of the boat stayed in close contact with the fish - close enough to maintain contact - but not so close as to spook the fish. Ten minutes after the fish was hooked the boat was drifted up to the fish and the leader grabbed and slowly drawn close enough for a gaff to be deployed. Two more gaffs and seven minutes later, after "sheer mayhem" beside the boat the fish was finally tethered.

It is captures like these that make some light tackle captures little more than a joke.

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Something less of a joke to a concerned group of USA fishermen who have banded together to question the IGFA on some of the light tackle records they have allowed. Marlin caught on 2, 4 and 6 kilo line in under 3 minutes, for instance, and there are too many of them.

Yes it can be done. Using teaser lures without hooks, fish are enticed close in behind the boat. The angler drops a live bait right if front of the fish from the transom. The moment the fish bites the bait, the angler races for the back of the cockpit so the leader and double come out from the rod tip. Immediately the deckhand grabs the leader, and the gaffs go in.

Crews who go in for this dubious practice argue that it requires a huge effort in timing and crew skill to make the capture. But is the fish hooked and played by the angler? No way!

Any angler who has a World Record Certificate hanging on the wall for this kind of capture is kidding themselves and demeaning the sport. Lets say it; they are cheating!

OK so what I described above is not sporting in the true sport fisherman’s sense of sporting, but why am I so queasy about light tackle fishing aside from these questionable practices?

Accompanying my colleague's (Mark) story were some photos of the crew preparing for the end game on a marlin.

The skipper had the boat under full noise, in reverse. The sea surging in over the transom. This is real heart pounding stuff when you are in the thick of the action - it does not come more exciting. Mark waxed strong on the excitement of this largely light tackle trip.

Mark worked for me for eight years behind the counter at Just Fishin’ so I need no convincing of Mark’s interminable enthusiasm and skill. But who was doing the fishing?

I believe from years of observation that in the vast majority of big game captures from crewed boats on 24 kilo tackle and above the angler contributes less than 20% to the success of the capture. That 20% requires that the angler does nothing stupid and obeys the crew’s instructions.

But if the angler does do something stupid it seems that invariably the fish comes unstuck at the fishes end. It is rare for the fish to depart the scene trailing the leader and mainline, sometimes hundreds of metres of mainline.

In light tackle big game fishing from a crewed boat it is likely the skill percentage required by the angler to make the capture is even less than 20%.

The true skill is keeping the boat in the right position, and maneuvering it to allow the angler to recover line. Once the fish is near the boat, the crew work becomes even more important.

But if something or someone stuffs up the poor fish is left trailing the leader and many, many metres of mainline.

So, yes I will go along with the angler who tells me of the pain of going 3, 4, 6, 8 and more hours on a fish.

But we should not confuse endurance with skill.

We do not hear too many complaints from the fish about the length of the fight and the pain it went through at the same time and the fish was doing a hell of a lot more work than the angler and crew.

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I do not want anyone to get me wrong on this, I am in utter awe of the skill level by all the crew required to boat any large fish on light tackle.

Kydd Pollock with a near 100lb yellowtail kingfish

Put light tackle to work closer inshore and the chances of success are probably weakened.

Near shore the bottom of the sea becomes the major problem. While it may be true that landing big fish on light tackle is at least a team effort in open water, near shore the overriding factor in success is luck.

It is no coincidence that there is no ten to one kingfish record in the books.

But there are heaps of kingis swimming around right now trailing the remains of the gear of those who continue to try. There are probably many more skeletons of kingis attached to the bottom by the remains of live bait rigs.

The notion of using light tackle to capture big fish seems to have developed out of some attempt to grade or equalize skill levels. For example capturing a 10 kilo fish on one kilo line is somehow equivalent to capturing a 100 kilo fish on 10 kilo line.

But once this notion of grading entered into single species, I think the sport lost the plot.

Let me try and explain. In most sporting endeavours there is only one winner, one record holder. There is only one high jump world record.

Imagine for a moment a list of high jump records for jumps where the athlete was handicapped by say having weights attached to their bodies. Then we could have world record high jumps for athletes in the 2, 4, 8, 10 and 15 kilo added weight class. Or sillier still; world record high jumps for people of different heights.

The perverting of the basic principle of there being one World Record, that is the biggest fish of any species being caught by an angler on rod and reel began when records for lighter line captures were introduced. You see once the basic principle is eroded then further erosion of the principle commences.

Lower line weights were added to match the size of new fish being added to the list of eligible species. So where there existed only records for 37 kilo lines for marlin and tuna, new line weights of 24, 15, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 and 1 kilo were introduced to meet the lighter quarry being sought.

Once the lower line weights arrived people began to try and catch big fish on line weights introduced to catch much smaller fish.

I guess the only answer to why was the same answer given by the expedition that first climbed Mt. Everest, "because it is there".

I am growing strongly of the belief that not only should there be a restriction on the upper level of line weight to match the likely size range of each species of fish, but there should be restrictions on the lower level of line weights.

In our (NZ) waters these could be 15, 24 and 37 kilo for all marlin, 10, 15 and 24 kilo for kingfish, 10, 15 and 24 kilo for yellowfin tuna, 4 and 6 kilo for kahawai.

The notion of subjecting a fish to a protracted fight to meet some ideal of it being in the name of ‘sport’ does our sport no good at all in the wider community.

Equally, to attempt to ‘grade’ an anglers skill level by equating lower line-weight to skill, and thereby subjecting a fish to a protracted fight is to ignore basic human decency.

To believe otherwise is to bury our heads in the sand and to ignore what is happening around us.

The evidence is already around us around the world. Many countries in Europe now ban catch and release - all fish caught must be killed.

Imagine fishing where you are allowed to catch only one or two fish and the first two fish you caught meant you had to stop fishing. In many places around the world, parts of Europe and the USA, using live bait is banned.

Here in New Zealand it would be silly to ignore the spate of letters in the NZ Herald and other papers on the ‘cruelty’ of catching fish then releasing them.

The fishing fraternity here and overseas has an uneasy alliance of convenience with most of the major conservation and ‘green’ organizations. That alliance based on the fact that both groups have, to a point, similar aims – the care and protection of the water and habitant to ensure the preservation of fish and other marine life.

But if the sport fishing fraternity became seen as ‘villains’, by subjecting fish to cruel treatment that alliance will shatter.

I guess what all this boils down to is a personal choice
of what my fishing ethics will be.

I choose to believe that chasing fish on light tackle is something best left to those who derive some pleasure out of light tackle fishing for its own sake. These people say they like to make their fishing more ‘sporting’ by reducing the strength of their tackle to give the fish a sporting chance of escaping.

I do not agree with this view.

I will reduce the strength of my tackle to the point where it will maximize my chances of hooking fish, but I choose not to go below this point based on some notion of ‘sport’ when ‘playing’ (a truly unfortunate word) the fish.

If you are going to fish, honour your opponent
by fishing with strong tackle.


Article written by Tony Bishop (Bish)

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