Who’s Game? How We Value Fish

“He’s no good to me dead.” – Boba Fett

When I was still a graduate student our department held an Open House during an alumni weekend and I volunteered to man one of our fossil collections, opening it up to the general public for the first time in… well, a while. I had a bunch of passersby, but one encounter stands out among the rest: an older gentleman, an alumni of the geosciences department,  who casually mentioned how he was the owner of the second-largest collection of turtle memorabilia in the world. Porcelain knick-knacks, soda bottles, children’s toys, keychains, Japanese newspaper ads… this guy had a lot of stuff with turtles on it. The obvious question in this situation, when one learns something like this, is why?

Turtle Man’s answer was unexpectedly touching. He said that, as a boy scout, his troop took a canoe trip. He remembered watching other scouts, and their scoutmasters, grabbing turtles that were sunning on rocks, cracking their shells with blunt objects, and tossing the doomed critters back into the water. He turned to one of the scoutmasters and asked why the other scouts were doing this, and the man replied that he couldn’t think of one good reason to let a turtle live, since they were a nuisance for eating game fish. The Turtle Man couldn’t believe this was true, and resolved to find one good thing about turtles, taking him down a path that led to a massive collection of turtle memorabilia.

I don’t remember the man’s name (obviously). I don’t remember much else about the events that day. Hell, sometimes I can’t remember what I did last week. That story still haunts me though, in exactly the same way as those grainy tintypes of 19th Century buffalo hunters or the puke green dust jacket on Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring do, something that’s sad and moving and yet oddly positive in the end: turtles are alive and well, buffalo aren’t extinct, environmental regulations are a thing now. I haven’t had that spooky feeling in a while, until I came across Natalie Kreb’s article about bowfishing in a recent issue of Outdoor Life magazine, detailing the rise of U.S. Open Bowfishing Championship tournament.

In it are photos of another buffalo, the buffalo sucker– as well as gar and common carp– in the same compromising position as their fuzzy cousins: stacked high and bloody, destined not for dinner tables but instead for use as fertilizer. The article refers to the fish as “trash” and “rough”, and emphasizes how introduced carp are impacting the health of waterways while acknowledging that buffalo and gar– and many other rough fish– are native species. That is, they’re supposed to be there. That is, the intended goal of bowfishing as suggested by the article– to “clean up” and improve the health of fisheries by eliminating carp– is in direct conflict with their willingness to also take native fish that are presumably part of that healthy fishery.

Nobody is taking bass or pike or bluegill on the bow, although each is also native to North America (although locally they may be introduced). Nor is anybody fired up about bowfishing for trout, which– depending on geographic location– could be an introduced species causing harm to local indigenous fish. Matt Miller, who coined the phrase “Gar Wars”, says it best:

I can only imagine the anger – nay, rage — if hallowed trout waters suddenly allowed bowfishing – if the banks of the Madison and Silver Creek and Henry’s Fork were littered with the carcasses of rainbow and brown trout.

(I could also point to a real-life example of the Wisconsin Walleye War, where members of the Ho-Chunk Nation exerted their treaty rights in order to spearfish for walleye during the spawning season, causing protests and outrage among anglers and environmental organizations. Change the name of the fish in question to “gar” or “carp” and most of the protesters would join in the fun.)

That begs the question as to what makes a rough fish, as opposed to a game fish, and why are these two groups of fishes managed (and viewed) so differently?

We can start by blaming rich Britons for developing the fishy caste system, before pointing the finger at ourselves for allowing it to influence how we value a fishery. The British definition of game fish is more narrow than our own: it includes only salmonids. There’s a few reasons for this: 1) they require cold, clean, fresh water; 2) since they require high quality water, the kind of water that tends to suffer in the presence of human activity, the distribution of salmonids by the 18th-19th century was largely restricted to pastoral countrysides and beautiful, remote places, away from the common drudgery of the cities; 3) since they all spawn at roughly the same time, a single set of regulations could be used for all species; and 4) they taste fantastic.

Wealthy folks around the British isles, who had the free time and resources to pursue these fish in faraway places, quickly established trout, char, and salmon as the sporting fish of choice. This left the remaining species of fish– the coarse fish— to be pursued by everybody else. This included a number of fish that us Colonists would consider quite game: grayling, pike, perch, and (maybe) catfish.

The two-tier classification scheme took a detour on its trip across the Atlantic, and our definitions of game and rough fish has taken on a very American twist: the highfalutin trout are the everyman’s fish, with millions of dollars spent every year to secure public access along coldwater streams. At the same time we’ve taken the original everyman’s fish—pike, perch, bass, walleye, and others—and elevated them to the vaunted status of game. In the process of broadening the concept of game fish we have limited our view on rough fish, lowering them to a standard even below that of coarse fish.

Consider a 1905 article written by Ernest Phillips for Bailey’s Magazine of Sports & Pastimes, entitled “In Defence of Coarse Fishing”, in which Phillips writes passionately about fly fishing for dace and chubs, extols the virtues of chasing the common carp, and describes the large crowds gathered along river banks for match-fishing tournaments. In closing he writes:

“[These anglers] are content with ‘coarse’ fish, and it is just as well for others that they are. They love their sport and it is worthy of their love, for if coarse fishing has done nothing else but add a new interest to the lives of thousands of town-dwellers, it has justified it’s right to be considered one of the best and most popular forms of modern sport.”

I know a few anglers who will agree with Phillips’ sentiments, but many others are likely indifferent at best. So why don’t we care as much about rough fish? Let’s consider some possibilities:

Rough fish have a negative impact on fisheries. This seems to be heavily implied in the Outdoor Life article; at best the author fails to adequately distinguish between native rough fish and invasives such as carp. It is also repeated in a write-up of the 2015 tournament. Most rough fish are native species that are doing exactly what they’re supposed to within the context of their ecosystem. Yeah, they compete with game fish; but as I’ve already established above, that category is arbitrary. Rough fish impact game fish in the same ways that game fish impact other game fish; yet only one of those interactions has negative implications.

Some rough fish, like common carp, do have a negative impact on fisheries. On the other hand, carp probably get blamed for more than they are responsible for: they’re tough little bastards that will survive in waters where more desirable fish cannot. Carp need to be removed from some areas to protect native fisheries, but in others removal of carp will do nothing to improve the environmental conditions that restrict game fish.

They’re not worth fishing for. Part of the implication of using the word game is saying that a fish is worthy of the sport in some way: they’re fun to catch and readily available to the angler. I’ve had more than a few anglers look at our selection of carp flies in the shop and scoff at the idea, because who would want to do that?

I’ve never fished for gar (yet!), but from what I’ve heard from anglers they’re just as brutal and aggressive as many game fish. Makes sense since they’re a hardcore apex predator, an aquatic dinosaur that has survived for eons doing what they do best: attacking and eating everything else that swims. Earlier this year I took a float trip down the Wisconsin River for smallmouth, and one of my buddies hooked into a relatively small (20-inch-ish) longnose gar. He may have been more pumped about that gar than any of the smallies we caught that day.

They’re ugly.  As I mentioned previously, the name muskellunge is (possibly) derived from an Ojibwe phrase that means “ugly pike.”

Some rough fish are downright badass looking. The gar is a living torpedo with a chainsaw for a mouth. Bowfins look like they’re about ready to fuck your shit up at any moment. Years ago I caught a freshwater drum during my Bachelor’s Party Camping Weekend, and it looked kinda cool (as it should, since it is in the same family as the redfish).

By law, rough fish must be killed when caught. When I later mentioned my freshwater drum catch to a fellow hunter safety instructor, he flat out told me that I should have killed it immediately, since it was illegal to release rough fish back into a body of water. SPOILER ALERT: He was wrong.

In short, there’s very little reason to hate on native rough fish.

Earlier this year the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) tried to amend their tournament regulations to limit the take of native fishes during bowfishing tourneys. This did not go over well with bowfishers. They brought up a couple of good points, including that the IDNR did not provide any documentation that bowfishing was the cause of declining native fish populations (though declines have occurred), and that the IDNR did not target hook-and-line anglers with bag limits on these fish. After the outcry the IDNR backed down on the proposed changes in March of this year.

I agree with bowfishers that placing bag limits on a select group of anglers is unfair. If we are to establish limits to catching certain fish, make it enforceable for all forms of angling. We should change the way we look at native rough fish and begin managing them just as we do game fish. I don’t believe we need to take native rough fish off of the list of legal bowfishing species, but at the very least bag limits should be enforced, and this should be based upon sound science and management practices.

Carp regulations would remain unchanged, allowing for unlimited harvest of these species. I would go a step farther to encourage harvest of carp by either limiting the take of native rough fish during tournaments, or offering some incentive for competitors to take more carp compared to native fish. Incentivizing (primarily through monetization) harvest has historically been one of the most effective means of lowering a species’ population (see: American bison, commercial hunting of waterfowl), and we should take advantage of it.

It’s time for fisheries management to take a more holistic approach to conserving our fisheries, eschewing archaic and arbitrary terms such as game and rough and instead focus on the native and invasive in order to build healthier resources for all anglers: fly, spin, and bow.

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Author: chesleyfan

I work, I fish, I write.

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