Dr. Killfish, or How I Learned to Stop Taking Photographs and Love Fishing

A few Sundays back I had about a hour free before the new episode of Game of Thrones dropped on HBONow, and I was too antsy to just sit around and wait for the Battle of the Bastards, so I took a detour to one of my favorite local brook trout streams to take the edge off, i.e. kill some time. I was fishing nearly naked—that is, wet wading and wearing sandals—working through the same old pools with a simple Royal Wulff. It was hot but the water pleasantly cool.

I high-stepped my way to my usual spot below a wide pool, where a pair of riffles skirt a series of sharp blocks of quartzite that usually hold some willing fish. After a number of casts I received a splashy response, and moments later I brought a brook trout to hand.

For a moment the fish was suspended at the water’s surface in the cradle of my left hand. Instinctively my right hand twitched, reaching for the smart phone and a photo op. As I looked down at the purple-and-spotted beauty, the golden rays of late evening playing off its wet skin, something clicked. My hand stopped.

I thought, Do I really need another goddamned photo?

Fishing ethics have evolved over the years, no doubt. Anglers have cross-pollinated with conservationists and, in general, fishing is better for it. We acknowledge the need for bag limits. We practice catch-and-release fishing. There is growing encouragement to fish with barbless hooks. The degree of respect for our quarry is probably at it’s zenith; Hell, there exists hookless lures, the satisfaction of the angler coming simply from having fooled the fish and nothing else.

Running parallel with the change in fishing ethics is a change in how we document our experiences. Smart phones and social media make it supremely easy to share our catches with others. I don’t know if fishing is better for it. I’m here to argue that, in some respects, it’s worse off.

The ultimate goal of catch & release (CR) is to reduce mortality by letting fish go in good health. There are a lot of factors that can affect fish mortality from CR—tackle type, water temperature, length of time fighting the fish, location of hooking—but handling and handling time (and I’m defining handling time here as the period from which the fish is landed until it is released) plays a role, and photography plays a role in handling. I’ve observed a number of behaviors, exhibited by anglers that should know better, that suggest to me the need of getting that picture is being put ahead of the health of our quarry.

What do I mean? Well, here’s an example.

A few months ago I volunteered for Project Green Teen. It’s a program run through Shabazz High School, to teach students various concepts through the lens of fly fishing, yada, yada… you know how to use Google. Anyway, I was one of the volunteer “guides”.  We only guided the kids in the afternoon, so we had the rest of the day to dick around and fish and do whatever else you do when your camping at the West Fork Sportsman Club for an entire week.

I was tying some flies under one of the shelters. Another volunteer guide, John, watched me for a while, but I was tying streamers so it didn’t hold his attention for long. He walked around the back of his van and stood, looking across the campground toward the stream. After a moment he let out a shout, Attaboy! There was an angler walking the bank, and he landed a nice brook trout.

I didn’t think much about it, and went back to the vise. A short time passed, and John shook his head. “Well, shit,”, he grumbled. “He might as well keep it now.”

I looked up. “What?”

John kept shaking his head. “He’s had that fish out of the water this whole time, trying to take a picture.”

I got up from my seat and walked around the other side of the van. Sure enough, the angler had a camera in hand, bent over the grass where he laid the fish. He paused, then reached down into the grass (I assume to reposition the fish), then went back to the camera.

John thought he had the fish out of water for a good five minutes. I don’t think it was that long, but it was at least sixty seconds. Then he placed the fish back in the water, and spent the next few minutes knee-deep in the stream, bent forward—I assume he was trying to revive the fish, but it was already as good as dead.

Total asshole move there. The amazing thing was, I recognized the offender. Though I didn’t know him by name, I did recognize him from Trout Unlimited, as he is semi-regular attendee to meetings. This guy should have known better, right? If he wasn’t so intent on taking that photograph, maybe he would have.

So maybe this was an isolated incident. Maybe. But having been privy to many folk’s amateur fish porn in the last few years, I have a gut feeling that it is more common than we’d like to admit. Hell, it’s right here in this blog; I’m not saying I’ve done better than anyone else. There’s more than a few pictures in the archive of fish plopped on the grass or silty banks. There’s pictures of superfluous fish; that is, fish that were not terribly noteworthy in size or other significance, but rather just another shred of documentation that yes, I occasionally catch fish. Does having a picture of a 6″ brown below the photo of a 15-inch “catch-of-the-day” do anything to enhance the story? It certainly doesn’t do anything to enhance the fish’s quality of life.

Then there’s other stuff that tells a story we’d rather not hear or see, but pops up on my Facebook or Instagram feed anyway. Anglers holding up nice-sized fish bleeding profusely from the gills. The “hero shot” of a bass held in one hand, the fish leaning over the angler’s fist as it’s jaw bends in a way nature did not intend it. The guy on Instagram who posts, like, twenty fish pictures in a row, all of them looking indistinguishable from the other. Plenty of fish laid on grass, gravel, silt, sand, and snow. I once had someone whip out his smart phone to show me a nice king salmon he caught, only to be shown a photo of the angler physically restraining the fish with the heel of his boot in order to take the photo.

Finally, there are the things photos will never reveal. How long was that fish held out of water? How long was it restrained in a net, or held by hand, before the shot was set up? How many photographs of the same fish were taken, from how many angles, before it was finally released?

I haven’t been able to find any studies that look at how photography affects fish mortality, if it does at all. However, it stands to reason that taking photographs of fish would increase handling time and possibly lead to poor handling practices.  I don’t know for sure if catch, photography, and release (CPR) fishing has a higher mortality rate than CR fishing, but in the wrong hands I bet it does.

You’d probably heard this one before: if we really cared about the fish, we wouldn’t fish. It’s the nuclear-option-like response that often comes up in debates surrounding catch and release, more a bit of philosophy than practical fishing advice.

So if we really wanted to treat the fish well when taking photographs, we wouldn’t take photographs. It’s a bit more practical advice, but still unlikely to be followed.

I think one of the best things that has taken root in CR fishing the past couple of years is the Keep ‘Em Wet Campaign. While not directly addressing photography, following the tips provided (most of which revolve around keeping the fish in or near the water, per their motto) while taking photos will help keep fish in prime shape.

Keep ‘Em Wet doesn’t cover my original question, though: do I really need that goddamn photo? Every photo we take is going to increase handling time on the fish, and increase the chances that we’ll mishandle the fish on our care. And considering some of the photos I see posted to social media, I don’t think the added risk to the fish is worth it.

There are some no-doubt cases of worth it photos. Case in point:

  • It’s the first fish you’ve caught (ever-ever; on a fly; on that particular day; in the state of Wisconsin/Iowa/Alaska; with your son/daughter/wife/dad; etc.), regardless of size
  • It’s the largest/one of the largest trout/bass/pike/muskie you’ve ever caught
  • The fish has some other unique property that would make it photogenic (unusual coloration; some weird deformity; tiger trout or muskie)

On the other hand, do you really need the photo if it’s the thirteenth brown you’ve caught today, and it’s only 6″ long? I mean, maybe you do. Maybe. But before you whip out the camera/smart phone/daguerreotype next time, ask yourself this question.

I’ve taken fewer fish pictures lately. I’ve given myself a “bag limit” of three photos per trip, enough to satisfy my need to fill the blog and social media feeds with content. What I’ve discovered is that I now find the non-photogenic fish are now the more memorable catches: not caught up in getting the perfect shot, I focus much more on the fish itself. I remember those moments much more fondly than the seconds passed when fumbling with the camera.

On that Sunday evening I left the smart phone in my pocket. I lowered the fish back down to the water and felt is push against my palm and head for home. I missed a photo opportunity. I don’t miss the photo itself.

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Author: chesleyfan

I work, I fish, I write.

1 thought on “Dr. Killfish, or How I Learned to Stop Taking Photographs and Love Fishing”

  1. i think you hit a few things on the head. who needs another fish pic. take a pic of the scenery or the folks you might be hanging with. I find I remember the streams more than the fish, unless of course the fish is exceptional for some reason.

    and all the posts. the only person who wants to see your face on the internet is you. no one is particularly special so get over it. I digress and rant. I must be tired.

    anyway, I haven’t felt the need to take a pic in a long time. it’s a fish, there are million in the sea as they say.

    on that note, guess what? people kill fish sometimes. again, there are many to go around. the driftless has thousands of miles of stream and god knows how many fish. i’ll agree it is a shame to kill a fish with good genes and therefore remove them from the gene pool. but I know gene–he’s an asshole.

    everyone needs to relax and stop worrying so much. I love fishing, but eff it, it’s just fishing.

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