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Is It Right To Target Pre-Spawn Fish?

After fishing a good amount this past fall (2019) in the Rangeley region, I discovered many new holes that I never knew existed. The best part is, it doesn’t appear many people know about them or maybe they are too difficult to get to, so people visit more popular spots. Through the abundance of time I spent on the water, I was able to observe with a greater sense of entirety, not only the fish, but anglers as well. This thought experiment is all due to 1 particular spot, which I will not name, but describe (if you understand the description, you are familiar with the pool). The true right side of the river is a steep gravel embankment, whereas true left is a flat gravely/sandy bank, perfect for wading, people frequently come here at crazy hours in the night to get this spot. If you’re not there by 2-3 AM, you likely will not get the best location to fish the pool. I fished this pool 2 times this year for a total of 3 hours of fishing time. I caught a few really nice fish out of it, but as I’ve met new people and seen certain behaviors there, I just started thinking, is it even right to target fish holding in a pool where they are holding pre-spawn, if it is, how long is acceptable and how many times? I only ask this, because I’ve seen several anglers target (in person or on social media) this pool for dozens if not a hundred hours this season. One angler even telling me he fished it for 12 hrs the day before and was there again in the morning. I saw, with my own eyes, this angler accidentally snag a fish, take a picture of it, and put it back on his 14th hr fishing the pool. This was his 6th fish he had caught from there (I know snagging is not catching and so did this angler, but my observation of his behavior became disillusioned). So, I formed my own knee-jerk opinion, but who cares? Anyone can fish there, it’s well within the law. What is a way I thought to determine if it is right or wrong to target fish holding in a pool, pre-spawn, for extended periods of time, multiple times a season? I’m going to argue with myself as fictional characters to convince myself one way or the other as Kratos and Duke.

One early Fall morning, Kratos, a resolute and established fly angler, who had nothing but respect for the sport, ran into Duke, a neighboring fly angler who was scouring at the stubbornness of some extremely large squaretails, lazily swimming in place nearly 5’ out front of him. Upon further examination, Kratos observed Duke putting several weighted split shots on his leader at an attempt to fish deeper in the pool, even though fish were rising, and the pool was only a few feet deep at most. Conversation ensued:

Kratos: Duke, how are you neighbor? I see you’re at it again, trying to clear your befuddle mind.

Duke: These damn brook trout won’t bite anything I throw at them. They have to eat, hell, I see them eating. I’ve been at it for a week straight and have only caught 1!

Kratos: An entire week?

Duke: Yep, every day, season closes tomorrow, so I need to get here as much as possible, I mean these are fish of a lifetime, to even see them is spectacular, but to be able to see your fly pass by their face without even a flinch is infuriating!

Kratos: How do you think the trout feel?

Duke: Well, probably not much at all, they’re fish.

Kratos: So, you see no problem with standing over these fish, day after day, for hours on end, antagonizing them, particularly before they are attempting to extend their species’ survival? Do you think that extra stress is warranted?

Duke: Well, if I don’t do it, somebody will.

Kratos: Duke, my friend, that mindset is one of devastation. If everyone feels this way, what is our future but bleak? Using your logic, everyone should commit adultery, everyone should commit murder, because someone will. Forget laws, someone will break em, speeding limits, throw em to the wind. Christ buddy, bag limits, forget about em!

Duke: Seems a little extreme, Kratos.

Kratos: What brings you greater joy in life than catching a healthy trout?

Duke: My family, the Cowboys winning a Superbowl, and that’s about it really.

Kratos: Out of all the things in the world, your 3rd, and realistically 2nd most joyous moments are fishing for trout. So no, if anything, I believe I’m not being extreme enough. By saying, well, someone else will, you are relieving yourself of all responsibility, a cowardice act if I’m being frank. Responsibility is something we as anglers, undeniably have, whether you want it or not. If you partake in the sport, there are undeniable truths that you will at one-point reach in your life and I am telling you them now, Duke. You have the responsibility of using, not abusing the great resource out front of you now. A duty as simple as that has clear boundaries.

Your mind set is contradictory to your actions. You say you love these fish and they bring you great joy, yet you harass them at their most vulnerable moment, even occasionally snagging one. How would you feel if the stress you caused one of these beautiful creatures caused it to die?

Duke: Not good, obviously.

Kratos: Then how can you time and time again, on the verge of obsessively, harass these fish?

Duke: I suppose I am just simply using the resource that is available to me. I don’t think of it as harassment. I’m not purposely snagging them, I would never do that, but with so many fish in such a small area, it’s bound to happen.

Kratos: If it’s bound to happen, why don’t you consider using a technique that eliminates that possibility?

Duke: Other methods aren’t as successful.

Kratos: So, you are putting your personal needs before the health of the fish, is that fair to say?

Duke: No, I don’t think so. I mean, I guess I don’t consider my actions detrimental to the health of the fish. I don’t keep any, I keep them wet, use barbless hooks, do everything in my power to ensure they return to the river healthy.

Kratos: I understand that you are careful, but this is the unwritten responsibility we as anglers are given, to put the needs of the fish before our own. Is the act of catching one of these fish so great that you’re willing to settle for “it’s bound to happen?” I believe that course of action is setting the bar far too low.

Duke: So, I suppose I agree. Catching a fish at the expense of the fish’s safety is not warranted, not just or right. If I change my strategy, eliminating this chance of snagging, I can fish for them as much as I want you’re saying?

Kratos: Absolutely not, Duke. You’ve misheard me. You have to understand the circumstance. These fish are making their way up-river to spawn, the holiest of acts for a fish. You as an angler are taking advantage of an innate behavior. We have control over what we do, the fish really don’t.

Duke: It sounds like you think you shouldn’t fish for them at all.

Kratos: Part of me believes I shouldn’t. This level of compassion is what drives me to minimize my impact. I have several months to catch these fish in various locations, is that not enough? Greed is driving your habitual targeting of these fish who return year after year. I believe all actions driven by greed have consequences, typically of the negative fashion.

Duke: I guess I’ve never thought of my actions as greedy, I just want to catch some fish.

Kratos: Unfortunately, we are anglers, and as I said before, whether we want it or not, we are given a responsibility simply by partaking in this sport. If you fail to realize your responsibilities, you are hurting the very sport that you are so passionate about. I doubt any angler wants to hurt the fishery they are taking advantage of. A realization of responsibility would greatly alter the behaviors of many anglers. How are we to understand something we are not given, something that isn’t transparent? I suppose through conversation and education, which I wish more anglers were willing to have. You might be unaware what you’re doing and how can it be wrong if you’re unaware?

Duke: I honestly did not think I was impacting the fish by fishing for them, as silly as that sounds. Okay, I agree that I do have a responsibility in regard to maintaining the health of a fishery. I am an angler, I have a direct relationship with the fish as I catch them. However, I don’t believe that I shouldn’t fish for them. If I am fishing within the laws, minimizing the invasiveness of my fishing tactics, and handling the fish to the best of my abilities, what more can you ask for? Is there more I should be considering?

Kratos: How long have you been at this pool, fishing for the same fish?

Duke: Around 4-5 hours.

Kratos: Was there anyone here before you?

Duke: There always is, it’s annoying, and there are other guys down below waiting for me to leave.

Kratos: Constant pressure. These fish receive almost 24-hour pressure.

Duke: Ya, that’s probably why they are so hard to catch.

Kratos: Based on our previous discord, do you think that is right?

Duke: Well, not really. The fish are driven by instinct as you say, they don’t have a choice. They are coming to this pool, year after year. If they had the choice, I bet they would go somewhere else to avoid the constant pressure.

Kratos: Choices. We have them Duke. So, I say to you, make the one you think is right. I believe it goes against my responsibility to bombard these fish for hours, if not days, on end. We all have responsibilities, we all can make choices, it comes down to the fact, are you able to make a choice based on morality and not your greed. I still fish for them, I want to catch one of these mega trout as badly as any angler on this earth, but my time is limited. I use an hour or two window, if I don’t catch one, so be it, I don’t lower my responsibility bar, I don’t give into my greed to keep going. If the pool is full and there are other fisherman waiting, I’m out for the day, there is more water to fish. Limit your impact. We are all human, we give into temptation, but we can limit our greed. I’m sure of it, as I can do it, and I am not special.

Duke: So, you do think it’s okay to fish for them?

Kratos: Unfortunately, I really don’t, and am still giving into a small portion of my greed. The more I come to this place, the less I want to fish it. I don’t think that this path is unusual. My respect for these fish grows exponentially each time I visit this pool, but so does my sadness as I have witnessed terrible things here. Honestly, I would be just as happy to sit down and watch them, which is a path I’ve been trending down for some time now. I wish more people felt this way and maybe they do, but I can only hope.

Duke: Well Kratos, I will say that talking with you, I have reconsidered my position. I won’t stop fishing for them, but I will change my tactics moving forward. You’re right, there is more to fishing than catching fish and if that’s what is driving you, you likely are not contemplating your responsibilities to the fishery as an angler.

Kratos: Duke, it brightens my soul to hear you say this.

Duke: I suppose the more we talk, the more I think about exactly what it is I am doing, why I am doing it. I’ve never really thought about it before, but now that I am, I see more clearly that I am only contributing to a problem. I don’t need to squeeze every bit of the law to catch fish. I can fish for these fish every day, every hour, but you’re right, I probably shouldn’t.

I’ve written this conversation several times now and have come to the same conclusion every time, you may agree with or disagree, it’s all philosophical. Fishing for pre-spawn trout in holding pools is addicting and the temptation is too great for most anglers, including myself. I hold everyone else to the same standards that I hold myself and if I can’t stop from fishing it for a few hours a year, I can’t expect others to not fish for pre-spawn trout. What I do expect others to do is not abuse the opportunity. I expect anglers to limit their impact, avoid dredging large nymphs with split shot, and possess the ability to say enough is enough. I saw a brook trout this year with a huge white wooley bugger stuck in his back, I saw anglers foul hook fish, take pictures and toss em back without rest. I saw the worst etiquette I’ve ever seen in my life. This isn’t an odd ball thing, I’ve been seeing it for years. This year was the first year I really got out and explored far away from the usual holes. What a surprise, there are big fish everywhere. Like a meth addict, deep down inside, I know it isn’t right to even fish for the pre-spawn fish. Also like a meth addict, I don’t possess the strength to not fish for them for a few hours a year. I am torn, but if my current trend continues, I will be fishing these holes less and less and hopefully not at all in the near future and I can only hope other anglers follow this trend or at least try and minimize their impact.

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