On Photos of Trout

I am not afraid to admit it, I’m petrified of posting pictures of the fish I’ve caught. 

In fairness, I don’t have many photos to post as I don’t frequently take photos of fish that I’ve landed. I fish in, by most people’s standards, small waters and while I’ve taken some decent enough fish from them they are still small fish. The memory of a day spent on a stream is enough for me and I really don’t feel much need to photograph the actual fish. I start reaching for my camera and then just leave it and tweak the fly loose. 

The fish that I do photograph are generally because of some particular marking or coloration that I find alluring and that I want to record to draw later or to show to someone who I think may be similarly interested in them. Most photos of fish (and drawings of them, for that matter) just look like a dead fish. I get no particular pleasure from the hundreds of photos of fish that I see every week courtesy of social media. The pictures that I do like are generally because of some unique feature rather than being because of size or number. 

On reflection, I think that I don’t photograph many fish stems from my lack of need to possess them in any way. I own many things that I love, but I don’t possess them in the way that some do. I prize them for their existence and proximity to me but even inanimate objects of value have a soul and I cannot claim to possess a soul in the same way that drawing in a deep breath does not place me in possession of the wind. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. 

There are a lot of guys who are posting onto social media pictures of some exceptional fish. All too often they are taking an exceptional lambasting for it. 

These contributors are getting an on-line tongue lashing for how they are holding the fish, wearing gloves, lying them down on the bank and for many other reasons. This has made me really rethink how I photograph fish and their catch and release in general. 

Firstly, let me say (again) that the whole notion that you are a Neanderthal for keeping a fish is simply nonsense. That one needs to limit one’s catch for reasons of conservation or improving the sport I agree with fully and completely. That one fishes (especially an impoundment) and is out of line on ethical grounds for keeping a fish for the table is just ridiculous. 

This whole ‘ethical’ debate is running far too hot in the circles that I frequent. 

There is a movie called ‘Powder’ recorded in the 90’s that had a scene that has stayed with me until today. The story is about a boy with some sort of advanced mental capacity that enabled him, among other things, to feel what another living thing feels. It sounds like nonsense, but it is a deep and moving story about how we can’t accept that which is different even when it is far more advanced and profoundly more beautiful than anything that we can imagine. 

The scene I refer to is where the youth enters a cabin that has trophies of hunted animals hung from every wall. Later he is with the hunter when he shoots a deer. The youth touches the dying animal and then touches the hunter who recoils in horror on feeling the pain of the animal. The hunter, inevitably, stops hunting. Watch the movie. It will move you. 

If I relate this to the lauded and much vaunted  ‘ethic’ of catch and release it starts to cover the whole idea with a certain shadow. 

That fish are not mammals I am well aware. Their capacity to feel pain is, as I understand it, diminished to the point of being non existent. Trout neither nurture their young or raise them in the mammalian sense. I don’t understand the science involved in arriving at these conclusions so I can’t offer comment. 

What I do understand is that a fish, when pricked and made to feel the tugging resistance of the line, certainly feels something. To my mind the emotion (an anthropomorphism, but the only one within my frame of reference) that they feel is terror. Pure, cold, unrestrained terror. 

A fish knows only a few things. It knows how to feed. It knows how to evade predators. (These two are closely related and the line between them is blurred.) It knows to procreate. There may be a few minor other bits of cognitive stuff going on, but for an angler this is all we need to focus on. 

When hooked in the jaw every instinct that it has turns to escape. The runs, jumps and evasive tactics that we celebrate as sportsmen are an indication of the unsurpassed level of terror that the animal experiences. In most cases the extent of this terror is simply off the charts. 

Where am I going with this? 

We speak of catch and release as though it is a behavior which has a source the angler’s bleeding heart; that we are doing the fish a great service. Bullshit. Let me make one thing very, very clear. Angling is a bloodsport. The fish derives nothing but abject discomfort from our attentions. 

Having said that, I don’t feel overly ashamed of what I pass off as sport. I am an apex predator and the fish is there for my taking. I fish by methods that make the task more difficult and exacting. I could just as well use a cast net to sighted fish, or scoop a few out of a hatchery pond; but I enjoy deceiving it with cunning and skill. (Whatever that means.)

We don’t fish for the reasons that we think we fish. I’ve accepted this as a truism and I don’t much think about it any more. I think that I’ve reached an age or a level in my development where I can let some questions remain rhetorical; I accept them. What fires our adrenaline as an angler comes from somewhere very deep in our ancient brain and it defies, certainly my, attempts to understand it. 

So, let’s go back to catch and release. We’re starting to go over the top. That fish need to be treated with respect and are not to be possessed or dominated stands to good reason. That breeding stock or smaller animals need to be protected is perfectly pragmatic an approach to the management of a food source; the same applies to hunting and agriculture. That in order for them to grow and for them to breed they need to be returned in as fit shape as possible is to state the obvious. 

All of this requires us to treat our catches with respect and to handle them with great care. I understand that. What I don’t understand is this current obsession that sees the fish as being entirely fragile. That simply looking at it the wrong way will result in its rolling belly up and dying on the spot. 

I’ll tell you something else. I’ve seen a few of the catch and release self-appointed clergy fishing and their bite is very different to their bark. Not that I’m judging them, most of us are unintentionally duplicitous to some degree. When the adrenal glands squirt that magical elixir into our bloodstreams we all do the sort of things that we would prefer ourselves not to. 

Where, then, does this leave me on the subject of photographing fish? Let me sum it up. 

  1. I don’t feel much need to photograph fish.
  2. I eat some of the fish that I catch and this does not make me less ‘ethical’ than, perhaps, you. 
  3. I return wild breeding stock, undersized fish and fish that I won’t eat absolutely fresh. 
  4. I, not through conscious decision but by virtue of my nature, deeply respect the fish that I catch. 
  5. Fish that I return I try to treat as gently as possible and I consider myself blessed for my brief contact with them. 
  6. Catch and release edicts are entirely valid. 
  7. That these edicts often wildly overcompensate for the weaknesses of the fish I understand them as being necessary to ensure that our minimum efforts in handling the fish are some way above the point at which mortality may occur. 

I think, in final conclusion, that the whole debate boils down to what I advised my teenage son recently on the subject of the fairer sex and life in general; don’t be a dick. (Whichever side of the C&R line you choose to place yourself.)

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2 responses to “On Photos of Trout

  1. Well said, you are not alone, I’m with you on this one. If I tell you I’m so bored some of the garbage posted on social media lately and the thousands of photographs of just another fish, its an understatement. It may be a time for a clean up of what I’m following ….. thanks again for a great piece.

    • You and me both. I take pictures, but hardly ever of fish. This season I want to take my go pro on a stick and pull stills from the video footage of fish underwater. Am devising a method to mount the camera to my shin.

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