First Do No Harm

My favourite fly rod and reel, at full replacement value, would today cost a little bit more than my education did. Granted, I haven’t factored in the ravishing effect of inflation and that I last studied some time ago – but I think that I make my point.

I discovered to my astoundment that the Doc can mentally convert to the smallest fractions of millimetres the difference in size between rod ferrules of 12/64 and a 13/64 of an inch. On the other hand I, if asked, would shrug noncommittally and give the answer as being “really very, very small”. Because it is. And because sometimes that’s about as much as you need to know of a thing. 

The importance of a small difference was demonstrated one recent evening at a meeting of a local angling club. Members were entertained by a presentation on the making of split bamboo rods and witnessed the fact that one sixty fourth of an inch (or 0.3969mm for those who have stepped out of the dark ages) can be the difference between a resounding success for a rod maker and abject horror for an attorney. 

The Solicitor that fine evening strolled out onto what was until then a pretty normal variety bowling green but which had subsequently been repurposed as a rather fine casting lawn. He selected from the display table a beautiful rod in the taper of a Payne 101 – with gleaming but tasteful nickel silver reel seat hardware on an exotic hardwood spacer and crimson silk whipping on the guides. The flawless finish to the blank shone deep and translucently under the floodlights. Giving it an obligatory wobble, setting his glass of red to one side and after bestowing on it his earnest approval he assumed his favoured casting position. If you can picture the wide stance and slightly lowered centre of gravity of the Emperor’s most revered sumo wrestler and the broad-chested attitude of the celebrated bare-knuckle boxers of old you’ll more or less have grasped his unique style and, more importantly, his intent.

The Solicitor had once been both a mountaineer and an international surf ski paddler and winding up like an ancient trebuchet in preparation for an assault on the thick stone walls of an enemy fortress he began to sweep that most excellent stick with the might gained from years of upper body muscular conditioning. Harder and harder he loaded the groaning fibres and deeper and deeper he bent the rod. Ten o’clock came and two o’clock went as the tip moved authoritatively through both time and space with a haughty disregard for either. The guides glowed like the coals of a blacksmith’s forge as the friction of the line moving through them heated them to melting point. The gathered throng oohed, ahed, “bloody helled” and then fell as one into an expectant silence as the line sailed on the front cast in the distant direction of ‘Bowling Green No 4 – In Loving Memory of Echbertus duPlooy’ and way, way over the top of the adjacent car park on the back cast. 

Now old man Payne, God rest his soul, could never have been reasonably expected in the formulation of his spectacular taper to account for the stresses to which it was currently being subjected. With the first beads of sweat just starting to run down his forehead our Solicitor made his final strained effort and punched the anguished rod forwards in a last attempt to rocket the arbour knot and many, many yards of trailing backing through the tip eye. The rod, to its credit, held its own. The joint between the ferrule and the butt section of the rod sadly proved to be somewhat less resilient to the massive forces passing through them and parted company with a sound like a thousand of the stoutest masts on a thousand of Her Majesty’s finest vessels being simultaneously snapped. It was so sharp and so loud that even the dearly-loved and long-departed Echbertus duPlooy sat bolt upright in his grave and left a small and thoroughly unplayable mound in the middle of the bowling green which carried his name and under which he had been laid to rest.

You see, the rod maker in his haste to finish the rod for the exhibition had used the only ferrule that he had in his stock at the time. The ferrule was precisely one sixty fourth of an inch undersized. In this instance (the machinations of the Solicitor aside) this “really very, very small” difference (0.3969mm, remember) transformed a perfectly beautiful piece of design, skill and craftsmanship into a very expensive and rather naughty bedroom toy (assuming that the whole ’50 Shades’ stuff is your thing). 

This is, give or take, a true story and explains exactly how catch and release works. (Try to keep up.)

  • I’ve read the science (it’s often a vague and incomplete collection of disconnected research conducted on a myriad of species under a host of conditions and ends with the all too obvious truism that fish were not designed to live out of water). 
  • I’ve heard first-hand accounts from those who earn their crust in the field of aquaculture of just how much stress a fish can take without showing any signs of harm (I’m not sure of their complete impartiality or that the conditions under which their experience has been gained are reflective of those under which we catch fish, but I have no real cause to doubt them). 
  • I’ve been subjected to the preaching of the true believers (I saw the photographs and know that one sermon was actually given from an actual mount, but the words rang true). 
  • I’ve entertained nonsense like “a fish can hold its breath out of water for as long as you can hold your breath under water” (how, exactly, does a fish hold its breath when it doesn’t have lungs?) 

I agree, more or less, with all of these points of view. I just don’t understand the conditions under which one gains ascendancy over another. 

My mind, as barren as it is of an answer to how much stress on a fish is too much stress on a fish as my study wall is of certificates and diplomas, has processed the argument to a simple logic – Primum non nocere, or first do no harm. 

It’s kind of the safest bet. 

Glossing quickly over the uncomfortable fact that we spew tons of environment-altering carbon into the atmosphere as we travel across the earth to drag a terrified animal around a stream or lake by its jaw in a life or death struggle for survival and call it ‘sport’, that science is somewhat inconclusive as to how much harm is ‘too much harm’, that in the experience of many pundits a fish is more resilient than, say, a Payne 101 with an undersized ferrule and that some guys are ‘just full of shit’ I put it to you that when it comes to returning fish to the water you cannot afford to be too careful with them. How wide is the line? How big is the difference between a successful release of a fish and killing the fish? I don’t know. But I suspect that it can sometimes be really very, very small.

On the eve of my son’s 18th birthday I was overwhelmed with the self-imposed paternal duty to give him some solid life advice. I did my best. “Try not to be a dick”, I told him. 

I think that the same rule applies quite easily to the catching and releasing of fish.