On Ethics

The Pro and I were working our way up the beautiful Ruakituri River which lies just about 50km the other side of nowhere from Wairoa. At least I think that the Ruakituri valley is beautiful – we never saw more than six yards of it in any direction at any one time. The weather had for days been that ubiquitous New Zealand variety of foul that makes you want to alternately wave your fists and scream into the howling wind or, more often than not, just sit in your tent idly slashing away at your wrists.

Leaning on a tackle store counter and simply suggesting that such and such a valley (be appropriately vague about it) was almost totally unaffected by the recent rains will result in several thousand vehicles immediately firing up their motors and criss-crossing those islands in search of that little piece of heaven; their chance to be the guy on the postcard in the tourism kiosk (the one with the photo that you suspect to have been shot in a studio). New Zealand is one of the closest places on earth to trout fishing nirvana, but for only a day or two a year. The other 363 days are best prepared for by practicing laying out long delicate casts from the foredeck of a Southern Ocean fishing trawler in heavy seas.

We were battling what were for us unbelievable current flows but had managed between us to scrape together a half dozen ‘bows and browns in the 20″ range. It has taken the passing of several months and much foggy retrospection to imagine that the needle on the fun-o-meter ever moved anywhere nearly out of the red that day. (I added that for dramatic effect – it was one of the best days of my life.)

On the stretch below the Ruakituri Hilton (a 12’x8′ plywood box and a long-drop shithouse) we were surprised to pass another angler. With the exception of the odd farmer and his sheepdog on a quad bike and a pair of kids out hunting wild pig (successfully, I might add) with nothing more than a folding pocket knife people around there were spread pretty thin on the ground. He was moving downstream carrying spinning tackle. It’s called threadlining and it involves casting a weighted nymph on conventional spinning tackle.

Most people that I tell this to recoil immediately in horror. The fact that someone would be fishing one of the North Island’s prime trophy rivers with a flick-stick is not something that they can reconcile in their minds. “Well, I don’t care if it’s legal”, they tell me, “It’s totally unethical”. They will not be moved by the explanation that it is actually a really effective method of nymphing; the thin mono cuts through the screaming flows and delivers nymph quickly and drag free to the fish below. No. They’re having none of it. It’s totally unethical.

I want to press the benefits of the technique but I bite my tongue. At fear of being hounded off into the piscatorial wilderness I also don’t mention that we were fishing an ‘Iron Maiden’, a fly that consists solely of two 4.5mm tungsten beads and some wraps of the seriously no-nonsense type of plumbing lead. The Pro adds a bit of flash as a tail to his, but I think that he does it just to show off. These things are heavy. The only upside to catching one to the back of the head is that you’d wake up somewhere warm and dry where nice nurses fuss around you in the weeks that it takes for your memory to slowly return. I almost lost a fingernail trying to get one out of the foam slot in my box – but I think I’ve made my point. We fished a standard PTN a short distance behind this and I was the only person to actually catch a fish on the Maiden. It was a rather sickly looking 21″ brown that in its last few days set his own ethics aside (browns are notoriously the most stiff upper lipped of the salmonidae) in favour of a meal from the denser end of the periodic table of elements.

That incident came to mind while I was Sunday-scrolling through the annals of a favourite fishing blog. The author describes tying a hook within a conventional yarn strike indicator. We’ve all had fish slashing at our yarn or putty indicators and it’s not too big a leap of logic to suggest putting a hook into the indicator. As a concept it is not as unique as he thinks. A year or two ago a local fella suggested the same thing. He even produced a range of sample “hooked” indicators for various applications. He’s a really nice guy but he took a lot of stick for the suggestion on the grounds of it being totally unethical (“unethical” is always preceded by “totally”). I don’t think that it’s unethical at all. It’s just a little unnecessary. I use hooks in my indicators all the time. I just call them stimulators or hoppers, and they raise more fish than a blob of putty or a chunk of foam does. I’m not entirely sure where ethics come into it.

Still, there’s that word again. Unethical.

A friend took issue with the whole indicator thing and argued about flies becoming lures and that indicators should not conceal hooks. He only fishes proper, imitative flies, apparently. He has a certain high ethical standard, I believe he said. “Got any orange woolly buggers in your box?” it was asked. “Yes” came the reply, “but I fish them imitatively.” That felled me dead in my boots. Imitatively of what? What on earth is bright orange with a big brass head and crosses dams at entirely impossible entomological speeds?

Recently I shared the bank of a private dam with a few club friends. One described a slab of a fish that he had caught there a season or two before and how he was derided for catching it on a long shank, purple marabou tailed Mrs Simpson. Now I’m not going into what makes a fly a fly and when it becomes a lure. I just don’t understand it; mainly because it’s all so drearily subjective that I don’t even bother to try. What you see as a fly and how you choose to fish it has nothing at all to do with me. Frankly, I don’t care if you strap a hook to a Barbie Doll and trawl it behind your motorized float tube, watching the fish finder as you go. If it makes you happy, to quote Sheryl Crow, it can’t be that bad.

Just lately I’m a bit turned-off by the highbrow attitude disguised by their idea of “ethics” that a lot of our fly-casting family are directing at other types of anglers and, more depressingly, at each other. Don’t worry; I am far too frequently guilty of this myself. Ethics are the things that we should be concentrating on in how we speak to one another, interact with the environments in which we live and how we treat the living creatures that are the object of our art.

Walking in downtown New York City one of the most profound statements that I’ve ever read was written casually on the wall of a neighbourhood greengrocer. It said simply “I am not defined by your prejudice”.

I have decided to not define other anglers by my own narrow prejudices. 

 I’m hoping that it catches on.

10 responses to “On Ethics

  1. Nice contemplations… Love the last (NY) quote! As for indicators with hooks in them; I picked up a nice cross-over. Klinkhamers with a small nylon loop tied in as a tail. Attach a bit of tippet, tie a nymph at the other end, and voilá! 🙂

  2. Andrew, I agree totally with your sentiments. Trout waters are generally governed by rules that were set sometime before I even started fly fishing & as long as these rules are adhered to let’s not be critical of each other. That goes for CAR as well. If an organisation allows a bag limit on its waters it is NOT a crime to keep a fish for the table, Great piece as always.

    • Thanks Tony. I release most fish because it makes sense to do it that way. The only fish I keep from self-sustaining populations are in one specific river where bows were spilled into brown water. I don’t feel bad about it either. It’s a blood sport and being an apex predator in the Woolies meat isle is a little unexciting.

      As for rules, I follow rules. Mostly. But I question them. And I poke at them. If you can’t tell me why there is a specific rule then, for me, there isn’t one. It’s a wild generalization, but you get my point.

      The Dalai Lama tells us to be kind wherever it is possible. He also says that it’s always possible. He’s a wise fellow, that. Coulda been a great flyfisher.

  3. In a fly fishing only stream for steelhead in Washington some fellas came up the river with jigs on the end of their fly lines and bobbers as the indicator. The traditionalists were losing their minds over it. The warden only said if the weight of the line is throwing the presentation then what they were doing was perfectly legal. They were catching all the fish.

    • Some days we get up, get dressed, have coffee, brush our teeth but totally forget to extract our heads from our asses.

      I prefer to fish how I prefer to fish, but it isn’t the only way.

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