Fishing Ethically

Quick Note: The word “redd” is used frequently in this post. For those who are unfamiliar with this term, a redd is the nest of a salmonid (trout, salmon, or char) where their eggs are deposited. To create a redd, the female digs a depression in a gravelly substrate with her tail. For this reason, beat up tails or unusual fatigue are obvious signs of spawning.

Stillwater River Shenanigans

In the lightly stained water of the Stillwater River, a solitary hook-jawed salmon patiently waits in a quiet pool. What is it that he awaits? Behind him, dozens of hen salmon ascend the river to mate and spawn. Ripe with eggs, these fish dodge a myriad of anglers employing just as many techniques. These anglers vigilantly ply the waters for their chance at hooking a true monster. As the salmon peacefully cruise upstream, split shot and baited hooks zing past their silvery flanks while fly lines slap the surface in front of them. It is a scene that is both awe-inspiring and horrifying.

The end goal of these fish is spawning to create the next generation of salmon, as they have done each fall for decades. Though the entire fishery is artificial – from the reservoir the fish regularly inhabit to the initial planting of landlocked salmon in the watershed – salmon have now cemented themselves as a wild species that is here to stay. Despite the intense angling pressure, they have managed to maintain a robust population throughout the years. Still, that’s not to say the situation at the Stillwater is peachy.

A bloody Stillwater River salmon carcass. Photo credit: Matt Gauthier.

Matt Gauthier, a local angler and passionate Stillwater steward, recently brought to my attention the disturbing reality of fall fishing at the river. In one day of fishing, he and his buddy came across 12 dead and discarded salmon carcasses, two of which were stripped for eggs. Others, who fared only slightly better than their deceased brethren, swam around with wooly buggers, mop flies, and bait hooks stuck in their backs. “I know it’s a fun place to fish but … it’s getting ridiculous,” Matt lamented. Having witnessed some of the same shenanigans firsthand, I wholeheartedly agree.

Same Story, Different River

Similarly, a recent trip to the Swift River revealed considerable pressure for spawning fish. Like the salmon of the Stillwater, large brook trout make their way upstream in autumn to spawn in the gravelly substrate above Route 9. Though most wild brook trout in Massachusetts are small – a 10 incher is a true trophy – the brookies in the Swift can attain unmatched proportions. This time of year, it’s not uncommon to see a colored-up 12-to-14-incher, with larger fish possible. It is these fish that draw anglers from near and far to the Swift’s crystal-clear waters.

Up and down the gravelly riverbed, from Route 9 to the Y Pool, brook trout tousled over prime spawning positions and dug the beginnings of their redds. Joining me on the trip was a beginner fly fishing friend who comes from a bass fishing background. To him, fish on “beds” present a prime opportunity to sight fish for what could likely be the biggest fish of the year. It took some explaining, but as other anglers fished through redd-riddled runs, we searched for actively feeding fish. Though we may not have caught any monsters, we had fun fooling small brookies in the virtually empty Y Pool (other anglers ignored this popular spot in the pursuit of popular spawning sites further downstream).

What is Ethical Angling?

So, all of this begs the question: how far are we willing to go for a trophy? What constitutes ethical fishing, and when do we step beyond its boundaries? And how do we create rules and regulations to ensure those boundaries are enforced?

Obviously nobody is immune to trophy hunting. You’d be lying to yourself if you claimed you have never done something to catch a fish that still haunts your conscious today. I’ll admit it: I have accidentally snagged fish in the past, and will likely continue to do so in the future. These instances are never on purpose, but rather an unfortunate result of the gear I use. When you swing heavily weighted streamers or teams of nymphs through a stretch of river loaded with fish, you’re bound to connect with one eventually – even if it isn’t in the mouth.

Photo credit: Matt Gauthier

While most cases of snagging are accidental, it’s hard to ignore the frequency with which it occurs on both the Stillwater and the Swift. If you look carefully at the salmon in the picture to the right, you’ll notice a large puncture wound just behind its head. Whether the injury was the result of a fly, lure, or even snagging hook (a large, heavily weighted treble hook unfortunately and illegally used on the Stillwater) is hard to say. It is also impossible to tell if the fish’s death was a consequence of its snagging wounds, or if it was killed and discarded afterward. Any way you cut it, it is an unfortunate aftermath of the relentless and, at times, ill-mannered, fishing pressure on the river.

Pros and Cons of Fishing Media

What’s even more concerning is the motives many anglers have to employ such unethical methods as snagging. It’s not a revelation that the pursuit of clout, especially through social media, has caused many an angler to do some questionable things. One famous example was the unforgivable stunt Patrick Duke, a Colorado guide, pulled to get on the cover of American Angler magazine. Not only was Duke targeting spawning brown trout, but was doing so in a closed section of river without a fishing license. In the cover image, we see a monstrous brown with a boney tail and anal fin, destroyed from digging a redd in preparation for spawning. Duke’s actions are the epitome of unethical angling; still, it’s those actions that keep us talking about him today.

On the flip side of the coin, social media and magazines are also responsible for promoting responsible angling practices. It’s hard to scroll through Instagram these days without seeing informational posts about avoiding redds, etc. It seems just about every influencer has a post about identifying redds and why fishing or walking through them poses an issue. Unlike decades past, the general opinion of anglers these days is that catching fish off redds is unsporting. In this day and age, everything has the chance to be recorded and posted. If someone slips up and is caught, they are typically condemned by the angling community. In many cases, our condemnation may even be too harsh. Especially for new anglers, education almost always beats chastisement and name-calling.

What Can We Do?

So what solutions do we have? How do we ensure anglers are honestly targeting fish? Some diehard river advocates believe the only way to save a fishery is to close it outright. However, I believe this course of action is both unrealistic and ineffective. Especially in the case of the Stillwater, an artificial fishery for a nonnative species, a complete fishing ban would defeat the purpose of salmon being there in the first place. Furthermore, passionate anglers become enthusiastic stewards of our waters. It’s hard not to love a river when you hold a living part of it in your hands.

Other options that are frequently advocated for are fly fishing only and barbless regs. While it may seem like a quick and obvious solution to fly fishers, these policies completely disregard a huge demographic of anglers. Besides, fly fishers are just as capable of making poor choices as spin fishers (quick aside: I’ve actually snagged more fish while fly fishing than I have while spin fishing). If the wooly buggers and mop flies stuck in the backs of salmon aren’t enough to prove the faults of fly fishing, then let’s revisit my experience at the fly fishing only section of the Swift. As wild, native brook trout formed lines of redds, fly fishers snatched these fish from their activities for a quick glory shot. Was this terribly harmful to the brook trout or their offspring? Likely not. But the message sent by catching fish near or on redds sends that is concerning.

In reality, there is likely no perfect solution to this issue. The best, most accessible, and least controversial option we currently have is education. As I did with my buddy on the Swift, if someone doesn’t understand the issue with fishing for or even snagging actively spawning fish, patiently explain why it’s wrong. And if you yourself are still confused as to why fishing for spawning fish could pose an issue, give this Outdoor Life article a read. Let’s create a positive community in which a single slip-up becomes a learning opportunity, not an opportunity for blatant criticism that creates a hostile environment.

If you encounter a situation with spawning trout and salmon, resist the temptation to cast a line. Film the spawning activities or look for other places to fish, just avoid the redds. We have a unique opportunity here in Massachusetts to fish year-round. It’s our responsibility as educated anglers to do the right thing, even when nobody is watching. Lead by example, everywhere and always.

A typical Swift River redd with a tan-backed brook trout just below and to the left.

As for my complex and often fluctuating opinion: fishing for trout and salmon actively on redds is wrong. So is snagging, especially when done deliberately. If fish are accidentally snagged, they should be quickly and unceremoniously released without a photoshoot. Fishing for trout and salmon that are running upstream to spawn doesn’t pose a serious problem as long as the fish are safely handled and swiftly released.

Despite the lack of current regulations on these waters, highly pressured, wild fish still persist on both the Stillwater and Swift. Though I would love to see an end to dead salmon discarded along the bank, I struggle to see the validity in setting strict regulations on these nonnative gamefish. On the other hand, wild, native brook trout may deserve more protection. Still, I doubt a highly popular river like the Swift will see major steps taken in the near future. Let’s hope the choices we make as ethical anglers protect these unique Bay State fisheries for many spawning seasons to come.

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