Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Fish-Fighting Option

imageFighting and landing big fish is an acquired talent, and becoming skilled at doing so means doing it often. Two schools of thought exist: go with light line and play the fish to total exhaustion over a long period of time or fight the fish hard and fast, and release it alive and healthy.

What follows can apply to fish caught from the Great Lakes, inland lakes or streams. Anglers have two basic options: the soft touch, long fight and a dead fish or the alternative, a quicker and harder scrap that doesn’t sap all of a fish’s strength.

My preference is the hard-and-fast rule. Fighting a fish to a quick finish is like fighting a man: a stiff punch in the nose can settle a fight quickly between two humans. Fighting a big fish operates on somewhat the same theory: hitting them hard and fast can break their spirit and result in a faster end to the tussle.

Yeah, I know, many people want a big-fish battle to last a long time. They feel the longer the battle continues, the more excitement they receive.

All of this is true, up to a certain point. Some people agree wholeheartedly with my fight-’em-hard philosophy and just as many probably disagree. That’s fine, but since this is my article I’ll argue the fine points of why beating up on a game fish is best—if that fish is to be released alive!

The light-line, the short limber rod or long noodle rod angling methods are wildly popular. Many such anglers practice catch-and-release. Noodle rods and light line were (and still are) very popular, and there is no arguing that this method does produce an exciting fight and perhaps more hooked fish.

I proudly own three noodle rods and treasure them highly after their many years of trouble-free use, but some light-line fans differ with me on several points.

The old light-line, noodle-rod gang often fought big steelhead and salmon to a standstill on two- and four-pound line and set numerous line-class records. Some of those anglers also released a great number of fish.

The problem was that those river-fishing people would tie up a river hole for long periods of time as they wrestled with those big fish on light line. The extended battles didn’t set well with other anglers. The light-liners kept others from fishing that hole during the duration of their epic struggles.

If fish are to be kept, I have no problem with this angling philosophy and encourage it as long as it doesn’t interfere with the rights of other fishermen. However, if a person plans to release a 15-pound steelhead or a 20-pound king salmon after a long fight on light line, many of those fish will soon die because of lactic acid buildup in their muscle tissue. Once lactic acid builds to a certain critical level, and this varies from one fish to another, death is almost always just a matter of time.

My method may seem a bit harsh and perhaps a bit heavy-handed but the majority of my salmon and trout are returned to fight again or to spawn. This is not an advocacy column for catch-and-release: it’s merely my opinion, and differences are encouraged as long as they are kept on an open-minded and rational basis.

Once my fish are hooked, the fight is immediately carried to the salmon or steelhead. I never allow a fish to sulk on bottom in a deep hole. That fish is always kept in continuous motion.

If it swims to the left, I pull it to the right. If it goes right, I pull to the left. If the fish jumps, my practice is to pull it off balance. If it tries to go upstream, it is pulled back downstream to the limits of the line being used. The fish is never given a chance to rest.

For every action, with my fish-fighting method, there is an equal and occasionally more severe opposing reaction. I don’t brutally manhandle a fish, but I work it hard and keep it off-balance.

I remember steelhead fishing back in the mid-1950s at the old More Trout Incorporated dam on the East Branch of the AuGres River. A guy hooked a steelhead with 10-15 other people nearby, and he allowed the hooked fish to sulk without moving. If he pulled back on the rod tip, the fish would pull in the opposite direction, and nothing else would happen. The fish was resting.

Me, being a loud-mouth kid, yelled “Make that fish work. You’ll be here all day and all night fighting it like that.”

The kid apparently felt he was tying up the hole for everyone else (which he was), and he started to carry some muscle into this fight with the fish. It responded in similar fashion, and five minutes later the fish was landed, amid wild applause from nearby anglers. Break the spirit of a fish or a man, and the battle is quickly won.

It’s the breaking of a fish’s will that enables the fight to be settled rather rapidly. Fish are not accustomed to being pulled off balance, and that is just one trick. Getting below the fish, and making it fight both the rod and the river current, is another fish-fighting tactic that can pay big dividends.

It’s my personal belief to not keep fish, and that is particularly true with spring-spawning steelhead or fall-spawning salmon. I’ve had many situations where I’ve fought a 10 to 15-pound spring steelhead, and landed and released it in two or three minutes. I’ve landed numerous 20-pound or heavier river salmon in five minutes or less. It can only happen when you beat up on the fish and quickly break their spirit.

I once hooked a summer-run Skamania steelhead below the old Homestead Dam on the Betsie River. The fight didn’t last 30 seconds. Mind you, the water temperature was in the high 70s, and the date was July 4, and the warm-water conditions and 30 seconds of fighting killed that steelhead.

That, I can assure you, is not common except for Skamania steelhead because they are a wild but short-lived fighter. Often, the first few wild jumps in warm water would kill the fish.

Is it more dignified to fight a fish for a long time on light line or to make short work of it before releasing the fish to fight again? All I know is that my method works, and has been used for many years. It is, however, an acquired talent that requires practice and some lost fish.

It can work well on big salmon or steelhead in the Great Lakes, but know this: if a fish is hooked in deep water, and is fought rapidly to the surface, that fish will probably die whether properly released or not. The rapid ascent through the water can weaken the fish in many different ways, and often, such fish are incapable of going back down and are eaten alive by sea gulls. Perch caught in deep water often are landed with their air bladders out of their mouth. They cannot be returned and be capable of surviving.

My method relies on knowing precisely when to upset the fish’s balance, when to tip if over during a jump, and when to give line to keep from breaking the fish off. Occasionally I’ll lose a fish, but I’d rather lose one a minute into the scrap than after 15 minutes of a back-and-forth tug of war. Give me one jump, and I’m satisfied because I don’t need to kill a fish just to prove something to myself or someone else.

A few people have accused me of not showing due respect to the fish, and that is too bad. I believe that a released fish should still have some spunk left rather than being listless and rolling upside down in the current as it tumbles downstream to a certain death. I also believe in holding a fish upright and facing into the current until it can swim away under its own power.

Which method is best suited for you? Whichever one you choose is fine by me. I happen to be a great believer in the freedom of speech. I will gladly respect your right to dissent as long as you extend an equal respect for me to voice my opinion.

Bottom line: what works for you is fine and what works for me is fine. The whole thing is about angler pleasure, respect for the fish and the environment in which it is found, and any returned fish shouldn’t be so whipped that it will not survive.

Posted by ofieldstream on 06/14 at 12:01 AM
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