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The New West: Making our trout ‘hero poses’ gentler on fish

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A day's outing catching fish in Yellowstone, circa 1923. PHOTO COURTESY OF NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

EDITOR’S NOTE: This week, EBS environmental columnist Todd Wilkinson interviews fishing guide and conservationist Tom Sadler, a frequent visitor to the Greater Yellowstone region, about the movement among anglers to practice more gentle catch-and-release fishing.

TODD WILKINSONOur region is one of the fly-fishing meccas in the world. In many Greater Yellowstone residences and in many homes of people who visit Greater Yellowstone, there are photographs of people posed with the game animals they’ve taken during the hunt or on fishing trips. It’s a ritual in angling that extends to almost any species of fish. What’s this tradition all about?

TOM SADLER: It’s pretty simple. If you catch a fish, you want to be able to prove it. You’ve heard the old saw, “all fishermen are liars,” so with that kind of reputation, fishermen feel compelled to document the event. Where the problem for the fish comes in is when fish are tossed up on to the bank, the angler digs around for the camera, poses with the fish, then chucks the fish back into the water. That sure is not good for the fish.

T.W.In angling parlance, some refer to it as the “hero shot.”  

T.S.: The so-called hero shot is holding up the fish out of the water, out in front of your grinning mug. It “proves” you caught the fish. It’s an age-old practice and back in the day when folks keep all the fish they caught, it really wasn’t doing any more harm to the fish. It was dead or headed that way. As anglers and practices evolved, and catch and release became more prevalent, fish handling practices were revisited and those where the fish was out of the water for a long time were questioned. 

T.W.: You have mentioned that there are actually forums where this phenomenon is discussed along with chats about barbless hooks or using flies with no hooks at all. Who sent them the websites and why do they exist?  

T.S.: In the last few years, catch and release has evolved. My friends Andy and Sasha Danylchuk have been leading an effort called Keep Fish Wet. “Science shows that even small changes in how an angler catches, handles, and releases a fish can have positive outcomes once that fish swims away,” they’ve written. “Not only does using best practices increase survival rates of fish, but it also helps fish return to their normal behavior as quickly as possible after release. Using best practices for catch and release is a quick and effective way to put conservation into practice.” I encourage our readers to learn about it on their website,

T.W.: Another topic involves humans showing empathy for the fish that when it’s taken out of the water for a picture the angler then holds his breath. Please explain.

T.S.: If you take a fish out of water, you’re forcing it to hold its breath. So, fair’s fair. If you want a “hero shot” or some such with the fish out of water then when you take the fish out of water, take a breath and hold it. When you need a breath, then the fish does too.

The other thing is water drops as it does on local rivers like the Gallatin. If there are not drops of water coming off the fish, then it has been out of the water too long. There is a new catch phrase going around that makes sense, “make the fish the hero.” 

T.W.: For the record so that readers understand, I fish; have my whole life; it’s part of the imprint of nature made early and I cherish the memories. Often ignored is the fact that with catch-and-release fishing, we’re using fish as objects for our personal entertainment and pleasure. I realize that to fish is to rationalize. Do you wrestle with this too?

T.S.: You’re digging deep with that question. Yes, in the last few years I’ve wrestled with it. On one level there’s no explanation that will make sense to all people. And I can live with that. The reason I fish is for what it does for me. It is, as you said, part of the imprint nature made on me at the start of my life. I respect the fish, the habitat and the opportunity. For me, it goes way beyond entertainment and pleasure although those both are benefits. 

T.W.: When you are guiding, say, a stressed-out corporate executive who’s tiered to constantly competing, how do you help them shift away from thinking about fishing only as an endeavor of how many fish they hook?

T.S.: That may be the hardest puzzle in guiding for me. I like to move the conversation toward the experience rather than the numbers. I’m pretty up front about it with all my clients at the start of a trip. Often enough they start seeing the bigger picture. 

T.W.: Let’s end with this: How do you personally push yourself to appreciate the intrinsic value of nature or of wildlife, which is different from viewing it as primarily an amenity that exists to be monetized—and what can we learn from that?

T.S.: I think I’m lucky that way. I know that the places I fish are for the most part beautiful places, so I don’t have to push myself. I’m usually pretty good about situational awareness and having a sense of what is around me, so I take advantage of that and spend time appreciating my surroundings and enjoying the comfort and solace of those surroundings.

Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He also authored of the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by Thomas D. Mangelsen, about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399.

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