“Sportfishing” is what recreational anglers do. They fish for sport. On its face, the concept doesn’t seem complicated. But it’s interesting to think about what sport means in the context of fishing, and why we’re drawn to it.
If you’re fishing and you’ve hit your legal limit or you’ve simply decided you already have enough fish in the tub, then you’re entirely in sportfishing mode. You’re not fishing for survival. You’re not fishing to meet your needs. You’re fishing purely because you enjoy doing it.
You might have started out fishing with a view to taking a meal home, but the reality is that the reason you’re fishing, even from the outset, is because you enjoy the activity. You enjoy the sport of it.
At its core, “sport” is a contest. It can be a contest you have with yourself to see how far you can push your own capabilities or develop your skills. It can be a contest between two opposing sides to see which one can do better than the other.
There’s also an element of fairness to sport. There has to be some possibility that you won’t achieve what you want to, or some prospect that either side could come out on top. If there’s no fair contest, there’s no sport. Shooting fish in a barrel is the classic (and fitting) example of what sport is not.
Ocean sportfishing is a combination of all these things. Minus the shooting part.
To begin with, sportfishers operate in a completely foreign environment. We’re strangers in a strange land, but it’s not land and we’re above it more so than we’re in it – it’s an ocean thousands of feet deep and too vast to comprehend. We have only a rudimentary understanding of what goes on below the surface.
Most of what we see is what’s on top, or what comes to the top. In our area, it’s a world of humpback whales, orca, seals, sea lions, eagles, dolphins, jellyfish, baitfish, and more seabirds than the average person could name. The backdrop is mountains, pristine inlets, and lush forests. The air itself is invigorating. It’s an amazing experience being able to spend a short time in that environment while you wait for the bite.
And then the bite happens. There’s no feeling in the world like the one when that rod tip starts going crazy and you realize there’s some kind of angry creature on the other end.
Part of the excitement is you never really know what’s down there – it could be a juvenile salmon, it could be a lingcod or a rockfish or a halibut, it could be a mature Chinook salmon weighing well over 30 pounds, or it could be something you haven’t even considered. You also don’t know what kind of battle it’s going to take to find out. The thrill of sportfishing starts with the unknown.
In and of itself, the unknown is a pretty epic contemplation. But you don’t have the luxury of time to soak it all in, because once that fish hits you have a job to do – you need to get it together, grab the rod and figure out what you’re doing. Is the hook set? Are you tight on the fish? How’s the drag on the reel? Where does this fish want to go and how are you going to deal with that? What do you do when it decides to go on a blistering run? Now it’s coming towards you and you need to pick up the slack, now it sees the boat and it’s going for another run . . . and so on.
There are more than a few boxes you need to tick successfully if you want to see that fish. There’s something different every time — the experience is fluid, and it’s often fast and furious.
Assuming you’ve kept it together so far, when the fish is finally tired enough to come in and you have it to the boat, you might catch yourself holding your breath. It’s close now, but you know it’s not over til it’s over. Maybe you clamp down on the reel at the exact time the fish tries to make a last ditch escape. Maybe the hook just works itself loose after a long fight. Anything can happen.
Knowing, right up until the end, that there’s every chance the fish will prevail and not you, that’s the factor that keeps your heart rate elevated and your mind laser-focused. You’re in the zone.
When the fish hits the net, you might relax slightly and realize for the first time that you’ve been in an adrenaline-fueled state for you don’t know how long. It was an instant, it was forever, you’re not sure. Your brain is coming off the rush and trying to piece together what happened, but it’s still hard to think straight. You’re feeling good about yourself, though, and now there’s the prospect of coming face to fishface with the creature you’ve been fighting all that time.
In the end, you did what you set out to do, and maybe you did some things you didn’t know you could do. You pushed yourself and you competed, which is the essence of sport. And if you’ve done it more than once, you know: each fish that you engage with, and each fight, is unique and spectacular in its own way.
The Practice of Catch & Release
So far you might not have had any thoughts about whether you’re taking your fish home.
But now you have a decision to make: do you bash that fish with the nearest blunt object, or do you take a quick picture and release it back into its world? If you’re under your limit, it’s entirely your call. Whatever decision you make is fine by me.
My perspective is this. If you stop to appreciate what it took for you to get that fish to the boat, you also know what the fish must have gone through. It expended absolutely everything it had to try to get away. After going through that experience, I can’t imagine anyone not having a deep respect for the process and for that fish in particular.
Knowing these things, it’s apparent that the life or death decision you get to make at the end of the battle is also an integral part of sportfishing.
I believe you pay your respect to the fish by either committing to use all of that fish, or by giving it a second chance. When I release a fish, I feel like I’m giving it the ultimate respect. I also feel like I’m not simply taking from the resource — I’m participating in the fishery, not just using it.
Sure, I’ve messed with the program a little. But while I may have interrupted that salmon, in the end I’ve allowed it to fight another day and given it a chance to complete its only mission – to spawn. To continue life.
That salmon may deposit or fertilize thousands of eggs in a nearby river system. Maybe it feeds a bear or an eagle. Its offspring will come back in a few years and give us an opportunity to fish for them. Whatever the fate of that particular salmon, I’ll guarantee you that the one fish you choose to release will make at least some positive difference.
When you release a powerful fish, it’s a powerful feeling. But beyond that, it serves your own longer term interests.
Every single thing I do that contributes to my ability to fish into the future is a huge positive. That’s because as a sportfisher, the thing that I chase the most (after any needs for sustenance are taken care of) is the adrenaline rush of a fish on the line. I want that feeling all the time.
Part 1: New Chinook Salmon Fishing Regulations 2019
Part 2: Chinook Salmon Retention in the Wake of the New Regulations
Part 3: Sportfishing, Catch and Release, and the New Salmon Fishing Regulations