Anglers have moral obligation to not only preserve fishing habitat, but to reduce harm inflicted on their catch

There is no denying that at some level, anglers inflict pain upon their quarry. It's a strange dichotomy between love and cruelty wherein we pierce the jaw of that which we love after tricking it into believing it will be dining upon something delicious.

COURTESY PHOTO - Luke OvgardThe greatest opponents of fishing argue that there is an inherent hollowness to the acts performed by callous men and women who, after causing a trout or bass or carp untold stress, choose to let it swim free. How can anglers love something so much, so thoroughly, while still measuring success by the number of fish they impale?

I'm not an ethicist, but I am a moral relativist. By that, I mean I believe while small evils are still evil, they are far less wrong than large ones. If I harm a single being in a small way, that's not as bad as senselessly killing it. If I kill one being, it's better than killing a dozen.

Cards on the table, I do sometimes wonder if the thing I most love doing — fishing — is, in some small way, wrong. Is catch and release fishing sadism? Perhaps for some, but for me, dominance of the fish is not the goal. Nor is causing it injury. To me, it is a sport in which I, the thinking rational man, pit myself against the instinctive animal.

I realize it's not a terribly fair contest. I am bringing specialized gear and the collective knowledge available to me online, experience from my three decades of angling filtered through the comparatively unlimited bandwidth of the human mind. This all coming to bear against a fish that will likely live less than a decade, never have a rational, sapient thought and will forever be fighting for its survival. Meanwhile, I've matched up against similar opponents thousands of times in my lifetime and pushed much of my mental energy into battling an opponent who likely isn't even aware of the contest. Even the most seasoned fish in the most popular fishery will have matched up with an angler just a tiny fraction of the times I've faced fish.

Still, I persist in my love of the sport.

Dollars and sense

When measuring the dollars anglers spend on preserving this strange habit of battling foes at once both worthy and unworthy of us, it further complicates the morality of the issue. Some fish are harder to catch. Some are more fragile. Some are very intelligent and difficult to fool. Some have the ability to inflict harm, an instinctive shot at revenge. Few even hold the ability we do: to kill.

Many anglers carry with their rods and nets an attitude of cavalier indifference to the fish even while providing lip service to the opposite effect. They pay their dues and tout their conservational prowess because they paid a little money for a license or a tag or an organizational membership. Don't get me wrong; conservation dollars are extremely important, but this is just the bare minimum. Morality cannot be bought. You cannot throw $100 at the sport as license to act however you choose. No, the license just gives you a seat at the table. From there, you should be a responsible steward of the fishes that bring you so much joy.

Precious resource

This week, I saw a fishing brand post on Facebook about a recent, successful trip to my home waters. We lay claim to the greatest entirely wild native rainbow trout population in the Lower 48 and arguably the world, so posts like this are quite common.

Despite numerous habitat alterations, invasive species and years of overharvesting, our population has remained steadfast — a testament to these incredible fish.

But all of that is threatened by social media and the growing population of the surrounding areas. The secret is out, and more and more anglers are discovering the best trout fishing on the West Coast. Many decry this surge in popularity, and while I do dislike sharing my favorite haunts with crowds, I must admit that in my own small way, I'm to blame. I posted pictures, wrote stories and preached about the quality of the fishery for too long to not claim some responsibility.

All the while I was touting our fishery, I was emphasizing the importance of fish handling.

A passive voice is not enough, and today, I can no longer sit idly by while the fish we all love are being maimed.

I encourage all of my readers to take the time to sign a petition requesting that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife ban all lip-gripping devices and lip-gripping scales in Oregon. Though the details of the petition outline the research behind the largest evils of this practice, as anglers we should consciously try to cause the least damage to the fish resources we cherish. This will ensure these fish exist for generations after us, so they, too, can have moral debates about what's right and wrong in fishing.

Certainly, using devices known to cause severe jaw damage, spinal separation, internal bleeding, organ damage, infertility and even death when there is a simple, less harmful solution is the bare minimum for ethical anglers.

Again, I'm not an ethicist, but doing some small good that requires just a moment of your time to make a long-lasting change for the better seems like the right thing to do.

Sign and share this petition using the link below.

Sign up for every single CaughtOvgard column at Read more for free at; Follow on Instagram and Fishbrain @lukeovgard; Contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Thank you for your continued support of local journalism.

You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.