Confucius set the ethical standards for angling 2,500 years ago. These included fishing while standing up and with only one line and hook. Charter and tournament fishing have eroded the standards in the last century. Confucius also taught that ethics can only be enforced by peer pressure, not by law.
THIS PAST SPRING, I spent four days at the National Outdoor Ethics Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, where I felt there was much more ambivalence over what constitutes appropriate angling behavior than hunting behavior. Although a number of speakers discussed what was being done to improve the hunter’s image, surprisingly little was said about challenges to angling, including the current campaign by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) to abolish tournament fishing in particular. PETA also objects to catch-and-release angling in which fish “are let go to be hooked and tortured all over again,” but it makes a stronger moral case when it points out that most kept fish are not killed immediately, but are put in boxes where they suffocate slowly British sporting magazines occasionally mention the need for anglers to carry “priests” to club fish instantly and humanely to death, but American writers rarely broach the subject.
After listening to speakers from a spectrum of governmental agencies, nonprofit groups, private corporations, and universities, I decided that precisely because hunting does not allow us to “release” what we capture, hunters today are constrained by rituals and ethical considerations seldom raised by modern anglers.
This wasn’t always so. Back about the time Pericles was refining a system of laws for ancient Athens, a Chinese philosopher by the name of Kung Fu-tse (alias, Confucius) was developing a social system based on personal conscience and peer pressure for every imaginable activity, including angling. Confucius believed that legalistic societies eventually fall apart because people come to believe that whatever isn’t specifically forbidden by law is condoned by it. That’s why he resisted the idea that an institution or the state should arbitrate personal behavior. Rules of conduct agreed on by the majority should be enforced by peer pressure, not the police, he taught. But all activities should have peer-pressured rules.
Under Confucius’s ethical system, the “true angler” must fish with only one hook and line at a time and never use a net, not even to help him land a fish, because the measure of the angler’s worth is in how he captures a fish, not in what he does with it once it’s in hand. An angler who fishes with more than one hook and line, or uses a net, tips the balance of the sport in his favor and, thereby, reduces the ethical value of its experience.
Confucius believed that while we’re all born with conscience, it must be cultivated to serve us and society. Neglected or corrupted by false standards of fair play, conscience grows rank and unwanted like a weed. Since Confucius believed he was only articulating what everyone intuitively knows to be true, he called himself “a transmitter, not an originator” of the precepts he codified. What makes his teachings so remarkable is that 2,500 years later his descendants and disciples are still practicing what Confucius preached–including fishing with only one hook and line at a time.
Even as recently as a century ago in the United States, anglers held themselves to a number of standards higher than those we accept today. A commercial fisherman might fish more than one line, but a sportsman, never. In addition, many 1890s anglers felt it was unethical to fight a fish sitting down (unless the angler were in a canoe), to wear a harness, or to accept assistance of any kind while the fight was going on unless he were handicapped, a novice, or–forgive those Victorian gentlemen–an “anglerette.”
In 1894, off California’s Catalina Island, General Charles Viete hooked and fought for 2 hours a giant sea bass that eventually took refuge in a kelp bed. Determined to win the battle, the general tightened up his line and tied it to the rod. He then lashed the rod to an empty oil drum and left it adrift while he went back to the island for lunch. When he returned some hours later, he brought a grapnel and succeeded in tearing away the kelp without breaking the line. After another half hour of standup combat, the 227-pound sea bass was gaffed and hauled over the side. It was a remarkable victory, but was it a fair catch? “Of course not,” the general replied. “I had lunch; the fish didn’t.”
WHEN BIG-GAME FISHING came into vogue in the 1910s, some fishermen–including most chartermen–thought it too much to ask the average angler, especially newcomers to the sport, to hold a rod all day and then fight a tuna or billfish standing up. Yet in 1913, William C. Boschen did precisely that when he landed the first broadbill swordfish (a 358-pounder) ever taken on rod and reel. He subsequently caught dozens of billfish single-handedly, without a harness, and all standing up.
Another member of the Catalina Tuna Club, J. A. Wiborn, was so fearful he might accept assistance if it were available, he fished by himself and earned the sobriquet, “Lone Angler.” My eighty-five-year-old friend Frank Mather keeps this tradition alive today, less because he’s too proud to accept assistance than because he can find few younger men willing and able to maintain his pace in pursuit of giant bluefin tuna and billfish. Frank has caught, tagged, and released dozens of such fish single-handedly.
Why do we no longer uphold the ethical validity of fishing only one line per angler and then fighting even large salt-water fish unassisted and standing up? Are the techniques dictated by the tackle what make fly fishermen virtually the only anglers who practice such standards today? Or could it be that the generally greater ethical demands of fly fishing are precisely what attract an increasing number of people to this sport?
For one thing, as deep-sea fishing grew in popularity, guides–not sportsmen–set ethical standards based on minimal levels that would enable even the most inexperienced or inept anglers to catch records “according to the rules.” Four, six, up to a dozen lines at a time were trolled for half as many anglers aboard a boat. While it may be too much to expect a greenhorn to tackle his first tuna standing up, establishing standards that put him on par with expert anglers belittled the value of skill. The result of al1 this is that trolling has become a team sport in which the skipper and mate play as important roles as the angler.
What’s allowed in charter fishing has gradually become the standard in most fishing. The goal is to capture the largest or the greatest accumulated poundage of fish under the most rudimentary rules of sportsmanship. There are notable exceptions, of course, but increasingly the ethical “hows” of angling have been overwhelmed by the simpler “how-tos” with no moral message. And whereas competition was once seen as a corrosive influence on good sportsmanship, even conservation groups now use angling contests as a means of raising money and publicizing their cause.
Writing in the September 1922 issue of the Izaak Walton League’s Outdoor America, “Lone Angler” Wiborn spoke for a now-forgotten generation’s view of competitive fishing when he noted that “competition creates false standard of sportsmanship. The best interests of conservation are debauched by prize contests. The joy of a day a-stream, or a-field, often is deadened by false desire to be number one.”
A century ago, our angling forefathers thought they could best perpetuate our sport by giving trout and bass “gamefish” status, thereby, putting them off-limits to commercial exploitation. Other fresh-water fishes soon received gamefish status, and in recent years, coastal states have begun giving the same protection to certain marine species. At the same time, however, recreational fishing is increasingly haunted by a type of commercial enterprise called “tournament angling,” in which the word “gamefish” takes on a new meaning.
As I was leaving St. Louis, I ran into a couple of tournament fishermen who’d just completed a week of contests and were heading home overnight before rushing off to their next series of competitions. As we waited at the gate, we reminisced about earlier times. One of them remembered that twenty-four years ago I’d covered the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society’s second “classic” tournament for this magazine. He said, “Things were simpler then,” and added, “more fun.” The second man explained: “It’s a hustle today.” Angling for them had lost its innocence and much of its charm.
We’re at a crossroads in angling–a fork in the evolution of American sportsmanship made all the more perilous by the fact that few of us can define ethics and most of us confuse it with law. The law, however, involves public obligations; ethics involve personal ones. Breaking the law entails public expense; the only cost–though it’s a significant one–of betraying an ethical standard is the damage it does to one’s soul.
Not all fish and game administrators agree. Many seem capable of resolving their own ethical conundrums only by creating unnecessary laws for others. For example, once members of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission had decided that snagging spade-fish was morally reprehensible, they banned the use of snag hooks under all circumstances, even for someone merely wanting to catch a menhaden or for bait. By converting an ethical issue into law, the VMRC left no room for individual conscience.
By contrast, Missouri’s Department of Conservation (DOC) only debated the possibility of outlawing “fish-herding.” In stocked trout waters, the DOC found that “some anglers spot a trophy-sized fish, surround it and literally herd it into shallow water or a rocky crevice, then taunt it with their lures until it strikes.” Still, the DOC’s Regulations Committee did not take action. Kathy Love, editor of the Missouri Conservationist, explains why: “It takes effort and guts to challenge the behavior you see around you, whether it’s poaching or trout herding. But the alternative means relinquishing personal responsibility. So let’s try an experiment. . . watch for the ‘herders.’ tot them know their actions aren’t acceptable. Let’s put them out of business without adding another law to the books.”
Seventy-seven generations of Confucians would agree.