Angling: Nature has a way of dealing with people who lack respect

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The Independent Online
HAD THE river not separated us, I might just have skinned a man. There he was, on a gravel beach, dragging a netted fish out of the water because he was too lazy to walk the two feet to the water's edge and deal with the fish there. Then he chatted a bit to his friend while the fish flapped about. Surely, I thought, he's going to kill this poor fin-scraped, half dead fish? But no. Eventually, with a dry hand, he picked up the fish, unhooked him and threw him back in.

Fishing is a sport but all sport should be fair. Fish really can be hooked and played in with the minimum amount of stress caused to them. First, you should always play fish in firmly. This is to avoid exhausting them so much that as soon as you release them they go belly up. But not so firmly that the fish will break you and spend the rest of his life with a hook and a length of nylon hanging out of his mouth. Sadly, this does happen, even with the best intentions. A fish should be netted when he starts to turn, too soon and he will thrash about too much and hurt himself. Too late and he will be knackered, perhaps beyond redemption.

If you don't intend to keep the fish then whenever possible the fish should not leave the water (nor be netted) to be unhooked and released. The easiest way to do this is to run your hand down the leader, to the hook and then upturn the hook so that fish can shake itself free. That way you don't even need to touch him, save for perhaps the slightest brush. But, if even that is too much, or you are nervous of being able to get the hook our, there are special bits of equipment on the market (such as the Ketchum Release) that help you get a hook out. These slide down the line and push the hook out with supposed ease.

But of course, there are times when one has to handle a fish and then you absolutely must wet and cool your hand first so dip it into the water.

Touching a fish with a dry hand is one of the cruellest things you can do because they have a protective slime that covers their body and a hot, dry hand rips slime which in turn allows bacteria and fungi in. Not nice. If the hook is deeply lodged, or difficult to retrieve, then use forceps, which should be a basic part of any fisherman's kit.

Fish that are to be returned but have been taken out of the water may need to be nursed as you put them back in. And the longer they have been out of the water, the longer you'll need to nurse them. To do this you support the fish in the water by putting a hand under its belly. Then you slowly move him back and forth, until he gets his wind back; you'll see his little gills pumping away and when he's ready, he'll swim off. One beginner I once saw, having netted the fish, jammed his finger in the gill to give him leverage whilst he tried to get the hook out (yes I did step in). That fish took ten minutes of nursing to be OK again.

If you do intend to keep your fish then please kill him as soon as possible with a swift blow to the head. Unhook him after he's dead. Do make sure he is properly dead before you lay him out in splendour on the bank, you can tell because his pupils will be in the centre of the eye, a live fish's pupils will point downwards.

But nature has a funny way of dealing with people that show little respect. On a recent trip salmon fishing, I had the great misfortune of being with a group of men who should not have been allowed near any fish, let alone the mighty (and endangered) salmon. On the whole, I have found most fishermen to be very respectful of the fish and the laws of the river. They will release a hen fish to carry on upstream and spawn and they know that all kelt fish (salmon that have spawned and distinguishable by their red colouring) must be returned to allow them to continue their journey back to sea.

But back to this fishing trip. "I don't care if it's a hen fish or what colour it is, if it's my first salmon, I'm bashing it on the head," was a common refrain. On the first day the river yielded none of her fish and the heavens rained down on us. That night, the river rose six feet, flooding the banks so that no one could get near her - literally throwing us off the river. Nature had intervened and I could not help but smile. Perhaps now, the salmon could get safely home.