The Kill

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Justin Pickett

The rubber basket of my net is stressed as it is stretched, enveloping what many anglers might consider the “catch of a lifetime.”

He is wild and full of energy. His hooked jaw chomping at the air, almost as if he’d bite the hell out of my hand if I just gave him the chance. Peering at me with those eyes, those discerning, brown-yellow eyes, I feel as though he is silently cursing me for ripping him from his underwater existence. His back is a dark brown-green. His flank is covered with random, irregular, black spots that are overlaid on a buttery-yellow canvas. There is a touch of bright red speckled amongst his sides, tail, and on the adipose. His belly is void of spots, accentuating the yellow that fades to a small strip of a grey on the very underside of his body. The stout nose is scarred, telegraphing a powerful jaw filled with tiny, tippet-trashing razors. His large, dominant tail no doubt commands the water. Two feet of sheer power and grace, he is, without a doubt, the prince of piscivores.

I am fortunate to have convinced such a sought-after trophy to attack my fly. The size #4 streamer (tied to resemble a juvenile brown trout) was too much for this meat-eating maniac to pass up. Like a starved cat that’s just found a fat mouse, he struck like lightning. Violently clinching my fly in his jaws and immediately turning back to his lair within the submerged wood. That split second before I set the hook into his jaw, his likely expectations were that of an easy meal. What he, nor I, didn’t realize at the time was that it would be his last.

I was fishing with a good friend of mine. We were enjoying a great day of fishing. We had already landed several nice fish throughout the morning and this was just gonna put things over the top for us. After the wily brown was netted, we took a few seconds to set things aside and prepare for a quick “keep ‘em wet” photo before we would recover and release him back to his watery residence. Everything seemed to be playing out just right.

Once we had all of our gear on the bank, I reached in to remove the fly. It was buried in the roof of his mouth. Not the easiest place to remove a hook, but the hook’s barb was pinched down so I was sure that would make it much easier for both the fish and me. He was lying on his side, cradled by the net’s basket. Calm, still half in the water while I positioned my hemostats to remove the fly. Watching carefully, I clamped down on the bend of the hook. At this moment I had the thought, “You don’t want to slip and injure his gills” run through my head. That would certainly cause harm, if not fatally injuring this fish. With a good hold on the metal, I began to back the hook out from his mouth. It was at this moment, things went awry. My hand was steady. The hemostats didn’t slip. As if to protest my efforts to remove the fly from his jaws, he lurched his head upwards and shook his head. I immediately cringed. I knew that, in that instant, these moments of fun and joy were ruined. Our initial feelings of pride and excitement turned to a gut-wrenching, silent emptiness. As if the Grim Reaper himself had appeared and the crimson red trail suspended within the current was his calling card.

I felt sick. Death was certainly imminent.

Even so, we did what we could. We sat with that brown trout for what was likely only a handful of minutes that just felt like forever. Blood red surrounded my hands as I held the weakened trout in the current in hopes of a miraculous recovery. What else can we do? I remembered Kent’s Coca Cola trick that works on occasion, but neither of us were carrying one. I’m doubtful it would have worked, but doing something is always better than doing nothing at all. We did what we could, but our efforts were futile at best. As I watched the color drain from his skin and scales, I couldn’t help but feel remorse. This was a big, matured, male brown trout. He’s been around for years, surviving, and likely thriving in his environment. He’s beaten the odds. He was certainly the champion of this small stream. Now, here he lies, near death. We held him in the water until the bleeding stopped.

You see, all bleeding stops eventually. 

There was nothing left to bleed. There was no sparkle left in his eyes. No flicker of a fin. No pulse of his gills. He was gone.

The remainder of the day was quiet. It just wasn’t the same. Like the windless sails of a ship, we were deflated. We caught a few more fish that day, but none were celebrated. If we spoke to each other, it was to question what we could have done differently with that brown. Was there even anything to do differently? Maybe, but we’ll never know for sure. There are no do overs in this circumstance. We can only learn from this experience and press forward, making more conscious efforts to help prevent the kill from happening again in the future.

I tossed my gear in the jeep. Driving back out on that rain-carved, gravel road I stopped and looked over the stream as it passes near. Looking past the water, the sun is setting behind a chain of Appalachian peaks. The kill may have cast a shadow on this day, but tomorrow, Lord willing, there will be new light, new life, and more fishing.

Justin Pickett
Gink & Gasoline
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38 thoughts on “The Kill

  1. So what happened to the fish? You didnt just leave him there, did you? I should hope that out of respect for it you took it home for dinner.

    • I wish more people would use facts to backup their opinions. The “I am going to accuse others of something with no factual basis” mentality is deforming society.

      • How about the trout I landed recently from a popular streamer river with the half his lower jaw hanging from a thread.

        Do you fly fish da Nile river much?

        • Oh yeah? That one trout huh? From a “popular streamer river”… Hmm what does a “popular streamer river” look like? Anyone else have a so-called “popular streamer river” near them? So how long do you think this trout with half a jaw lived for after its jaw was ripped off. And this trout with half a jaw actually took your fly? That’s crazy, Rick. You’re a crazy person. You ever stroll down delusion boulevard? Ever swim in loony toon lake? You don’t have to lie. You can just not say anything and then you won’t be a big liar.

      • Ask any guide that fishes popular streamer water. Many disfigured trout out there thanks to the over-sized, articulated streamer fad. I was glad to read that Justin was fishing a barbless streamer and am suggesting all streamer warriors do the same.

  2. While no one wants to kill a fish like that, you are yanking the fish from there home and forcing them to exert tons of energy to fight, so it’s an inevitable part of fishing. The only way to ensure you kill no fish is to not fish. Who wants to not fish though? I hope you at least ate him.

  3. Too bad the big fish didn’t make it. This is a blood sport at it’s roots after all though, once in a while it’s good to take a trout home for dinner to remind ourselves of that. But, we need to remind ourselves that we’re fortunate to live in a place where we have the luxury to swing by the grocery store for dinner if we decide not to kill a fish, many on this planet starve if they don’t kill their catch.

  4. Ridiculously way too over the top. If you don’t want to take responsibility for the fact that catch and release fishing is far from harmless and is at best a euphemism then stop sticking sharp hooks into the face, mouth and throat of fish. Mortality rates among fish that have been released have been studied over and over and it’s estimated 10-20% die. Touchy feely emotionalism about a the fish you didn’t mean to hurt just doesn’t play when you’re forcefully jamming a sharp object into their throat. What’s worse the bait angler who kills his two fish and then eats them or the fly angler who catches 50 in a day, killing anywhere from
    5-10 fish with no gain for anyone? First you hook the fish, then you play it to exhaustion, then you delay releasing it to take a picture and then you’re surprised when one dies. If we played with birds or deer or other game animals the way we do with fish and then let them go we’d be thrown in jail. Suck it up eat the thing and quit crying. Fly fishing is fishing and fishing is a blood sport. If you can’t appreciate that then stop.

    • BJ, you certainly got your rant in. Some of us are striving to better our practices. As we teach a great many people to fish, we see it as our responsibility to encourage ethical fishing. Fly fishing does not need to be a blood sport. educated anglers can release fish with much lower mortality rates than studies suggest. If you can not be positive and add something to the conversation, please do not comment. If you continue to be angry and negative I will block you. This is a place for education and enjoyment, not angry rants.

      • While I catch and release very often, I would argue that on many waterways, the ethical thing to do would actually be to keep a few fish. There are more than a few spring creeks in my area that have thousands of fish per mile. I think the population would be stronger if a handful of small fish were taken, and the size structure returned to a more natural state.

        Also, before you go getting high and mighty, regardless of how much you strive to better your practice, realize that you are in fact harming fish, and you are in fact killing a fish here and there. It most certainly is a blood sport at its roots.

        • So here is the thing, fishing generally helps fish. Im gunna defend Louis here who I am sure is just being polite in not making you feel bad by pointing out the obvious. Fly fishermen are hardcore environmentalists. We are generally the ones tearing down dams and picking up trash along rivers. We are the ones trying to create an environment where fish thrive. Have you ever watched F3T? The amount of work done to protect these fish… So trout dont have a cerebral cortex so it could also be argued that they dont feel pain if thats the direction you were trying to take this. Treble hooks are never used and 80%-90% release rate is WAY better then no catch and release? A blood sport would be a sport that has the intent to kill, like hunting (a sport that has the intent to kill). Fly fishing is not that at all, its about the challenge.

          • If one accepts the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of a blood sport as being “any sport that involves animals being killed or hurt to make the people watching or taking part feel excitement”, then catch and release fly fishing clearly qualifies as being a blood sport.

        • Here is a link to the Cambridge University Neuroscience website. Please refer to the ninth publication down the list of papers titled, “Broom DM (2016), “Fish brains and behaviour indicate capacity for feeling pain.” Animal Sentience 2016.010

          In the References section of the paper you will find several other studies listed.

          Here is a further link to Dr. Broom’s Cambridge University page

      • Great story Louis! It’s unfortunate you had that experience brother, but those experiences truly make you a better C&R angler. Also, as I read that comment made to you from BJ it makes me queasy about the future of our sport. BJ’s mentality is running rampant amongst the many newbies and ‘bum guides’ and I have a feeling it is a result of poor fly fishing education. BJ doesn’t realize that by not being able to release that 24″ brown back in the water means that 24″ brown will never be able to be caught again. These are the guys that will come barreling around the corner and start fishing the same run that you are fishing and only give you the finger when you give them a wave hoping that they didn’t realize you were there. Check out the comment I made under the recent ‘Cheeseman video’ post. Keep up the good work Louis, as you guys are true stewards of the water that care about the future of this awesome sport. Thanks!!

        • Newbies and bum guides, huh? You think very highly of yourself it seems.

          I think BJ’s whole point is that everyone who preaches C&R and thinks they are some sort of saint is only kidding themselves. There are obviously things you can do to help keep fish alive, and those are things you should do if you plan to release fish, but by the nature of the sport, your success rate is going to be under 100%. His comparison to keeping fish seems only to serve as that, a comparison of number of fish killed, not an endorsement of C&K. But, maybe I just misread BJ’s post.

  5. Truly sad bro…barbless all day, everyday…and on holidays, break off the hook and just get them to strike. Feeling and seeing them strike is more than enough.

  6. This happens sometimes…fishing is a blood sport and periodic reminders are good for us.

    We should do what we can, when we can…but when things don’t go like we want them we need to reflect on all the good we’ve done for the resource, all the good that catch and release has done for our fisheries, and nourish ourselves on the fruits of our efforts.

    It happens…think of the good, and think of the fact that that magnificent animal didn’t have to grow old and die of starvation or some other illness.

  7. Great piece Justin! You captured both the thrill of an exceptional catch and the haunting heartbreak of knowing you killed an alpha fish. Catch and release mortality is an unfortunate fact. It’s an experience to learn from and try to do better the next go round. Thanks for sharing one of less appealing realities of fishing.

    • The basic idea is that when a fish is bleeding like crazy, pouring coca cola down its throat can heal it. I don,t quite know how it works scientifically, only that is dose work. Kent has written a post on it.

        • But that leaves the question, if the carbonic acid is strong enough to cauterize a flesh wound, what kind of effect is it having on the sensitive gill tissue. Tissue that is designed to facilitate the transfer of dissolved gases to and from the fish and the water. That’s highly vulnerable tissue, obviously. I would think that pouring an acid, weak as it may be, would only be risking damage to the gill tissue. I am sure you would agree Louis, that just because a biologist claimed one thing or another doesn’t mean it is credible. Biologists are human and humans make mistakes…they also make jokes. I know someone who claims they tried it and only ended up killing the fish. That one instance doesn’t necessarily disprove the theory but it is a result that granted, had many factors in play. Just take the fish home and feed yourself, save a chicken or cow. Putting fish back and then picking up a burger on the way home isn’t exactly conservation, respectfully. Happy Birthday Louis.

  8. If one accepts the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of a blood sport as being “any sport that involves animals being killed or hurt to make the people watching or taking part feel excitement”, then catch and release fly fishing clearly qualifies as being a blood sport.

    While BJHonthefly has presented his point of view in a rather unnecessarily strident manner, I believe that he is simply saying ‘take responsibility’. While one should strive to offer their comments in a respectful and positive manner, as Louis has suggested in his response to BJH, I will say that I winced several times when reading this article as I also found the overall vibe “over the top”, perhaps best summed up by the author’s comment, “You see, all bleeding stops eventually”.

    Let’s be honest. The fish we catch have been wounded, sometimes lethally. Based on the author’s comments, all appropriate precautions were taken to help ensure a ‘safe’ release, however, the fish struggled just as the hook was being removed, which appears to have caused further lethal damage. Fish will often struggle as the hook is being removed for good reason…

    According to a Dr. Donald Bloom, “[t]he scientific literature is quite clear. Anatomically, physiologically and biologically, the pain system in fish is virtually the same as in birds and mammals”.

    In summary, I’d like to suggest that we have no illusions as to what’s involved and what’s at stake when fly fishing.

    One final comment to Trevor…your ability to ‘know’ so much about BJH based solely on his comments is astounding…

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