As a rabbi and a fly fisher, one of the most common questions I get asked is about the ethics of fly fishing. Is it morally acceptable to spend one’s free-time taking a trout from the river, either to return it shortly to the stream or to eat it for food? Is fly fishing humane?
In the Bible, the humane treatment of fish and of all animals is a requirement of humanity. In Deuteronomy, the case is posed of a person who happens upon a mother bird and her nest. If the man wishes to take the eggs, he must first send the bird away, in order to shield the mother from distress. The Bible also teaches that animals share some of the same rights as human beings. On the seventh day of each week, the Sabbath, humans rest and do not work. Likewise, work animals, like the ox and the goat, also rest on the Sabbath, afforded this same privilege as human beings.
Picture: An osprey nest on a lake in New York.
Does the humane treatment of animals extend to not eating them for food? In the Garden of Eden, human beings were vegetarian. God gives humans beings plants and fruit to eat. Only after the story of Noah’s ark and the flood, does God permit the eating of living creatures, including meat and fish. Many people see this progression as a concession to humanity. Ideally we would be vegetarian, since it is more humane. Yet God understood that we desire to eat meat and allowed it.
When fly-fishing for food, I feel on solid ethical ground. To catch a large beautiful rainbow trout, take it home and then fry up the fillets with olive oil, salt and a bit of pepper, is a delicious dinner. Even when fly fishing for food, I take steps to make the process as humane as possible. I never use a creel, to keep a fish alive for hours in the water, which seems cruel. If I decide to keep a trout, I kill the fish immediately. To keep it fresh, I bring a cooler filled with ice on every fly fishing trip.
When fly fishing for food, I use a very sharp knife, and I kill the fish quickly by removing it head, hoping to minimize the pain. These steps that I take were inspired by the Jewish kosher laws, a collection of rules for how and what a Jew may eat. One law states that in order for a piece of meat to be kosher, the cow must be slaughtered with a very sharp knife that has no nicks or cracks within it. That way, the cow is killed instantly and without pain. I try to end the life of the trout in a kosher-like and humane manner.
Despite my best efforts to be humane, I do feel a touch of guilt for destroying such a beautiful creature. One time, I caught a nice size brown trout that I decided to take home for dinner. As I began to fillet the fish, I discovered that she was pregnant, with hundreds of eggs in her belly. Even though I know that only a very small percentage of those eggs would have survived, I felt a bit guilty. Perhaps killing a fish will always be a bittersweet experience. As much as I know that eating trout is a part of the natural cycle of life, I cannot help but feel bad at destroying such beautiful creatures.
While I sometimes fly fish for food, most often I practice catch and release fishing. If I and all of the other fly fishers out there kept or killed every fish we caught, the rivers and streams and lakes would soon be empty of fish. Catch and release fly fishing is necessary to preserve those beautiful and special places where the trout live. I probably keep only one out of every dozen fish that I catch.
We can all take steps to make the catch and release process humane and ethical. When I hook a trout, I do not play it to exhaustion, since the fish may not survive even if released. I always dip my hands in the stream before holding a trout, since the oils on my skin will harm the fish. I also try to minimize the time that the fish is out of the water, quickly removing the hook from its mouth and releasing it back to the stream.
When the trout is out of the water, I almost never measure the length or weight of the fish. It seems to me that the measure of success of a fly fishing trip is not the size of the trout, but the time spent on the stream, the connection one feels to nature, and the solitude that is one of the great blessings of fly fishing. Sometimes, I do find myself wanting to take a picture of the fish, which I try to do as quickly as possible.
Picture: A pumpkinseed sunfish that I recently caught which was released back to its New York lake.
Even when I practice catch and release fishing, I suspect that the trout that I reel in are not having such a great time. But they will all live to see another day. To practice catch and release fishing is to acknowledge that trout are precious. With our expensive fly rods and exquisitely tied flies, we may have the ability to catch many fish on a stream. We also have the responsibility to treat a trout with respect and dignity, for a fish is a beautiful living creature whose source is ultimately divine.
When fly fishing, I still sometimes feel a little bit guilty. And I am not sure there is any way around it. In fact, I would say that feeling guilty about fly fishing is probably a good thing, if that feeling motivates us to be as humane as possible with the fish.
Fly-fishing is a wonderful activity that can lead us to feel close to nature. And it can also be ethically challenging. Our task is to make fly-fishing, and all activities in our lives, as ethical and upright as possible.