It has been said that all fishermen, at least those who fish with hook and line, pass through three stages. First, they simply want to catch a fish, any fish, any way they can. Next, they want to catch as many fish as they can. And finally, they want to catch the biggest fish they can.
Not exactly vintage Abbott and Costello, perhaps, but O.K. as far as it goes. For a number of years we also have been observing a fourth stage, in which the angler proceeds to fish in the most challenging manner possible, using tackle so delicate and techniques so refined that they would make your normal fish hog throw up in his garbage can just hearing about them. This is known as the ultimate sporting stage, at least by its practitioners.
And finally there is the fifth, or metaphysical, stage. These anglers not only perceive a mystical kinship with their quarry but also draw additional rewards from a sense of being one with the elements, with the oceans and streams, with the sunrises and sunsets, with the sights and sounds and silences. It can get pretty heavy in there. Not to mention pretty fishless. Still, these guys should know what works best. They have already been through stages one, two, three and four.
Well, to each his own. If you are interested in stopping the abuses being inflicted on our game-fish populations in the name of sportfishing (we'll have to leave the long-liners and purse seiners and gillnetters to someone with more authority), then you have no real quarrel with stage one (we all have to start someplace) and certainly not with those in stage five, who are the ultimate sportsmen. Even over-zealous stage two fishermen have backed off a bit in recent years. Today new laws and tough enforcement procedures pretty much mandate not only the size of the catch but also the size of the fish in the catch, and in some locales the season has been closed altogether on certain species. Greed and gluttony are in retreat. The redfish thank you, and so do the king mackerel and the giant bluefin tuna and the striped bass. Maybe there is hope for this planet, after all.
This, then, leaves categories three and four. Even here, I have no intention of assaulting the habits of a fisherman who is out there for his own pleasure, obeying the laws of man and nature, whether he heaves a treble-hooked plug into the Vineyard surf, strips a fly line onto the deck of a Keys backcountry skiff or watches his baits skip along behind a 54-foot Hatteras off St. Thomas. Just so he does it for his own pleasure and satisfaction, and in moderation, seeking to prove only whatever it is that he wants to prove to himself. But not because he wants to win a fishing contest.
When I was younger, and therefore far more certain of my status among God's creatures, I used to take part in fishing tournaments. The citations I sometimes received, embossed affidavits of my great skill, were hung on the walls of my den; the occasional trophy, with its leaping likeness of the fish I had rendered so lifeless a short time before, was placed atop a bookcase or shelf, chrome testimony to my talents. But even as I showed off these honors to friends and neighbors, I became aware of a discordant note in a refrain that was nowhere near as sweet as it should have been. Something basic to my sport had gone wrong. Eventually I figured it out, of course, and I stopped fishing in tournaments. Fishing, I had come to realize, was never meant to be a competitive sport.
How can you, in conscience, have a contest in which one of the participants—actually, the major participant—has not been consulted as to the rules and regulations, or even as to whether or not he wants to take part? If you consider this an extreme view, akin to seeking the pig's permission before the kickoff, I beg to differ. Nothing in the world is more alive or vibrant than the great game fish—the marlin, sailfish and tuna, the bonefish and tarpon, the salmon and the trout—and to kill them in order to prove that you can do so more efficiently than another man should be a crime. No one should be awarded a Super Bowl ring for catching a bigger fish or more fish than someone else. That is not what sportfishing is all about.
Tournament anglers are indignant when it is suggested to them that they are not sportsmen at all, but impostors. Hypocrites. Phonies and frauds and fakes. That they are fishing to prove to others, not themselves, how terribly skilled they have become. That they are fishing for glory, not gratification. That, in the worst scenario, they are fishing for dollars, for bucks, to win bets and Calcutta pools and cash prizes.
In their defense, tournament fishermen claim that in many cases they are not actually harming the fish. Most tournaments these days, they say, are catch and release. They are not killing the fish; they are turning them loose. This is only partially true. Some tournaments are catch and release, but even in these, after the fish is measured and photographed and the line is cut or the hooks removed—and the fish in some cases is brought back to the tournament docks to be weighed before being turned loose—the fish often fail to survive.
It is also true that many tournaments are now charity affairs, donating entry fees (after cocktail parties, banquets, prizes and promotion costs are deducted, of course) to extremely worthwhile causes. However, it has never been explained satisfactorily why it would not be more merciful—and certainly far more efficient—to donate all entry fees directly to the charity and leave the poor fish out of it entirely. Or perhaps hold a charity golf tournament instead. Last I heard, Titleists were not on the endangered list.
But killing fish isn't my only complaint about tournament fishing. The real truth is that tournaments put enormous pressure, often by highly skilled anglers and captains and guides, upon fish stocks that are struggling, even under the best of conditions, to hold their own. These are heavy pressures, applied by experts, that would not exist if the tournaments were not being held.
The dedicated tournament angler, you will be told, would probably be out fishing in any event. Not so. In the first place, tournaments are often held many miles—sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles—from where the angler lives, and he will travel that distance, take the time and pay the cost only if he can compete in a tournament. In the second place, by the time a man gets to be a dedicated tournament angler, the last thing he wants to do is spend a lot of time fishing for fun. For him, if there is no chance for gain or glory, there is no fun. He is more likely to be at home working on his tackle, or trying to line up a better captain or guide, or building an expressway or a shopping mall so he can afford to keep fishing in tournaments. One thing he will not be doing is taking his grandchildren out for a day on the water.
I said earlier that I had not fished in a tournament in years, having come to believe that it is wrong. Because of my convictions, it has also been a long time since I have gone out of my way to be terribly cordial to those who produce or promote or endorse fishing tournaments. So now there is another reason I no longer fish in tournaments. I am no longer invited.
That is fine with me. Some day, perhaps there won't be anyone left to invite. Just think how good the fishing will be then.
Roy Terrell, who lives in Islamorada, Fla., is a former managing editor of Sports Illustrated.