Recently a few of us folks from the fly fishing underground had gotten involved in a heated debate regarding foul-hooking fish and ethics among angling techniques. We were called “pathetic flyfisherman snagging suckers because [we] can't get them to take [our flies] in their mouth”, and were insulted and questioned as a “true Roughfisher”. The crux of the argument revolved around the take, the hook set, and the location of the hook. The secondary debate over ethics was an offset of techniques and the methodology utilized in the pursuit of fish.
Due to the nature of the medium we were using to debate this issue, an internet forum, there is a high likelihood that our intentions were misinterpreted by the other party, especially since body language and voice inflection, two big keys that help convey emotion and the nature of our intentions, are not present in this format. Nobody was arguing that a fish caught foul-hooked, i.e. hooked outside of the mouth, was not a legal catch. The debate was more reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings and the definition of what “is” is. We were trying to define what constitutes “in the mouth”. Does the mouth include the lips? If so, does it include the entire radius of the lips, or just the portion of the lip that faces inside when the mouth is closed?
Upon researching the National Freshwater Hall of Fame and IGFA rules and previous case denials for records claims, it was determined that:
1) An intentionally foul-hooked fish is case for disqualification, and
2) The definition of “foul –hooked” resides in the state/provincial regulations where the catch was made.
In the MN Statutes and Rules, there is no clear definition of what constitutes “the mouth” of fish, nor a clear definition of foul-hooking, other than the fact that when fishing Lake Superior tributaries a fish that is hooked in any part of the body, except the mouth, must be immediately returned to the water.
By catching a fish with the hook inside the inner lip, we, the underground, were accused of setting the hook too late and snagging the fish. I've seen the dynamics of how circle hooks, octopus hooks, and curved scud hooks turn/roll out of the fish's mouth on the hook set, resulting in a lip hook. Even though you fooled the fish to take your fly, due to the nature of the shape and orientation of the hook, it moved from inside of the mouth in to the lip. Would that be considered a late hook set and a snag? It would be interesting to see how a Conservation Officer or judge would interpret the catch. I have a feeling the lip would be considered part of the mouth.
Many roughfish species are difficult to catch because of their subterminal or inferior mouths. In addition many species have small mouths and/or thick, fleshy lips. Just getting a hook into their mouths sometimes requires an act of God. I can see how a fish hooked on the outside of the lips can be considered snagged. A likely scenario would be the fly drifted along the bottom of river, came in contact with the fish, and the angler sensed a strike and set the hook. But a fly hooked in the inner lip clearly had to have the fly enter the fish’s mouth. If you are fishing to fish facing upstream with a traditionally tied beadhead nymph, i.e. fly tied hook side down on a hook with a down turned eye, the fly likely drifted along the bottom hook side down. This fly has a better chance of snagging bottom than snagging a sucker’s lips. That’s why flies like the clouser minnow are tied hook side up, so that they don’t snag in the rocks. A nymph riding hook side down won’t be able to hook the inside of a lip, or fish’s mouth for that instance, without having to change its orientation. This orientation is most likely changed when the fish takes the fly and sucks it into its mouth. Even while tightline nymphing, a strip of the fly line should not be turning a properly tied nymph upside down. It’s possible that bouncing the fly on the bottom may change its orientation presenting a situation that could have the hook catch on the sucker’s lips. To “snag” the fish on the inside of the lips with a nymph, the fish would have to move off of the bottom, have the fly hit the bottom directly in front/underneath the mouth and turn upside down, and the angler would need to strip the fly almost vertical into the fish’s mouth for the hook to stick in the inside lip. It seems like a lot of things need to happen for that scenarios to occur. Not saying that it never happens, but the fish actively taking the fly is the more likely scenario. [I have foul-hooked pike and walleye with a clouser minnow in this manner though]
So where does the practice of bead fishing or lining steelhead/salmon lie? In my opinion, that is snagging. An angler is just trying to thread a hook into a non-feeding, spawning fish's mouth and setting the hook. Yet this practice is accepted by many as ethical and legitimate. From my experience the other day, this is oddly similar to fishing vegetation or algae flies to clooping fish. An angler is basically trying to cast a fly into/near a fish's mouth and waiting for the fish to close its mouth before setting the hook. One of the so called “true Roughfishers” admittedly spent hours on end casting algae flies to bigmouth buffalo feeding in this manner. His definition of “catch” was such that, “unless you know that you fooled the fish and got it to take your hook into its mouth, it's not a catch”. True, but in this case it seems to be more of a challenge of casting skill and accuracy, more so than tricking a fish to take your fly. The buffalo I observed clooping were feeding in no distinct pattern or direction and were hardly interested at all with the flies I offered. They were more interested in sucking the foam and scum off the surface of the water. I was in a position with some fish to literally be able to drop my fly directly into their mouths from about six feet above them. I dropped my fly in front of several fish and watched them suck in and immediately spit out the fly, all without closing their mouth. In fact, the one fish I hooked up with didn’t even respond to the hook dropped into its mouth and having the hook set. Only after I attempted to steer it towards shore for about 30 seconds did the fish respond and attempt to swim off. This method of angling seemed infantile and was definitely of no challenge as there was no interest shown at all by the fish in taking a fly. The only reason a fish was “caught” was because a fly was literally put it in their mouth and had the hook set. This was about as enjoyable and challenging to me as catching them with a dip net or shooting them with a bow and arrow.
There were a few more bullshit statements thrown around, questioning the ethics of us fly fishing snaggers. We were called disgusting and disrespectful towards fish. I don’t know about you, but the members of the underground have all fished together in one way or another, and we are anything BUT unethical anglers. These guys in exile are some of the most respectful, dedicated, and insightful anglers that I know. I have never witnessed them perform any act that was disgusting or disrespectful to fish. In fact, several members of the underground work for public agencies and have dedicated their careers towards maintaining and preserving the environment through the pursuit of clean water, stream restoration, and responsible fisheries management. It seems contradictory for any one of us to be abusive to the very resource we’ve spent our lives trying to protect.
In the end, the basis for argument was really quite asinine as likely all that were at issue were our egos and sense of pride. I don’t believe that any one of us wanted to harm or disrespect the resource, and no one from the underground had any intentions of harvesting fish. It was a moot point. All that was at stake was our interpretation of fair catch. Nonetheless fishermen tend to have big egos and we were not to “go gentle into that good night”. As the great John Montana once noted, “I'm just another "pathetic" fly fisherman out to snag suckers and carp in the mouth. Good fishing everyone”.