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I recently returned from a week in Cuba, where I fortunately managed to land one fish. I am passionate about fly fishing for Tarpon. I devote my savings, travel great distances, and after a week or two of angling, I feel fortunate to have landed even one fish, and even more fortunate if I can get a quality photo of my efforts. On this particular occasion about a week after I returned, I was sitting in a local coffee shop admiring my photos, when one of the shop regulars came over and sat down beside me. Apparently, he had noticed one of my photos while peering over my shoulder. “Wow, did you catch that fish on a fly rod? How long did it take to land?” Both are typical questions that I am used to getting from onlookers, and I happily engaged him in the requisite responses. As we continued to chat, however, he came up with one question that intrigued me: “So you fly all the way to Cuba just to fish for Tarpon…what do you do with them when you catch them?” A profound question that, surprisingly, can evoke some deep thinking! So what do I do with the fish when I catch it? The answer I fervently aspire to is that I release it, unharmed, back to the ocean to survive and reproduce. But do I? Do we? These thought provoking questions inspire me to ask whether I am doing what I can, what I must in order to be a more responsible and ethical steward, not only to the fish but also to the people whose livelihoods depend on its very survival.
I believe us all to be passionate about what we are doing out there on the flats and the photo, in many ways, is our sought-after trophy. I love to show people my photos and through sharing them, I get to relive the passion and invite them into my incredible adventure. But this man’s question reminded me that we have to balance the desire to get that rewarding photo, with the value of the fish we so passionately pursue. We must handle these fish as safely as possible and also ensure that we take our photos in a timely manner. I think that sometimes we neglect to consider that in the moment. It was once said to me, “Imagine running hurdles as fast as you can, as though you are a running for your very life, and then having someone hold your head under water for 3 minutes”. This gives some perspective on the state of that Tarpon you’ve just landed. It is incredibly spent! We in the flats fishing community should be educating our guides and fellow anglers on safe and ethical fish handling practices.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a biologist - in fact I’m an exterminator by trade, but I have read a few studies on fish mortality after angling. Tarpon will completely exhaust themselves during a fight. This not only changes their blood chemistry but makes them highly susceptible to post-angling predation. In addition to the effects of its arduous and tiring battle, there are other factors we must consider as well, such as infection. Any human handling, contact with gloves, sunscreen, or even boats can lead to infection. Leaving a hook in the mouth of a fish can also lead to an infection that could potentially kill.
In order to do our best to give the fish better odds for survival, there are some things we must conscientiously adhere to in our practises: we should fight the fish quickly, keep the fish in the water as much as possible and, in the case of large elongated fish like a Tarpon, never drag them over the side of the boat or hold them vertically by the gills. While this may indeed already be standard procedure for most of us, I continue to see photos every day that make me think these reminders may still be necessary. With all of this in mind, I wish you all the best of luck in your next pursuit of The Great Megalops.