Book Review: Beyond Catch and Release by Paul Guernsey

Beyond Catch & Release: Exploring the Future of Fly Fishing
by Paul Guernsey
Skyhorse Publishing, May 2011
144 pages

The author of Beyond Catch and Release, Paul Guernsey, sets the tone of this book from the very outset, with the first paragraph in the preface:

Fly Fishing is one of the most fulfilling ways of experiencing nature; it is one of the few activities that allows us to interact with the natural world as a participant rather than as a mere tourist. Because of this, people who fly fish belong to a privileged and extremely fortunate community. But with the privilege of angling and of belonging comes an important individual responsibility–the responsibility of each of us to be as good a fisherman or woman as we possibly can.

You can be sure that when he uses the term “good”, the author doesn’t mean just being able to catch fish. He is referring to the ethics of fly fishing, which spans topics ranging from our treatment of the resources such as the fish, and the waterways, to our interactions with other anglers, such as stream-side etiquette and eduction. This is a book with a point and a purpose. Guernsey believes that the fly fishing community needs to carefully “refine and redefine some of our beliefs, habits and attitudes in order to meet the challenges of tomorrow’s world.”

As a jumping off point for his thesis, Mr. Guernsey uses the rules set forth in “A Treatise of Fishing with an Angle”, which was published in 1496 as part of the larger volume The Book of St. Albans. The authorship of the treatise is unknown but is popularly attributed to the English prioress Dame Juliana Berners. The author of the Treatise sets forth a very useable ethical framework for the modern fly angler, which Guernsey modernizes and distills as below:

– Be considerate of other anglers, landowners, and the general public.
– Respect your quarry.
– Do what you can to protect fish and fish habitat.
– Take precautions for the sake of your own health and safety.
– Help and teach others.
– Enjoy your time outdoors.

Guernsey builds upon these simple rules and lays an ethical groundwork for the modern fly fisher. In several of the early chapters he explores the tradition and history of fishing in America and recounts some of the history leading to fishing regulations, bag limits and eventually to catch and release (C&R). Guernsey wants us fly anglers to think about C&R. He states that “catch and release has become such a reflexive action that we hardly think about it at all anymore. Most of us barely give a thought to why we return living fish to the the water. But the reason is important.”

After giving some interesting history on C&R Guernsey goes on to summarize by stating, “To further abbreviate a lengthy and complicated history, catch-and-release angling came about and caught on because it was a practical and effective fisheries management tool, and for no other reason.” The book goes on to cover the topics of how to handle and release fish, how to treat the waterways and fellow anglers, how to behave with guides, the problem of non-native species and what the future might hold for fly fishing.

One particularly interesting anecdote illuminated potentially disastrous problems created by stocking over wild fish. This episode was originally related by English author Harry Plunket-Greene in his 1924 book about the Bourne River, Where The Bright Waters Meet. Plunket-Greene tells how stocked two-year old hatchery trout out-competed larger fish for food resources and eliminated the large spawning-age natives in the course of a single season.

Guernsey points out that the future of sport fishing and C&R fly fishing are not automatically safe. In addition to environmental and habitat related issues that threaten recreational fishing there are issues of access and perhaps even the potential for a ban on C&R fishing altogether. Such a ban has been enacted in Switzerland already.

Though it strikes most fly anglers as bizarre, many animal rights advocates – along with plenty of people who don’t subscribe to the rest of the animal rights philosophy or agenda – find catching and releasing fish to be more, rather than less, morally objectionable than hooking and cooking the same fish. According to their argument, the fish killer is merely trying to feed himself or his family, which to them is understandable, if not excusable, while the C&R angler is tormenting a living creature for his own amusement, which they view as indefensible.

Whether this type of argument will ever gain traction in the United States I can’t predict. But one thing is certain, fewer anglers and fewer fly anglers means less people that will care to argue and educate against it.

In Beyond Catch and Release Paul Guernsey attempts to cover a lot of ground – and does a pretty good job of it. The book suffers a little from the broad scope though when it fails to get into details. For instance I think that the book could be stronger if more specific data were included to back up the discussions of C&R, barbless hooks, felt-sole waders and the like.

I can’t say that this is a book for everyone. It has more in common with a text book than it does with a book by say John Gierach or Ted Leeson. The prose is clear and concise and and utilitarian. Which is appropriate for this book, and its purpose, I think. As I read this book I found myself wondering a bit about who the target audience is, or maybe more specifically who the target audience should be. I think that most fly anglers would benefit from reading this book. Though, many well read thoughtful anglers will not find much that is totally new in its pages. However, it is good to be reminded of the the ideas presented in this book; firstly so that we continue to practice these ideas ourselves and secondly and perhaps more importantly so that we can pass them on to the future generation. The best audience for this book though is new anglers or those that instruct or deal with new anglers. This book would be an ideal book to put in the hands of all new anglers and would make an excellent companion to a how-to type book.

Disclosure: I received no compensation, monetary or otherwise for this review. However, I was supplied with this book by the publisher.

3 Comments on Book Review: Beyond Catch and Release by Paul Guernsey

  1. I find it incredibly hypocritical that many of the “animal rights” people will stage protests, complain through any media source available about fishing in general, and yet have no qualms about sitting down to a salmon or catfish dinner. I guess they believe that as long as it comes from behind the glass case at the supermarket, it is fair game. Pun intended

  2. Yeah – I don’t know how much traction this argument against C&R fishing will ever get in my lifetime, but I can imagine a time when things will be different. If the downward trend in participation in fishing continues then there will be fewer and fewer people that care. The thing that really strikes me is that if it wasn’t for fisherman our rivers and streams would be in much more dire straits than they are, then those folks wouldn’t have any fish to worry about.

  3. You are absolutely right about the impact the fishermen have when it comes to maintaining our waterways. The fees from fishing licenses, boat registrations, entry into government controlled lakes and streams all are applied to making the environment better for wildlife. That is not even mentioning all of the work that bass clubs and outdoor clubs do on their own.

what say you?