What’s the Big Deal?

OK, so why are these ideas "necessary"? We all want to catch more and bigger fish, but at what cost? Polluting the environment? Killing wildlife? While not even one of us wants this, it can and does happen sometimes, even with our best intentions. We really do need to consider what we’re doing, and how we’re doing it.

There are waters that once were to give up their fish, but now they are depleted or the fish are on the smaller side. You probably can name one or two spots yourself.

Where have all the fish gone?

As anglers, we have to start realizing that we do in fact affect the environments we fish in. This is where we have to start. With the sheer immensity of nature, it’s often difficult to truly understand our affect on it, or that we even can affect it. It’s that large and encompassing.

We must always resist the blame-shift. Too often in speaking with anglers, we identify something that sport fishermen (ourselves included) do that’s not good for the ecosystem, and the finger-pointing begins. "But it’s really the commercial fishermen," or "until they change the law regarding x, y and z," or "it’s the tribes," or "I once saw a guy from out of state" or any number of other excuses flow forth. We are not excused. We have to begin with ourselves, taking responsibility for our actions and our impact, and diminishing it. This is stewardship, and we sportsmen are stewards.

Having said that, it really is hard to comprehend how a seven-inch swim-tail worm or a few 1/16th-ounce lead split shot can impact a 12,000 acre lake. Actually, it might not affect it at all if you were the only one fishing it and/or you never snag a line and lose your rig, or never have a soft plastic worm or craw slip off, or never get bit off. But it seems we’re never alone on a lake or river, we do snag and lose baits and tackle, and we do get bit off. It’s part of the sport, it happens. And it happens to all of us. And that is the problem. There are 40 million anglers in America losing this stuff and it collects there in the lake, stream or sea, where it stays…some of it for a very, very long time.

Let’s look at the situation a different way: How many of us litter? Just throw our empty pop or beer cans off the boat into the water, or leave spent worm containers or bags on the bank where we were fishing? A guess? Not many. (I doubt anyone would have read this far into this article if they did). Most of us wouldn’t even think of it, the idea of blatantly littering is so foreign to us. Not only would you just never, ever do it, you are probably the kind of person that also picks up and cleans up garbage after others have rudely left it behind.

While lead is a naturally occurring metal, small tackle items such as lead split-shot, and various sinkers and jigs have been proven to be harmful to our wildlife. Upon autopsy, loons and other creatures such as eagles, trumpeter swans, etc., have been found to have ingested and died from lead split-shot, sinkers, and jigs, from anglers who have lost their tackle in snags. Waterfowl, including threatened species such as eagles and loons, pick up pebbles and small stones in their mouths to help digest their food, and upon picking up split-shot and smaller sinkers of lead, die of lead poisoning within two weeks.

The problem has reached such a proportion that states such as New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts have imposed various legislative bans on the sale and/ or use of some lead tackle, usually items such a split-shot, jigs, and sinkers weighing less than one-half ounce to one ounce. Even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has imposed bans and/ or restricted use in some National Wildlife Refuges and Parks. The same types of bans and restrictions are already in places in other countries such as Great Britain, Canada, and Denmark among others, for similar reasons of preservation of wildlife and human health as well.

Minnesota, while not legislating restrictions on the sale, purchase, or use of lead fishing products, has instituted it’s "Get the Lead Out!" program, an educational campaign designed to encourage anglers to make the switch from traditional lead fishing products to safer non-lead alternatives. Minnesota has even gone so far as to arrange tackle-swaps, allowing anglers to swap their lead tackle for lead-free.

Ingestion by wildlife isn’t the only problem with lead. Although naturally occurring, lead is toxic. "Heavy metals" in the water means "heavy metals" in our water supply – and as Johnny Morris said, "we all live downstream." The U.S. Government has spent billions of taxpayer dollars in lead cleanup around the country, so making a conscious choice to eliminate our distribution of lead into the environment is a good one.

Another issue of concern in regards to fishing tackle are soft plastic lures, the pliant, rubbery lures molded into shapes mimicking worms, crawfish, lizards, leeches, minnows and other forage-type creatures that predator fish prey upon. While seemingly innocuous, these types of lures can introduce two problems for the ecosystem. Due to the pliable nature of soft plastic lures, the same qualities that makes them attractive to fool and trigger fish, many of these lures come off the hook. A vicious strike from a fish, getting snagged on something underwater, or being pitched into the water by a careless angler results in millions of soft plastic lures in our waters every year. Because many of these lures are made from various (petroleum-based) plastic products, lost lures do not decay or decompose, but instead collect, in essence, underwater litter. So – underwater. Out of sight, so no big deal, right? Not so fast. Certain toxic chemicals including phthalates, PVC and others can leach out of the plastic, adding to the pollution of our waterways.

The second problem is that fish and other wildlife, upon finding these lost lures, seize the opportunity at what appears to be a free and easy meal. After devouring the soft plastic lure some fish may pass the plastic worm or minnow, but there is also gathering evidence available that some do not. There are instances where the indigestible plastic lure becomes stuck, or lodged, with in the fish’s digestive tract, usually between the stomach and intestines, creating a blockage. This obstruction ceases to allow digestive functioning, or slows it down drastically. As a result, an otherwise healthy fish grows sick and dies over time.

Good choices in hooks can also help us reduce post-release mortality. Obviously we want the hook to do it’s job in helping us land the fish, but if we aim to let it go again, we want to know it’s going to live, right? Depending upon the situation, and sometimes the species, some hooks and rigs have proven a safer option than others for the survival of the fish.

Read the next piece in our S.A.F.E. Angling Kickoff Series, Charging Ahead.