Should Maine Ban Saltwater Fly Fishing?
By Stu Bristol

Of course this headline is a tongue-in-cheek attention-grabber. Saltwater fly-fishing has become one of the fastest-growing outdoor sports in the northeast since the come-back of the striped bass population. Still, there are a number of anglers who are not happy being around fly anglers of both the fresh and saltwater variety. The debate has been raging on a number of fronts over the past decade or so and the popularity of saltwater angling has once again brought the issue to the forefront. Words like, "snobs," "elitists," and "purists" have been tossed about to describe fly anglers while from the other side comes similar name-calling aimed at live and natural bait and lure anglers.

"A construction worker dressed up in fancy L.L. Bean fishing outfit and waving a $500.00 Orvis rod doesn't make him any better than the rest of us." Said one angler I interviewed along Parson's Beach in Kennebunk, a popular haunt of saltwater fly anglers.

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From the other side I'm told, "People who use bait just don't get it." Reported an angler who fit the bait fisherman's description of a fly guy to a "T." "Most of these stripers are sub-legal and those worm and chunk baits are being swallowed and the fish will die." He continued, looking for validation from me.

Well, he found the wrong person to go looking for validation of that viewpoint. Having been a bait angler and a fly-fisherman most of my life, I see both sides of the issue and from where I sit, neither side really understand their responsibilities. Fish undoubtedly die at the hands of anglers who use live and natural baits. Fish also die at the hands of fly-anglers who mishandle them or play the fish to exhaustion. Essentially, both sides are right and both sides are wrong when it comes to their understanding of what is harmful to a fish.

Actually, I see two or more issues rolled into one. The issue of being an "elitist" versus a second-class citizen is just plain human nature. Look around and you will see how various humans dress and act to make themselves stand out from the crowd.

The teenagers with pierced body parts and blaze orange spike hair, men and women who wear only brand name clothing, bowling teams and bass fishing club members who wear a variety of arm patches and names embroidered on their pockets, can all be titled "elitists."

The "haves" and the "have-nots" have been at visual odds with each other for centuries and how we dress has nothing to do with our ability to fish or bowl or our status in the community.

I've taken the stance that I'm like Popeye the Sailorman. "I am what I am, and that's all that I am." I hunt and fish (and dress) for me and not how someone else thinks I should dress or act. I shoot spike-horn deer, I eat baby brook trout and a tug on the line of a spinning reel is just as much fun as a tug on the line using fly gear.

I fished the famed Metawee River in southern Vermont with Journal Editor V. Paul Reynolds, his wife Diane and Tom Fuller of Outdoor Life last week. We all dressed about the same, for comfort and warmth, not to "keep up with the trends." Before heading downstream, the serious fly-fishing talk began with Reynolds and Fuller swapping information about insect patterns and catching bugs that flittered up off the water, examining the number of wings and colors.

I opened my flybox and said, "Hey, you guys, I have big bug imitations and small bug imitations. I have ugly ones and pretty ones. Now which one should I use?" You know what, by the end of the afternoon, none of us had caught a fish. It didn't matter if we knew the scientific name of what we had on the end of the line, and none of us thought the other was less of an angler. We were just friends having fun together.

Tom and I told some fib to Diane about a 17-inch rainbow I supposedly landed, just to keep her interested in looking at other water while we headed back to camp for a nap.

Now, when it comes to understanding what will kill or injure a fish, that's another matter. As I noted, both sides need to become better educated on how to hook, play, land and keep or release fish. The more I learn about fishing, the stronger my belief is that barbs were placed on hooks merely to keep the bait from falling off. It would please me greatly if manufacturers would simply stop making barbed hooks. Then it wouldn't make much difference if the hook were long shank or short-shank, or circled or twisted or stainless steel or iron or plastic. The barb is the killing element in most man-fish encounters.

Fish suck in, swallow and spit out hundreds of food and non-food items each day without doing damage to themselves. Granted, a barbed hook swallowed by a fish and lodged there by either a bait or fly angler will be damaged and probably will die or be weakened enough to become easy prey.

Not enough studies have been conducted nationwide to determine the extent of damage done by bait or fly anglers but the groundswell of small independent studies are pointing out the lack of education on both sides. A fair analysis at this point in time suggests that fly anglers probably kill as many fish as bait anglers, and sometimes more. Most bait anglers will kill their limit and go home while fly anglers historically try not to kill fish but catch and release double digit amounts of fish per outing.

How long a fish is stressed from the time it is hooked until landed and released matters a great deal. In a River like the Kennebec, where currents are strong, a small striped bass (20-inches or less) is likely to be over-stressed in less than five minutes. I regularly see fly-anglers using 6-weight rods for small stripers. They would be better off (for the sake of the fish) to use a 9-weight. Although the fly angler feels great by letting the fish go, a seal is about to become very happy just downstream, or a larger bass just found and easy lunch. Other bass will roll to the surface and be taken by seagulls. Bait anglers, too, play rough with most of the fish they catch. The proper way to use live or natural bait for striped bas is to cut off the barb and set the hook the moment the line comes tight. Play the fish for no more than two minutes and release it using a hook disgorger or long-nose pliers, without lifting it from the water.

A fish that is to be released should never be touched by human hands. Doing so removes some of the protective slime and weakens the fish to disease or parasites. Forget what you see on Saturday morning TV shows. They are showing off the fish for the camera and most do a very bad job of it. Just as black bass were over-stressed back in the 1970's when the tournament angling became popular in the Northeast, the popularity of saltwater fly-fishing has added to the stress level of striped bass. Once the inland bass anglers got organized and used live wells and limited the number of weigh-in tournaments, the bass population improved.

The Outdoor Question this month, "Should Maine Ban Saltwater Fly-fishing?" In my opinion; of course not. Should fisheries managers push for educational programs to better inform fly and bait anglers of the dangers they each present; definitely. SAM and the Coastal Conservation Association should jump in line as well. Education has been shown to be a key element in improving all outdoor sports, from snowmobiling to trapping to personal watercaft to wildlife watching.

Stu Bristol is a freelance outdoor writer living in Lyman. His weekly columns and features have been published nationwide for over 30 years.

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