When fair is foul

Angling Ethics

Last updated 15:11 21/07/2008
The offending picture. Should this salmon have been returned?
Out of my territory: chomp; oh darn!' A series of drawings by Adam Coley, showing how a salmon can legitimately take a lure in the mouth and still be hooked on the outside of the supramaxilla.
Was this brown trout foul-hooked or just testing the nymph between its jaws? The nymph was embedded in the mandible on the opposite side to the direction of pull, with the point of the hook pointing toward the centre of the mouth. The question is academic as the fish was released.

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Hover through the fog and filthy air, chant the witches as they await the arrival of Macbeth in Shakespeare's tragedy of that name.

Which brings me to the question: what constitutes a fair hook-up and one that is foul? Is there a general law that applies to all species and all venues? And must all foul-hooked fish be returned?

The need to consider these issues was brought to the fore when our editor forwarded an excerpt of a letter he had received from Anonymous Commentator. It refers to the picture of my first salmon of the season, printed on page 15 of ‘Year of the Salmon’ (Fishing News, March 2008). It reads:

In Canterbury we have to release all sports fish not hooked in the mouth, but maybe Adrian Bell is beyond the law, as this picture clearly shows fish is hooked outside the mouth. Real close, but the two Fish & Game rangers who pointed this out to me reckon this fish should have been released. There is a chance Adrian might receive a visit from Fish & Game in the near-future.’

As you may imagine, I was worried about this on two counts. Was I, after all, a slayer of foul-hooked salmon? And would I strike again? Could I be a serial offender and not know it? But, more importantly, was my house and family under threat from Fish & Game? Would I need to bounce out of bed like the king who shouted, “Butter, eh?” in AA Milne’s nursery rhyme, as the armed offenders’ squad descend on me in ‘one fell swoop’ as part of a dawn raid, perhaps?

Before accepting a guilty verdict and offering up my surf rod and Bro’s kayak for confiscation, am I not entitled to a defence? Or must I echo the sentiments of Macbeth who, commenting on his day of battle, concluded “So fair and foul a day I have not seen.” End of story? No way. We are all equal before the law.

As the charge has been read, and it is alleged that two Fish & Game rangers have presented their case, I will proceed with my defence. Firstly, I call upon the editor of New Zealand’s foremost fishing monthly.

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Grant [Editor, NZFN], you wrote to Anonymous Commentator, didn’t you?

Yes. I told him, after talking with my colleagues, that my understanding is that the ‘rule of thumb’ is anything hooked ‘south of the head’ is foul-hooked. I conceded, however, that this may be considered a simplistic view from a Jaffa who knows little about salmon fishing. I pointed out that while it might be argued that the salmon in question has been hooked on the outside of the mouth, it also appears, judging by the blood, that the fish may have been previously hooked in the mouth before having the lure removed. The lure looks as though it is just hanging there for photographic purposes. I guess your ranger friends may like to consider that explanation before paying Adrian a visit.

A: And did he reply to you?

G: Yes. He quoted from the South Island Sports Fishing Regulations 2007-2008, page 9, which states: “Foulhook means to hook a sports fish other than from within the mouth.” He also quoted Regulation 3.2 on page 11: “Any licence holder who foul-hooks a sports fish shall return it immediately to the water with as little injury as possible.”

A: Well, that seems pretty conclusive. Did he say anything else?

G: Yes, to be fair to him, he said that he understood my possible explanation, but the fact remained that the photo still looked a little suspect and it had been printed in our magazine.

A: So, is he suggesting that you shouldn’t have printed it?

G: Maybe, but he also said that Adrian should have possibly scrutinised his photos better before sending them to me with his article.

A: Thank you, Grant. Now I’d like to ask the court to view a series of pictures drawn up by Adam, a graphic artist. These drawings (right) show how a salmon could legitimately take a lure in its mouth and yet be hooked on the outside of the supramaxilla (rear portion of the upper jaw bone), as shown in the offending photo. In other words, they show how ‘foul’ could be considered ‘fair’. Yet, according to the law, it would be foulhooked. But there is more to the story.

Lastly, I call upon my brother.
Malcolm, would you like to tell the court what happened when the fish was landed?

Malcolm: Certainly. I took it upon myself to remove the hooks from the fish, shortly after it was landed.

A: And who landed the fish?

M: A good friend, who administered the coup de grace immediately after he landed your fish.

A: So the question of whether or not it would be returned was taken out of my hands?

M: Correct; but there is no case to answer.

A: What do you mean by that? 

M: Our friend had obviously seen your salmon as having been hooked fair and square. You see, there were two hook-points in that fish. I pulled out the one that was stuck in the corner of the mouth – on the inside of the corner of the mouth. It was hard to extract because the barb was stuck in the membrane. Hence the blood. I would have pulled the other one out, but you wanted it left in for the photograph.

A: That is correct. Well, the defence rests. I feel optimistic about the verdict. After all, ‘fair’ cannot be considered ‘foul’, can it?

One positive consequence is the lesson that judgements made on the basis of partial information (in this case, what was provided by the photograph) can lead to wrong conclusions being drawn.

So much for the rules concerning acclimatised fish in New Zealand. What about those in other countries? In saltwater? Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary was no help. I tried ‘foul-hook’, ‘foulhook’ and ‘foul hook’, getting the following message for my trouble: ‘The word you’ve entered isn’t in the dictionary.’ Encarta’s entry for foul-hook is similar to that found in our Sports Fishing Regulations: to ‘hook fish other than in mouth: to hook a fish by any part of its body other than the mouth.’

The International Game Fishing Association rules state that Intentionally foul-hooking a fish… will disqualify a catch’. And under ‘Rules for Fly Fishing’ we find: The use of any lure designed to entangle or foul-hook a fish is prohibited.’ The implication is that a world record can stand even if a fish is foul-hooked, providing it was not hooked thus intentionally.

In my attempt to look for rules on keeping or releasing foul-hooked fish, I came across an article by Ed Zieralski called ‘Was Foul Fair?’ It details the case of John Weakley, who had a Florida-strain largemouth bass swirl on his Rattlesnake jig a couple of years back. Instead of the hook lodging in its mouth, the jig impaled the fish’s side below the dorsal fin. As it was foul-hooked, the bass was weighed on certified scales (registering 25 pounds and 1 ounce) and then released. However, it appears that by releasing it, John Weakly allowed a potential record to slip away. After all, it was not intentionally foul-hooked, so the record could have been ratified.

The IGFA rules, which address this question of intent, are obviously more lenient than those drawn up by Fish & Game New Zealand. So why do we have to release fish which are unintentionally foul-hooked?
The answer to that question involves a lure-fishing technique practiced in the ‘guts’ of freestone salmon rivers. A large, slow-actioned fly-rod is lined with heavy nylon, to the end of which is attached a weight, or weights, and a large streamer fly or flies. As the fly is drawn through narrow channels and often through discoloured water, the chance of foul-hooking a passing salmon is heightened considerably. For more detail on this technique and how it can be abused by deliberate stroke-hauling or ‘scratching’, read the article entitled ‘The Canterbury Lure Rod’ on the Fishingmag site.

Woe betide any angler in this country who keeps a salmon or trout that looks as if it’s foul-hooked and has the temerity to photograph the fact. Swords will be drawn and words will follow, just like in Macbeth’s famous challenge: “Lay on, Macduff! And damn’d be him that first cries “Hold enough!”
However, Macbeth lost that particular duel.â€ÂÂ�

- Fishing News

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