Debate: Gaffing Fish & Catch and Release

Wow, it has been an unfortunate amount of time since I have been able to sit down and write. Even now, I am at my office waiting for my boss to get out of a meeting and the desk I normally sit as it occupied by our accountant so I am sitting on the steps, computer in lap, feet on the magazines in front of me.

Truth be told, I have been in such a transitional period of my life between moving into a new house, spending time focused on my relationship (which is still relatively new) and working two jobs which literally occupies my attention seven days a week.

For those of you that don’t know, I am currently working for Hogy Lure Company which is a lure manufacturing company based out of Falmouth, Mass. where I recently moved to. On top of that, I still mate for my dad on the Columbia where we run sportfishing charters out of Rock Harbor, located in Orleans, Massachusetts. This I have been doing for six seasons now.

You know you’re getting too old for a job when the new generation of mates are between 13/14-years old. This will be my last summer with him, which is both sad and exciting at the same time. I might work weekends depending on what I’m doing for work a year from now. I hope to be with the same company (Hogy) as I truly enjoy my co-workers and the work that I do.

So, let’s jump into it.

There has always been controversy surrounding the tactics and methods of those within the fishing community, long before I became apart of it. Keep in mind that these following thoughts stem from my short 7-8 years of experience both as a first mate and now through my involvement with Hogy Lures and Salty Cape. I have noticed two common discussions arise through our social media posts on all accounts (Hogy, Salty and Columbia):

  1. Gaffing a fish vs. Netting a fish
  2. Catch and release vs. Keeping fish

And of course, there’s the unfortunate individuals who feel the need to message me directly about my practices and techniques, as if being a jerk in my DM’s is going to either change or influence how I work.

Let me be very, very blunt with you for a minute; messaging someone privately about something you disagree with, especially when you attack them because they do it differently than you, is rude. No ifs, ands or buts about it.

Now, don’t get me wrong, everyone is entitled to their opinion but when you cross the line from a friendly discussion into personally attacking an individual or a business platform because you don’t like how they operate… No.

Gaffing a Fish vs. Netting a Fish

Before we get into this discussion, GAFFING A FISH IN MASSACHUSETTS IS LEGAL IF IT IS 28-INCHES+ AND YOU DO NOT ALREADY HAVE YOUR LIMIT OF ONE FISH PER PERSON. I do not know the laws and regulations of other states, but this is something I frequently hear when our business and our ethics are questioned. I can not speak for the rest of the states, but since we are located in Massachusetts and fish in Massachusetts waters, this is relevant to your knowledge.

That’s it. That should be the end of the discussion but regardless of the law, there are some people who still try to force their use of a net on you, as if their opinions are stronger than the laws put in play by policy holders, law makers and scientists.

I understand why people choose to use a net and I see no problem with it. But I also see no problem with using a gaff and let me explain why:

For starters, these are my personal opinions based on knowledge I have already obtained via personal experience.

When I am recreational fishing (going out for fun, enjoying the sport) I don’t use either a net or a gaff. I use my hands, unhook the fish, maybe snap a picture and release it as quickly as possible.

If I am choosing to use a net, which I have done countless times when fishing with Rob, it is for safety purposes both of the fish and to prevent myself from falling into the water while reaching for the fish.

When I use a gaff, and this is important, there are a few things you need to understand.  The first being, I work on a charter boat – for those of you that don’t know, charter fishing is both different from recreational fishing (for fun, for sport) and commercial fishing (to sell to markets). When charter fishing, Coast Guard allows up to six individuals to board the boat, plus the captain and the mate (8 overall). We are allowed to keep up to one fish per person, meaning we are LEGALLY allowed to have eight fish on the boat that are 28-inches or larger. The people who charter fishing boats like ours are fishing to keep, meaning they want fish to bring home to their families and their friends, to have for dinner, to make into a fish chowder, to freeze for a couple of months down the road. Whatever the reason may be, they want to bring fish home.

In this scenario, I always ask the groups when the board the boat, “Do you guys want fish to bring home?” And if they say yes, we fish to bring home. This is where the gaff comes into play – let me ask you, why wouldn’t you gaff a fish if you were planning on bringing it home and eating it? The gaff serves a variety of purposes – the most important being that it makes sure we get the fish in the boat. Since most people want to bring fish home, it does not matter if the fish is injured during the gaffing process because it is going to die either way. THAT BEING SAID, WE DO NOT GAFF FISH THAT WE ARE NOT BRINGING HOME. Even if the fish is legal, I will lift it over the back of the boat, unhook it and release it properly.

That’s all I have to say about gaffing. My final note being, before you judge someone and attack someone on their personal tactics, methods and techniques, PLEASE familiarize yourself with the states laws and regulations before taking time out of your day to approach someone for simply abiding by state laws. If you are going to attack someone because you disagree with this, your energy is probably best spent emailing those who put these laws into play in the first place.

Lastly, there is nothing wrong with either method. Whether you choose to gaff a fish or net a fish, make sure you are doing it responsibly and in the best interest of the fish. Simply, if you are not keeping the fish, do not gaff it. If you are keeping the fish, be sure that it is 28-inches+.

Catch and Release vs. Keeping Fish

There are laws put in place for a reason. And I can assure you, those of us who charter fish, recreational fish and commercial fish abide by them. Let’s run down the laws really quickly.

Recreational Fishing: One fish per person, 28-inches+. Cannot charter paying customers without a license, cannot sell fish without a license. You must apply and test for these licenses.

Charter Fishing: One fish per person on the boat, 28-inches+. Must have a license to charter paying customers. You must test for this license. Commercial license not required. If you have a commercial license and are also a charter fishing captain, it is illegal to catch commercial fish with the intent to sell on a paid charter.

Commercial Fishing: 15 fish per boat, 34-inches+. You must have a license to sell these fish. You must apply for this license. You are limited to 25lbs. per day. Monday and Thursday are the designated commercial fishing days.

These are the laws, put into play by law makers and policy holders. Why someone would try to argue the law based on their personal opinion is beyond me, but to each their own.

I have had countless messages from individuals messaging me, again verbally attacking me for what our family business does. They say things like, “you’re killing all the fish,” and “you’re the reason there’s no bass in Cape Cod Bay.” I even had someone go as far as saying “How dare you kill fish in my waters.”

Buddy, the ocean doesn’t belong to you. He then went on to argue that the “shore fishing isn’t what it used to be” while proceeding to tell me that “fishing from a boat isn’t real fishing.” That’s a joke if I’ve ever heard one.

Let’s jump right into it then. Simply put, these specific laws are put into play by scientists and analysts who have studied the migratory patterns of striped bass from their spawning season, through their spring run into their fall run and back into estuaries, streams, rivers, etc. to spawn again. Do people honestly think that these regulations would be allowed if these fish were endangered?

It’s one thing if it’s your personal opinion to catch and release, good for you, I suppose you think you are morally and ethically better than those who do not, but that doesn’t make us wrong because again, we follow the laws put into play by those who are actually educated on the subject.

Your experience on the water does not make you an expert.

Your personal opinions do not make you an expert.

Your personal practices do not make you an expert.

Honestly, if you haven’t studied and analyzed the increase/decrease of the striper population in both New England and the Cape Cod area in specific, you are not an expert.

This doesn’t make me an expert either.

But what I can tell you based on keeping up with these studies is that the striper population has increased greatly from the 1980’s and is being maintained, while increasing, well into our current era.  I can tell you that there are more schools of schoolie-sized fish in Cape Cod Bay than there have been in years. I can also tell you that the Great White Shark population probably has a lot to do with the scarcity of legal-sized fish in the area.

And adding to that, those of you that take the time to actually argue tooth and nail with me about us killing fish and ruining the population, I hope you realize that the fish are migrating, and Cape Cod Bay is just a stop on their list. Not seeing a lot of decent sized fish in the bay? That’s because they are moving north, as animals often do when they migrate. They have almost entirely moved out of the bay and should be showing up in Maine any day now if they haven’t already. That doesn’t mean they are extinct or endangered or that we are killing them, it simply means they have moved out of the area.

Again, I reiterate, if you are going to argue the logistics of the laws with anyone, it should be with a letter or an email to the law makers and policy holders. We abide by the STATE LAWS and I know some people think their opinions are more important than the laws, but they’re not.

Practice your catch and release, use your nets, have your opinions but please, respect local businesses and trust that we are simply following the rules and doing our jobs. You don’t agree with it? That’s on you. But being disrespectful and rude because of your own presumptions and disagreements simply won’t solve anything. If anything, it’ll create enemies and annoyances towards your fellow fisherman.

Links for Reference:

https://www.mass.gov/service-details/recreational-saltwater-fishing-regulations

https://www.mass.gov/service-details/learn-about-striped-bass

https://www.mass.gov/service-details/commercial-finfish-regulations

https://www.dragonflysportfishing.com/state-federal-catch-limit/

https://www.onthewater.com/massachusetts-enacts-striped-bass-conservation-regulations