I recently returned from a spectacular multi-day fly fishing trip. It was a rafting float down a beautiful canyon with steep schist and sandstone walls, cool water, tons of brown and rainbow trout. Difficult access meant we hardly saw anyone else during those days. The bug life was incredible (caddis, sallies, mayflies, dragonflies, multiple hatches every day). I was pleased to see no Tamarisk and very few Russian Olives. Our trip had four rafts, each with a guide and two clients, personal gear, camp gear, food. Every day we covered 5-6 miles, fishing from the boats and pulling over often to wade fish from the banks. We all had a great time and we all caught plenty of nice fish. Even so, I returned home with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. Why is that?

As the trip progressed, while we were all catching fish with great coaching from our guides, I started noticing dead fish. Drowned fish, in one piece, sunk on the bottom in slow current, their white bellies clearly visible from above. I could only surmise they were angler-killed, i.e. fish poorly played, badly landed, mis-handled, or improperly released.

I started paying more attention to water temperature. I did not have a thermometer with me, but with 100+ degree days, sun on the water from 7am to 8pm, and very comfortable wet wading conditions, it seemed reasonable to assume it was at least in the upper 60’s. As we all know, warmer water means less dissolved oxygen, making life a lot harder for the trout. The general consensus is that we should stop fishing for browns and rainbows when water temperature reaches 68F.

I wondered about our fishing process: were we all as diligent as we could be? Were we all using oversized tippet to land fish as quickly as possible? Making sure all our flies were de-barbed? Always wetting hands before touching the trout (preserves the slime barrier on their skin, keeping infections away)? Avoiding touching them in the first place, if possible? Trying to unhook the fish in the net, without even lifting them out of water? Not holding them up for a few minutes for that grip-and-grin photo to show off to friends back home?

At first I felt it was the guides’ responsibility to educate the anglers. After all, they are uniquely positioned to be in control of what their clients are doing. We all heard about shenanigans some guides do to get their clients to catch fish. Guides who add a one foot mono trailer with a bare hook to a refused dry fly, so a set will foul hook the trout and the client catches something. Guides who allow us to fish in water that’s too warm, or to cast to spawning fish. Guides who after the photo toss the fish back into water over their shoulder and move on. I’m sure many of us have at least heard stories like that, if not experienced them first-hand.

It would be easy to blame the guides, but we have to remember that fly fishing shops and guide services are first and foremost a business. They are there to make money. They are doing what they believe is fulfilling OUR expectations. I’m not letting them off the hook and saying they’re blameless, but we need to acknowledge that we are the ones driving this problem.

If we come to the river expecting the guide to get us “into fish”, and if our definition of a successful trip revolves around number of fish brought to hand, can we really blame the guides for doing whatever it takes?

I don’t think so.

Over the years I have learned a lot from the guides I’ve been lucky enough to fish with. I am thankful to those guides and friends who took the time to educate me not only on how to become a better fisherman, but also on proper fish treatment. I would like to think that I have become a very conscientious angler who now passes that respect and ethic onto others.

It’s our job, the clients’ job, to decide what the goal of the trip is. What cost (in terms of damaging the fish and the river) are we willing to accept? Is the trip about catching the most fish no matter the conditions? Or is it about protecting the river and the fish first and foremost, and enjoying the day? I would like to think that especially for members of Trout Unlimited, resource conservation comes first.

Sometimes using de-barbed hooks and keeping fish wet isn’t enough. There are days when we shouldn’t fish because the water is too warm. Some rivers, such as the Deschutes, no longer allow fishing from a boat – anglers caught too many fish, highly stressing the fishery. Now guides row clients to good wade-fishing spots instead. Guides teach, clients catch, and it’s easier on the fish. I wonder if that’ll become the new normal elsewhere, including our rivers in Colorado.

I’m not a guide, nor do I play one on TV. It shouldn’t be hard for our goals and those of the guides to align. If we accept lower catch counts in exchange for feeling good about helping the fish survive, the guides will follow suit. As their careers depend on having healthy fish in healthy rivers, it is in their direct interest to preserve these fisheries for as long as possible. Just like consumer-driven boycotts can force companies to change their evil ways (e.g. Nike and kids in sweat shops, Coca Cola and apartheid), we the clients can use the positive side of that coin. Let’s convince our guides — protecting the resource is our main priority. Their tips will come from us having a great day in a great place, and not be tied to the number of fish caught on days when it wouldn’t be right. If we can responsibly catch fish while there then that’s great. But that comes second. #keepthemwet