A couple weeks ago, on a picture-perfect Western North Carolina fall day, a favorite client of mine and I were casually strolling down a streamside fisherman’s trail alongside a local delayed harvest stream. We had just finished lunch after a great morning of fishing and were looking for an empty run to begin our afternoon angling endeavors. We eyed a fellow angler fishing a juicy-looking run and paused for a moment to watch as he fished a small streamer down and across current. As he picked up to cast again, his eyes met ours and we exchanged smiles and nods and although no words were spoken, our mutual feeling of, “man, what a spectacular day,” was conveyed.
As we continued our search for unclaimed water, we passed another angler heading up the far bank with spinning rod in hand. He offered no recognition of our existence as he hurriedly stomped upstream. We watched as he paused about 20 feet above our friendly fly fisherman and pitched a cast into the same run. He plucked out a respectable 14-inch fish from right out in front of where the fly fisherman was standing. After a brief battle, the fish was brought to hand. More specifically the angler’s hand was squeezed tight around the struggling trout’s gills.
“Oh nice!” we heard from female voice moving towards the stream from behind us. As we turned we saw a girl in her twenty somethings, wearing shorts and rubber boots stepping into the water. She carried an orange nylon bag across the stream to where her partner in crime was standing, still working the hook free from the exhausted trout’s mouth. My client and I looked at the bag, looked at the way the guy was handling the fish, and looked at each other as I said, “they’re keeping that fish.”
“Hey,” I yelled across the stream, “you know it’s catch and release only?” The man and woman looked up, clearly irritated with our interruption. “Where just taking a picture,” the female shot back with a very annoyed look on her face. “Right,” I said as we turned to walk away. We did not stick around to see with our own eyes the fish placed in the orange nylon bag but there is little doubt in my mind about the purpose of said bag. Also, given the amount of time we saw the fish out of the water and the number of fingers prodding the fish’s gills, I have no doubt even if it was released, that fish would not have survived. As we walked away, we exchanged eye contact once again with our high-holed fly fisherman. He just slowly shook his head as he waved. He was clearly upset as well but seemed to be thanking us for at least saying something.
As we continued, and discussed what we had just witnessed, I fumed internally. Why didn’t I say more, something like, “hey a-hole, I put food on my family table by bringing people out here to catch the fish you just killed!” It wasn’t until we started catching fish again that my nerves began to settle.
Unfortunately, the good folks at the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission do not have many sets of eyes out there. In turn, we become their eyes out there. The stream we were fishing was not in an area with cell phone service or I would have called the hotline to report the suspected poaching activity. Save this number in your phone: 1-800-662-7137. People who don’t follow the rules deserve to be called out on it. People who don’t follow the rules can also be hostile, so be very delicate if you’re approaching somebody that you see poaching fish. I would recommend taking pictures of poaching activity from a distance, especially a license plate if you can get one, and call the hotline. Let the authorities handle it form there.
To be clear this is not an attack on spin fisherman and it’s not an attack on harvesting fish when the regulations allow. This is an attack on people who illegally poach fish. We have a very special resource here in our local trout streams. It allows myself and my fellow guides to make a living doing something that we love. It provides local businesses with revenue from people visiting the area for the fishing. Fly shops, hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and more benefit from the great fisheries we have in the area. Let’s all work together to protect the resource.