John Hayes: Why it's well worth the effort to remove fishing litter left behind

John Hayes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Outdoors

PITTSBURGH — My conservation roots run deep. In my world, fishing isn't about catching, stocking up on food or achieving some mastery over the environment. It's not the fish, it's the fishing.

On a good day I can make my rod, reel, line and fly do more or less what I want. I'm a catch-and-release guy; I rarely kill fish, especially trout. Sometimes I can correctly assess nuances of the season, weather, photoperiod, time of day and water conditions. If I tie on the right fly, drop it in the right place, get a natural drift and hook and release a fish, I don't feel like I'm the predator. I'm the prey.

This little ecosystem and all the life within it think I'm the bug at the end of the line doing what bugs do. I feel welcomed there, embraced by this beautiful little corner of the world, accepted in a way that happens nowhere else in my life.

So I took it like a gut punch when, at 13 or 14 years old and out fishing with my dad, he called me to the driver's side of the car parked on a back road along Little Mahoning Creek in Indiana County. He said nothing, letting me find the tangle of monofilament fishing line wrapped around a fallen branch and the dead sparrow hanging from the line by its broken neck.

Animals die all the time, but this one was killed by a neglectful angler who snipped off a monofilament tangle and left it beside the road, never knowing the result of his thoughtless action. Dad and I looked at the dark still life, saying nothing. He knew that just seeing it would leave a lasting impression on his son, the burgeoning conservationist.

Since that day, one pocket of my fishing vest has been reserved for angler trash. Styrofoam worm cups and lids, cigarette butts, crushed beer cans and plastic hook bags fill the pocket. I tightly wrap discarded balls of fishing line and melt it solid to prevent it from endangering wildlife at the dump.

Picking up angler litter takes up about 3 or 4 seconds of my day. I know my personal contribution to global conservation is too minor to really matter, but it makes me feel good.

A few years later, I had a stretch of water to myself on the Delayed Harvest Artificial Lures Only section of Little Sandy Creek in Venango County. Side casting under low-hanging hemlock branches, I glanced behind to check my backcast and something caught my eye. Maybe a hummingbird hovering over the stream, but it didn't seem to be moving. I made a couple more casts and looked back again, reeling in my line and splashing upstream to satisfy my curiosity.

I stopped dead in the water. Apparently another angler's backcast had tangled in a tree. The line broke while he tried to retrieve the fly, leaving the fly hanging at the end of the line. An enterprising little brown bat thought the snag was an actual fly and swooped in for a bite. Hooked in the lip, unable to free itself, the bat had dangled over the water for how long?


I pushed my reel over the branch and pulled it within reach. Holding the fly with a medical hemostat clamp, I snipped as much of the line as possible off the branch, carried the hanging bat to the bank of the stream, kneeled down and went to work. With the rod gently holding the bat to the ground, away from my fingers, I twisted the hemostat to remove the hook from its mouth.

Freed, the bat hopped toward me and I fell backwards. The bat turned, moved to the water's edge and did something I'd never considered. The exhausted bat swam across the creek, its wings awkwardly breast-stroking until it reached the other bank. It crawled onto land and ducked under a fallen log. I stuffed the discarded line into my vest pocket and continued side casting through the hemlock pool.

Loose fishing line is a danger to birds and bats, but it can impact fish, too. In Pine Creek upstream from Etna, long before we all carried cellphone cameras, a trout darted out of the dark water into a well-lighted riffle. It took my black Wooly Bugger and bent the rod running upstream. I lifted the tip and brought the 10-inch brown trout to my side.

When I bent to remove the hook, I found another line sticking 4 inches out of its mouth. The trout had taken another bait, but the line snapped before it was landed. Odd, but I'd seen that happen before. I was surprised, however, when I looked at the fish's other end. Monofilament line was hanging out of its vent and at the end was a rusted No. 6 hook.

The angler's light line had apparently broken while the hook was lodged in the trout's throat. With the line still attached, the hook worked its way through the entire digestive system and out the back. More impressive, having pushed out a hook and with fishing line sticking out its vent and mouth, the trout was still feeding.

The rusty hook suggested this wasn't its first meal since the disability occurred — the fish had been living like this for some time.

Before releasing the trout, I snipped the line at the vent and mouth, hoping the rest would pass in time. The pieces of line were stuffed into my vest pocket, more angler debris destined for my trash can at home.

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