I Told You So:
The demise of spear fishing in Alberta

S.W.H. Webb

I was raised to forego the temptation to say, "I told you so", and for the most part I believe I have adhered to this philosophy. However when I received E-mail recently advising me of anticipated changes to fishery regulations relative to the management of northern pike, I found I could not take this one quietly. So to all those biologists and managers out there with whom I have shared my opinion on pike management in this province for the past 20 years - and you know who you are - I told you so.

Last of the Spearfishermen

I believe I am a responsible individual when it comes to resource use, and to set the record straight, I have always hunted and fished for meat first. The recreation and enjoyment of the sport added to the experience. When I was introduced to spear fishing some 20 years ago, I found it provided the opportunity for an entirely new experience adding the thrill of the hunt to fishing. Since that time I have introduced my immediate family, a brother-in-law, a nephew and a son-in-law to the sport. One species we found to be particularly well suited to this particular method of fishing is northern pike. Despite the fact that we have always remained within our limits, usually taking less than the allowable number and rigidly selected only fish we wanted to eat with no impact on others in the population, I now find we are the first casualties under the new pike management scheme. Among other changes, we will see a prohibition of spear and bow fishing.

Now I have been around long enough to know that there are some realities to be faced regarding our quality of life on this planet with apparently infinite human population growth and finite natural resources. However, a generally low public opinion of what I consider to be one of this province's finest game fish has not added to its survival potential during the past quarter century. During this time I have seen this species eradicated from water bodies to make room for a more popular species like trout. I can appreciate the enjoyment trout provide fly fisherman, but I have to say the species lack the teeth and attitude of a healthy northern pike.

Efforts to promote protection and to enhance recognition of pike for its recreational value to anglers, have all too often met with minimal support. In fact, names such as slough shark, swamp snake, rough fish and garbage fish have crept into our everyday language when making reference to the species.

Regrettably the end result has been a degradation of the value of pike to the point where well-meaning anglers have thrown them on the bank in a misguided attempt to assist in protecting introduced trout species.

Although I am unable to quote specific numbers of those who, to this point, fished by means of bow or spear, I suspect they were few in comparison to anglers. I also suspect that the rationale behind prohibiting the use of this equipment is primarily because catch and release is not possible. Despite this, I still feel compelled to ask the question. Why us?

Based on personal experience and observations over the years, I believe that the toothy nature of this beast is such that attempts to release undersized specimens and those fish in excess of the two-fish limit, will result in significant mortality. All too often I have witnessed the handling of pike inside a boat as they thrashed about until a treble hook could be removed. Some techniques involved the use of heavy equipment such as springs to spread the jaws to a 180-degree angle or pliers to remove hooks and portions of the gill rakers. I have watched people hold fish by sticking their fingers in the eye sockets and others who allow their hands to slip into the gills, causing blood to flow. They follow up with an unceremonious fling to release the fish. Pike may appear to withstand this type of treatment and they may even swim away, but survival is unlikely.

In light of the new regulations, I ask myself which is better, unrestricted catch and release, or a careful and selective hunt with restrictive catch limits. I personally feel more comfortable with the latter. When I called my brother-in-law recently and advised him of the changes and to vent my frustration, his response without hesitation was, "To hell with it, we'll go to Saskatchewan." And I agreed.

S.W.H. Webb is a member of the Alberta Fish and Wildlife Officers Association in Calgary.