To kill or not to kill, that is the question

How this article started back in 2005


A ‘did you hear that so and so caught….’ type conversation was all it took to get me to write this article. Irrespective of what I said to the other angler I could not convince him that it was OK to kill a big Sting Ray for the purposes of weighing in. In fact I was a little shocked at the level of anxiety shown by the other angler/boat owner. That added to the amount of sympathy shown to one big and ‘very old’ Stingray got me really thinking. After all we catch and kill loads of Mackerel for bait don’t we? What about the poor old mackerel? His bottom line was that we should not be flying any red rags in ‘the face’ of the anti blood sports protestors and that really riles me! I had to explore my own feelings, of which I had few for this one particular Sting Ray, I admit. The photos of the magnificent dead fish with its captor turned out to be unsuitable for the local papers! I

I am playing devils advocate a bit here. I understand that if we can't eat it why kill it. But for true scientific purposes this is very useful to know.

It transpires that only a ‘handful of us’ are of this mindset, as the large proportion of our Sea Angling pundits are right behind the match scene and consider that match fishing is the mainstay of our sport. Is this correct? I don’t know. This is not a ‘them and us’ article because I like and understand boat match fishing. I like it too when I win! As I say right now I just don’t know how the majority of sea anglers HONESTLY feel about specimen hunting. I think that ‘someone’ should find out.

Although this article is wordy, I have tried to understand my initial sentiments that has caused some serious consideration and soul searching since. Following my ‘investigation’ I have decided that although killing when sea angling is practically unavoidable at times, there are many of us sea anglers that may still be willing to kill a quality fish purely to weigh for awards. After all we ARE allowed to do this legally and quite often encouraged by the rules of our guiding organisations. The Anglers Trust, EFSA and most affiliated clubs, all leading conservationists in their own right, often condone the killing fish for records and specimen competition awards.

What EFSA say about the Sting Ray

The Sting Ray (DASYATIS PASTINACA) is found throughout the Northeast Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea. The Sting Ray feeds on bottom-living invertebrates and fishes. These rays are found over sandy and muddy bottoms, sometimes in estuaries and near rocky reefs. They are ovoviviparous, the gestation period being about 4 months and 4-7 young are produced. Wings marketed smoked, dried-salted, and also used for fishmeal and oil. They are found in subtropical regions between 61°N - 35°S, 19°W - 42°E. The Sting Ray is harmful to shellfish banks; dangerous to bathers and fishers due to its poisonous spine. This barbed poison spine is a modified denticle that can be 35cm long, shed occasionally and replaced. The Sting Ray feeds on bottom fishes, crustaceans and molluscs. The maximum size for a Common Sting Ray is 57.0 cm WD. Its resilience is low and the minimum population doubling time is 4.5 - 14 years. Information supplied by http://www.fishbase.org

What we mean by ‘Weighing in’

It is basically getting a specimen fish officially recognised and weighed correctly for claiming a new ‘Club record’ or Club Award or ‘Anglers Trust area record’ or Award or British Record. The British Record seems most unlikely. However my own club is nearly 46 years old and the there has been a big rise recently in new records due to reliable outboards, better and more affordable tackle and navigation equipment plus the success of catch and release policies. I believe the chances of a British Record are more favourable now than at any time in the last 20 years. Every time I go out in my boat I aim for myself or my crew to catch a British Record. I know what you are thinking, he must be mad. Well maybe I am but this is another reason for me exploring exactly where we all stand right now. This however is not high on the list of most serious match anglers, I know. Like (Chris) some say they will take an 8” Pout any day.

The Anglers Trust

The Anglers Trust our leading light, currently state in the Specimen Fish Awards Scheme, adopted from the NFSA

Weighing – All fish must be weighed on land on scales, steelyards or balances. All weighing must be certified in writing by an official of a recognised angling club, and two witnesses. All weighing equipment must carry a current certificate of test.

However in the interests of conservation, the weight in lbs of species Tope and Shark, may be calculated using the following formula – Girth x Girth x Length divided by 800. All measurements in ins. The Girth is the widest part, the length is nose to fork of the tail.

Weighing at Sea – In addition, provided the registration form so indicates, fish weighed at sea will be excepted, but any certificates awarded will clearly indicate that the weight of the fish was estimated and the fish returned alive to the sea. 
NOTE: Unfortunately with my vast experience I would not trust the majority of fish weights given for any fish weighed at sea! They are simply a guide.

The British Records Fish Committee

The BRFC is not part of the Anglers Trust, although it is undeniably very close. To be successful in claiming a British Record you don’t need to be a member of the Anglers Trust. But you need to catch the fish by fair angling means (within Anglers Trust guidelines I guess) with witnesses. You can give a signed affidavit if no witness exists. You then must weigh the fish on certified scales and will probably need to kill the fish and freeze it down for future identification if required, usually by a member of the Natural History Museum. It is because this is of scientific interest that identification is crucial. Another option is to keep the fish alive in an aquarium but this is very difficult and not available to the majority of us at the point of capture.

Anglers Trust affiliated clubs

Many Anglers Trust affiliated clubs require a fish considered for a club award or record to be weighed on land and on official club scales. This protects an existing record and should only be beaten by a fish that has been witnessed, fairly caught, identified and weighed correctly. There is nothing to stop a smaller potential record fish being kept alive in an aerated bucket.


EFSA has the following rule - 1.8 In the interests of conservation, and if possible, all fish should be returned alive to the sea, unless required for record purposes or for consumption.

Lets try to understand from the beginning

Firstly to be a successful ‘angler’ you need to be a hunter, giving way to those very deep seated hunting instincts. It is a difficult thing to ignore for most of us, although some manage to deny themselves those feelings. Well it’s up to them, it’s a free world. I have yet to meet anyone, first timers to experienced angler, who do not enjoy reeling in a fish whether it their first or last Rudd, Eel, Gudgeon, Flounder, Wrasse, Stingray, or Tope. It is how they go about catching and then unhooking them that really counts. Simply being given the tackle and left to catch a fish without being shown how, is an extremely difficult task to do. Especially in the ‘right way’ that is demanded in this day and age of ‘political correctness’. As an accomplished angler you should never underestimate your knowledge and skills that you have. After all we are talking about an ancient skill, as old as man. But there are always new things to learn. Such as how some people view a killed fish and the politics behind it all. In the past it has been muted that about 4 million of us go fishing. I don’t believe this number, however, there are many basic angling skills that must be learnt, usually from someone else. Many of these skills are common across the angling spectrum but sea angling can be quite different.

To help consider your own ‘sea angling knowledge’ imagine finding a beach along a sea area that you have zero experience of, look outwards and wonder, just where you would you start. It is difficult from the shore and even more challenging when fishing from your own boat. This missing information, required to be successful, is the ‘knowledge factor’ that we all need. Then there is the skill factor. For example there is no point learning to tie hooks in the warmth of your front room only to find you can’t use that method when you are wet and cold under the beam of a head light. Or practicing your casting in a field when your beach shelves steeply or your charter boat position forces you to cast ‘the wrong way round’.

What’s the best way to learn?

We could read a book, hire some videos and surf the web but this is a practical exercise where the skill is discovered and developed in the practice of angling. The source of knowledge generally comes from those of us that are already doing this ‘fishing’ thing. You basically pick up the good and the bad habits from other people. Unknown to most of us we all turn into amateur teachers when we take our kids or a mate along fishing that are new to the ‘sport’. We temporarily turn into instructors or facilitators by providing the knowledge and the tools. If a knowledgeable fishing pal is not particularly helpful or very articulate we can still copy them! Once the basics are learnt we will all catch fish most of the time. It is that easy because there are many fish around. However there are occasions when you can do everything right and you still won’t catch, you have to learn that too!

Sea Angling should not be confused too much with other types of angling

I don’t believe that we should confuse sea angling with the other angling disciplines, although the antis will. It is quite different. Sure we can learn from each other but there is not too much more to learn from the carp boys after the fish handling technique has been adopted, oh, except how to use a hair rig and how to lay back and relax while your boillie melts!

As Sea Anglers we have our own governing body, the Anglers Trust. By their guidance and organisation we have a common voice that can be heard at a high level in government and there are good people that work very hard on our behalf. The ‘carpers’ know that certain ‘water’ will hold a certain fish with a certain scale pattern with a silly name. It becomes odd when ‘Benny’ becomes the target for a weeks worth of fishing by 4 or 5 syndicate anglers just to say you have caught it. It certainly makes it harder to argue against the ‘anti brigade’. Don’t get me wrong I would fight the freshwater anglers corner when it comes to conservation and the preservation of our fisheries. Without the freshwater fisheries and their clubs, many of ‘our’ lakes, ponds and rivers would be in a sorry state

Angling without ‘Casualties’

It cannot be denied that along with the joy of ‘angling’ is an unavoidable but acceptable amount of ‘killing’. This can be seen in itself as another skill and differentiator. Dispatching must be done quickly and efficiently any other way is not acceptable. A fish that is ‘lost’ with tackle in tow, or a deep set hook or just one that is badly handled could perish even when released. When Sea Angling we sometimes retrieve from very deep water where certain species like Wrasse, Pollock and Pout with frail swim bladders will be damaged and will not go back down. If you are squeamish about this you’re in the wrong sport. Some non-anglers believe that the fish they eat is actually from Tesco’s and spare themselves to think of the details. When sea angling, at times, it is absolutely necessary to kill a fish. You need to either put them out of their misery due to injury, specimen award or for ‘the pan’. Cleaning and preparing a fish for the pan let alone cooking them are an extra set of skills. This is another differentiator from the ‘Freshwater or Course Angler’.  Our sport requires, not just honed manual skills, taken for granted by all of us, but lots and lots of ‘knowledge’.

Sea Anglers taking fish for the pot

Sea Anglers will always catch a good eating fish from time to time. Successful boat anglers will catch good eating fish most of the time. Generally to purchase the same in the shops you will be looking at around £5 a pound and upwards for most good eating fish. Even skinned Dogfish are around £3 a pound! So the simple trick is to dispatch ‘a keeper’ quickly with a club or ‘priest’, clean and then, depending on the species, prepare them in different ways, for the table. For example a Plaice, Flounder, Pout or Whiting etc are best filleted and then cooked and eaten as fresh as possible. Even the Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s fishmonger is unable to provide such fresh fish compared to what we are blessed with. While Sole and Skate, in my opinion, improve by being left in the fridge for up to 6 days or even frozen first. Bass should have the gills slit to be bled when caught and Turbot, Brill and Sole benefit from having the tail slit open to allow them to bleed. Anyway my point is that Sea Anglers do kill fish for the pan. It is one of the best forms of protein we can get. We will never be denied this by law and it is very difficult to police. I believe this to be another huge difference between Sea Anglers and Freshwater Anglers.

To not kill a certain amount of your Sea Angling catch to eat is tantamount to throwing ‘tenners’ into the ocean. It is hard work cleaning and filleting your catch correctly but definitely worth it in the long run. This week at home we had Sole and Black Bream in the fridge, ready to eat. How can I justify throwing them back when they can make an extremely good and healthy dinner and when there are so many out there.

Quality Fish

Anyway, whatever your angling fancy, we all like to see and catch a good stock of quality fish of any species that turn up in our local waters. This year in the Solent Wight Area we have been blessed with some quality Black Bream, Smoothound, Stingray more Brill and a good run of specimen Bass. It is great to catch these fish, take what you need, then release the rest along with any undersized fish. Many, many Black Bream were returned this year that were above or around the specimen size. Most Stingers are released without even hitting the deck. The trouble is with all of these fish they are very easy to catch, once the skipper has put you over the fish holding areas. When you are on the Bream like I was this weekend we could have caught as many as we liked and kept as many as we liked. The quality was good with fish averaging around 1.5 – 2lb, a good eating size. I had a hell of a job convincing my buddy that he did not need to feed his entire neighbourhood. With that I got the comment that most charter skippers would get ‘I don’t go fishing very often, let alone catch so many fish’. My answer to that was for us to stop fishing and start cleaning. It’s my boat and it wasn’t chartered so it is easy for me to say. The gloss soon wears off. So with your hands spiked and the fish cleaned, bagged up and in the freezer box we moved to try another mark, where we caught more Bream! Only now my buddy was releasing his fish too, he realised that he had bagged enough! He was a bit like a fox in a hen house, for a while. I hope I passed on a useful lesson but this is a self taught discipline and experienced anglers have to pass it on to everyone else. If these quality fish are released they will return in far greater numbers. If all regular anglers release the majority of their catch it will make a big difference to our future. This must be the reason for the ever present Dogfish, how many of us ever kill them? By the way if you want to dispatch a dogfish correctly you have to snap their necks. It is not easy and must be done very quickly.

Human Nature

Who reports these fish catches? It is us anglers normally but why tell anyone else? Some do it for Marketing and Commercial reasons, more obviously the Sea Angler magazine. Their editing team is the ‘Marketing King’ of our sport and pastime. Interestingly I have a lot of Sea Angler magazines dating from 1977. It certainly has transformed a good subject for another article. This web site www.sea-fishing.net is a hobby of mine. It gives me something to do when I am bored and feeling constructive.  Human nature is such that if you tell others honestly how you do, they eventually trust you, and then they often honestly tell you what they do. The information becomes ‘shared’ and your personal ‘knowledge factor’ increased. If it was not for the magazines stuffed with fellow anglers holding pictures of good fish, certainly less people would participate in the sport and buy less tackle and bait. As an active club member I have always liked the club that I belong to be active, sociable and available to provide a service for the common cause, Sea Angling. Some members, of whom we have few in our club, are complete out and out match anglers. This takes a huge amount of dedication that is just short of an obsession. Is all this intended for us just to spend lots of money with tackle dealers? I think not. But there are certain people that are on the gravy train and who can blame them. The main reason we tell other anglers what we have ‘caught’ is that it helps them too. Why would anyone ever want to enter a competition? Well you would certainly learn a lot and can see how you compare with others. Whatever takes your fancy, but it is usually competitions or specimen fishing or both that we want to do. There are very few Sea Anglers that go fishing on their own, catch good fish, never tell anyone and release them all. A successful hunter displays his ‘catch’ or ‘prize’ to friends and family as ‘that is what we humans do!’

Anglers Trust Specimen Awards

However here’s the dilemma. To win awards that are given by our respected Anglers Trust you have to identify correctly and weigh a fish on certificated scales. How do you keep such a big fish alive to weigh, identify and collect evidence of the capture? It is difficult. How can you achieve major awards in a sport where the skill of an angler is often measured by the quality (specimen fishing) of the fish he catches? The skipper should be recognised too. Look in the magazines, all the pictures are primarily of the best fish with those that are weighed and released being given an estimated weight. Most clubs have gone a long way in getting their match fishing rectified with a catch and release system. But the Awards for Trophy fish is a prickly issue, believe me. There are many anglers that are afraid to weigh in a big fish correctly on land for a record due to pressure applied by the commercial people. This is purely because of the threat by the ‘antis’. Charter skippers, tackle dealers and tackle manufacturers have their lively hoods on the line here. Hence the seriousness of it all and there are no jokes to be flouted around this particular subject, have you noticed. It can almost be a taboo to kill a fish in some areas. Passive smoking no problem, kill your fellow drinkers slowly but knock a big inedible fish on the head, no way! As individuals we have choices and we can currently choose to keep or release any fish that is above the legal MAFF size limit. Currently the Anglers Trust and many of their affiliated clubs support the killing of a specimen fish. I personally can’t see the problem but I think that it could change for the better. I have personally released hundreds of sizable, edible and non-edible fish this year. I have weighed in three or four for club FOMs for my kids, then we have eaten them. No problems there. But I am not without guilt.

Monkfish off the Needles

In 1985 a friend of mine caught a Monkfish of 37lb 2oz in the Solent in his own boat, a cracking and at the time rare species for this area. This was a new club record for the STAAC (Southampton Telephone Area Angling Club), a long standing club. Then just eight weeks later I caught a 37lb 6oz Monkfish about 2 miles south of the light on Lady M, beating the record by just 4ozs. After the weighing and photographing I tried to eat it, horrible.
Note: They do not taste like Monk fish,  in fact, it is because they are not! The Monk in a fishmongers is actually an Angler Fish! I did feel terrible about dumping what was left. It was a waste.
A few weeks later another Monkfish about the same size was also caught by another friend of mine. Well, they were the last Monkfish that I am aware of being caught in the Western Solent / Wight area on rod and line. Not a nice thought and a small cross to bear. The lack of knowledge was the main cause but the lure of a Trophy, a record and a picture in the paper was also high on the list, I admit.

Current dilemma of weighing a fish for awards

Some anglers just go for the day out, in ignorant bliss of all that happens around them. I used to see this often on charter boat trips. But the backbone of sea anglers, the ones that spend their own money on their boats, tackle and charter bookings on a regular basis, have their Personal Bests of each species to consider. Then there are the club, area and national records and awards. Currently it is down to individual choice. There is no law against killing a sizable fish. In the past my club, Ashlett SAC, banned stingers from boat comps but as we now employ catch and release allowing for the approximate weight of the Stinger to count; there is no reason not to count them. This is all based on trust. The quantity issue (match fishing) is also addressed by catch and release schemes now well adopted. The quality issue is not so clear. How many Sea Anglers can successfully guess the weight of their ‘once in a life-time fish’ across say 20 key species…..not many. How many anglers can weigh a fish over 40lb on a boat accurately…..not many. It is in the hands of the clubs and the Anglers Trust that’s for sure.

New Clubs

I was at an AGM this year with a new club. They had a ‘thin looking’ records list and the general comment from the floor was that no one wanted to kill the fish to weigh them in. Was it just an excuse for not being able to catch them? I think not. Mad, in my opinion, as the situation needs resolving. Either have a records list or don’t. Either allow catch and release or don’t. Either trust your fellow members or don’t. I know of others club members that have absolved an existing club, renamed themselves and started a new records list, mad. A good club has a quality history and a quality records list. A good club will have been well organised and stood the test of time where all the fish have been weighed on club scales and identified correctly by an experienced weigh-in officer. In my opinion if you can’t beat them, join them.

New ways

But surely there is room for other methods and means of forming a records list by using photography and the use of an individuals quality scales that can be checked soon afterwards, affidavits or witnesses etc. This must be a way forward where the evidence can be checked by committee and then ratified. Fish kept alive weighed ashore and then released is very practical for many smaller species. Later, if any suspicions arise this should allow for the record to be nullified by the committee. I believe that this has happened with the British Records Fish Committee in the past. The key to all this is trust. Unfortunately who can we trust?


It is ironic that the recent moan has been kicked off over one fish mainly because it is such a huge and traditionally inedible fish. It could be a bit ‘of the old green eye’ maybe but I don’t think so. The fact that Stingers of this size, are still around and appear to be recovering in numbers, is a little awe inspiring. No one would be aware of that fish if Roger had not weighed it properly. Scientifically it is interesting too. Roger thought this Stinger was around 45lb. The fact that it was actually around 55lb is useful to science and conservation. The fact that stingers of this size are around at all has to be mainly due to the local standard bearers of conservation within our long standing local clubs. These anglers are the ones that have been actively releasing 99% of Stingers over the last 15 years. It is still the case and it is ironic that after all the hard work that ‘we’ have done and that after the recent ‘successes’ those people involved get hammered on the ‘local grapevine’. It has to be known that Sting Ray are spectacular fighting fish. They can come up from 60ft and flap across the surface and then dive back down again before dragging you uptide. Excuse me, but if this is not what you want then there is something missing. With the stingray that has recently been recorded at 53lb 8oz we know that the conservation methods are working. What we need to do now is have a method of successfully weighing these larger fish on the boat relatively accurately. Proving the weight or keeping them alive for weighing.

If emotionally removed

If emotionally removed from all this, killing one Stingray could possibly be justified. After all it would have eaten many more fish in the weeks and months since its capture! The fish is one of the biggest in its species and therefore is well past useful breeding condition and has it days numbered. The fact that it was hooked and released will not always ensure that it will survive as the fight could have exhausted the big old fish to a point of non recovery. But the Antis would love to ban Course fishing. A dead fish, is a dead fish, and will be confused by the antis with all ‘fishing’. Sea angling, particularly from private boats, would be at a minimum risk. So a private boat owning angler could say stuff the rest of you. But wouldn’t it be good if we could weigh and release any fish at any time? With every serious sea angler having their own set of quality 100lb scales, a camera and ways to collect evidence of an exceptional fish. I don’t do this myself so I can’t say that we should all do this but the serious fish loving Trophy hunter might like to consider this as an option.

Specimen boat fishing kit list

This is ideal but many would argue impractical for the few fish that we actually catch over 20lb and that we are actually interested in weighing. Congers will normally be estimated and released during freelance sessions and netted and weighed in the net with the net weight then deducted from the total. It is as simple as that.

If you are a serious specimen hunter this is what you need

Large landing net
– Big enough to take a 75lb plus Conger, a 40lb Blonde Ray or 60lb Stinger. I recommend Stainless Steve’s landing net and increase the bag size with one of your own.

Small landing Net – Light and convenient for the smaller species.

Tape measure - in ins to ‘weigh’ Tope and Sharks (Girth x Girth x Length divided by 800)

Weigh sling A safe flo carp sack is fitted with D rings and measures 1200mm x 900mm. (48" x 38") at £8.99 but you could go top of the range and a Fox safety weigh sling allowing fish to be transported safely. On this one there is a venting system to drain excess water and is suitable for fish up to 80lb! Cost around £22.95. It is lined with a slippery PVC coated nylon to prevent fish damage. (I use just the net from an old freshwater landing net! Others use a plastic bag).

Quality large scales I would recommend something like the Rod Hutchinson specimen weigh scales that are produced by Reuben Heaton. They have a luminous face and are marked in both lbs and kgs and weigh up to 50kg (112lbs) in 4oz graduations..

Quality general scales – This is very important as most specimen fish will fall into this range. I like to weigh all my best fish then I can honestly report exactly how big they were.
Avon Mk7 Dial Scales are very difficult to better. The 3in dial has four colours and the indicator makes four revolutions to reach its weighing capacity of 40lb. It weighs down to 1oz! The value of each revolution is indicated by a coupled matching flash indicator.

Large Keepnet – I have a big keepnet on my boat that I found in a shop while I was in South Africa, it does not like a lot of tide, although it works fairly well still as it has 1” square netting. Traditional freshwater knotless mesh type keep nets will get wrecked very quickly if there is any tide. The last fish I kept alive to weigh was a 16lb Conger that my lad caught. Not very big admittedly but everything else that I have had since and not required for eating, has gone back straight away. This is a real problem for shore anglers when there is any breaking sea and for boat anglers fishing in strong tides. I remember one being produced about fifteen years ago but I could not find a reference to them on the internet.

Large Fish box with lid or bait tank – To be filled with water that should be changed regularly. A large enough tank for a 10lb plus fish is a problem for small boats and shore anglers. Some Charter skippers such as Roger Bayzand successfully kept Congers alive for weighing ashore right up to 100lb!
Note if a lid is closed over a filled box on a boat, generally the rocking of the boat will force enough air into the water to ensure the fish lives. If too many fish are put in together they will all die without regular water changes, a sea water pump or an aerator.

Aerator or water pump – To allow the water to be aerated or changed automatically. This is a problem on small boats with outboards charging small batteries. My battery operated aerator did not last long after getting a soaking a couple of times.

Mobile Phone – To prep up your official ‘weigher’ and more important for safety reasons.

Camera – To take those just caught, to scale photos that display the key parts of your specimen fish for positive identification. Note digital pictures although very good can be manipulated and enhanced with special software.

Fish Identification Book – Lythgoe very useful for those Rays, Herrings, Wrasse and smaller exotic species that seem to become more prevalent during our late summers and autumn periods.

The Anglers Trust and their affiliated clubs should continue to develop all aspects of conservation. All ‘awards’ should be available to well weighed, documented, correctly identified and photographed, fairly caught and released specimen fish. We would all prefer to see a quality picture of ‘our fish of a lifetime’ as well as have the image in our mind, of seeing it swim away hard from the shore or the boat to fight another day.

Ideally the Anglers Trust should give guidelines and the affiliated clubs should attempt to ensure that all their anglers are capable of weighing any fish likely to be caught in their area. Sharks and Tope are already covered. Preserving a fish for weighing should be done in a way that ensures the fish can be kept alive for weighing ashore or be weighed and released on the beach or boat with sufficient evidence and for the fish to survive. Handling the fish after landing is very important to a fish’s survival.

In my opinion it should NOT be left to the individual but should be guided by the Anglers Trust and the affiliated clubs. That is what they are there for.

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