Do Fish Feel Pain?

Twenty first century anglers face misinformation spread by the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). PETA members all watched Bambi too many times as children. They never spent any time outdoors watching the eat-or-be-eaten entertainment that Nature so generously provides. PETA members may be well intentioned, but they’re uninformed and ignorant.

They think that fish experience pain the same way you or I might. That idea is ludicrous.

At the underwater observation room at the state park at Homosassa Springs you can see big crevalle jacks swimming around in the spring boil. Some of them have huge, ugly, open sores on their heads. They behave just like the healthy jacks. Large, ugly, open sore on my head? No problem!

One time when I was a schoolboy I was fishing at Breakhart Reservation with my friend Nick and his dad. I liked using small minnows for bait because I got more bites with them, from sunfish, yellow perch, and calico bass (black crappie).

Small bait, small tackle. I used a #10 Eagle Claw gold plated hook, tied onto my eight pound test monofilament line with a clinch knot. A tiny bobber and a single split shot completed my terminal tackle. An inch long minnow was impaled through the lips, and cast into the pond to see what would happen.

The bobber soon disappeared into the depths of the pond. I set the hook, and it clearly was something much larger than a perch or a crappie. I battled the beast for a minute or two when the line went slack. I reeled it in. I was hookless. The creature had bitten through the line.

Nick’s dad was using large minnows. Big bait, big tackle. He had a #1 hook, snelled with heavy monofilament. He didn’t want to mess with small fish.

Three minutes after I lost my hook, Mr. Georgopoulis’s bobber disappeared into the depths. Mr. Georgopoulis set the hook, and the battle was joined. After a few minutes the beast was underneath the rocks we were standing on, a chain pickerel close to two feet long. Not trusting the skills of either Nick or I, he got the net and did the deed himself. A big smile was pasted all over his face as he pulled that fish from the water!

As he went to remove the hook, he said, “John, come look at this.” I went over to see what he wanted. He said, “Look into his mouth.” I did.

I saw a #10, gold plated Eagle Claw hook tied by a clinch knot to a short piece of eight pound test monofilament. I borrowed Mr. Georgopoulis’s pliers and retrieved my hook from the mouth of the fish.

Many years go by. I am operating Shawn Healy’s Sea Pro, idling along on the Atlantic Ocean, looking for cobia or tripletail. Shawn is at the bow, rod in hand. On the end of his line is an Owner SSW hook, on which is impaled a large, live shrimp.

I spot a tripletail lying at the surface on his side. I put the boat in neutral, and point it out to Shawn. He casts the shrimp to the fish. The fish behaves in the desired fashion, and inhales the shrimp. Shawn sets the hook, and off we go. The fish makes a run, then jumps, Shawn gains some line. The fish runs again. Suddenly, disappointingly, the hook pulls out.

Shawn reels in his fishless line. The fish, to my near-astonishment, goes right back to lying on its side at the surface. I tell Shawn, “Put another shrimp on and try that fish again.” Shawn does.

Hardly traumatized, the fish again behaves in the desired fashion, and inhales the second shrimp. Shawn sets the hook, and off we go again. This time the hook sticks, and I net the fish. It pulls the scale to eleven pounds, and is the largest fish we catch that day.

A few years back Marcia Foosaner and I went into the no motor zone in the Banana River Lagoon hoping to find some black drum. We found an area holding fish. We enjoyed good fishing, fooling several of the brutes with black Bunny Boogers.

I helped Marcia secure a fish she caught that was around 25 pounds. As she removed the hook she asked, “What is that? Look on the roof of his mouth.” I looked. Something was protruding from the fish’s palate.

I took out my pliers and latched onto the object, then pulled it out of the fish’s head. It was a barb of a stingray, almost two inches long. All but a half inch was buried in the roof of the mouth of this poor fish. However, the fish continued its day to day activities, feeding aggressively enough to take an artificial fly.

As I removed the barb from the fish its expression changed not at all.

Imagine taking a live blue crab and putting into your mouth. Imagine taking a live pinfish or mullet and putting it into your mouth. While to us these don’t seem to be good ideas, fish do these things every single day. It’s how they eat.

Clearly, if they experienced pain as you or I did they couldn’t do this. Clearly, if they were traumatized by being hooked, afterwards they wouldn’t immediately start eating again.

A fish has a brain roughly the size of a garden pea. I don’t think they enjoy the experience of being caught. But feeling pain, as we understand it? No way. No way at all.

John Kumiski

All content in this blog, including writing and photos, copyright John Kumiski 2011. All rights are reserved.


  1. Paul MacInnis says:

    Nice blog John. It reminds me of the time I snapped off a redfish hooked on a gold spoon. I get the spoon back because a few minutes later my friend Kevin hooks and lands the same redfish. Kevins spoon hangs from one side of its mouth, mine from the other. I contend fish would die of starvation if their mouths sensed pain like humans. Virtually everything they eat has sharp spikes, fins, shells or claws. In fact, if a fish finds something that is smooth, soft and easy to swallow it probably has a hook in it. I think fish fight to resist being pulled in a direction they don’t want to go, not because the “sting” of a hook incites them into some kind of frenzy.

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