My friends and I were sitting around rehashing our great day of fishing on one of Oklahoma’s great fishing lakes. We hit the Sand Bass at just the right time and caught a great big mess of them.

Well to make a long story short, we got around to the age old question, “does a fish feel pain when caught by a fisherman’s hook”?

I really didn’t know the answer and decided to hit the good ole internet and see just what I could find out. You know I am one of those who always thought pain was a state of mind, I have always thought I could somewhat control the pain I felt. At least that is what I used to tell myself back in the PRCA days while riding bulls.

Anyway, does a fish feel pain? I think one would have to research and determine the nerve structure a fish has surrounding his mouth. I know for a fact that when I get my hair cut off every 2 weeks, I don’t feel a thing. It doesn’t hurt to clip my fingernails. I always get cuts and bruises while hunting and fishing, I feel no pain at the time and never notice them until sometime later.

So off I go digging through the internet to see what I can find out. The question I want to try to get an answer for is simple; do fish feel pain when hooked?

One of the first articles I find is written by Dr. James D. Rose of the University of Wyoming, the world’s foremost expert on this subject. He’s spent 30 years working on questions of animal neurology.

Anglers, rest easy. Fish cannot feel pain. Or so the largest study into piscine neurology has concluded.

His academic study comparing the nervous systems and responses of fish and mammals has found that their brains are not sufficiently developed to allow them to sense pain or fear. The findings represent a significant victory for anglers, whose sport has been under attack from animal rights activists for years.

The study, by Dr. Rose, a professor of zoology and physiology was published in the American academic journal Reviews of Fisheries Science. It concludes that awareness of pain depends on functions of regions of the cerebral cortex which fish do not possess.

Dr. Rose said that previous studies which had indicated that fish can feel pain had confused responding to a threatening stimulus - with feeling pain.

“Pain is predicated on awareness,” he said. “The key issue is the distinction between nociception and pain. A person who is anaesthetized in an operating theatre will still respond physically to an external stimulus, but he or she will not feel pain. Larry the Cable Guy once said, anyone who has seen a chicken with its head cut off will know that, while its body is still flopping around, it cannot be feeling any pain.” In other words, if there is no Cerebral Cortex present, the animal will feel no pain.

The question is do fish, like humans, experience pain and suffering? Well, People hold very differing beliefs about this question. Some would believe that if fish react to stimuli that would cause a person to feel pain then the fish must also be feeling pain. Others, like Dr. Rose say that fish are too different from humans for the matter to be of concern. Many people don’t know quite what to think about the issue. Neuroscience research has clarified the neurological and psychological processes that cause the experience of pain, so we can address this question from a large base of factual information.

It has become very clear that pain is a psychological experience with both a perceptual aspect and an emotional aspect. The perceptual aspect tells us that we have been injured, like the first sensation when you hit your thumb with a hammer; it gets your attention quick! The emotional aspect is separate as in the suffering that follows after we are first aware of hitting our thumb. But, injurious stimuli do not always lead to the experience of pain.

The experience of pain depends on functions of our complex, enlarged cerebral hemispheres. Dr. Rose has stated in his study that these regions do not exist in a fish’s brain. Therefore, a fish doesn’t appear to have the neurological capacity to experience the unpleasant psychological aspect of pain. This point is especially important, because some opponents of fishing have argued that fish are capable of feeling pain because some of the lower, sub cortical nervous system pathways are present in fish. Obviously this argument has no validity because without the special frontal lobe regions that are essential for pain experiences, lower pathways alone can’t produce this experience.

The capacity to experience pain, as we know it, has required the massive expansion of our cerebral hemispheres, thus allocating large numbers of brain cells to the task of conscious experience, including the emotional reaction of pain. The small, relatively simple fish brain is fully devoted to regulating just the functions of which a fish is capable.

When a fish is hooked by an angler, it typically responds with rapid swimming behavior that appears to be a flight response. Human observers sometimes interpret this flight response to be a reaction to pain, as if the fish was capable of the same kind of pain experience as a human. From the previous explanation, it should be clear that fish behavior is a result of brainstem and spinal patterns of activity that are automatically elicited by the stimulation of being hooked, but that fish don’t have the brain systems necessary to experience pain. It is very important to note that the flight responses of a hooked fish are essentially no different from responses of a fish being pursued by a visible predator or a fish that has been startled by a vibration in the water.

The facts about the neurological processes that generate pain make it highly unlikely that fish experience the emotional distress and suffering of pain. I don’t know about you, but I feel much better now that I know this and am ready to go fishing again!