There is perhaps no more reflective issue in fishing than the subject of pain. Not so much ours but that of the fish. Do fish really feel pain, and if so how much do they feel? Do they scream in agony at a good hook-set, or do they feel no more than a potato does when being cut up for French fries?
Ultimately, the question would best be answered by a person living as a bass to feel how it feels if only for a moment. I don't know about you, but I'm not eager to swap brains with a bass.
Humans, of course, feel pain. In fact, we feel it quite well. But it's important to note a few things about human pain. First, pain is not simply any feeling. Pain has a perceptual quality all its own. At mild levels it may sometimes get confused with other sensations like touch, warmth and cold, but a good solid dose of pain feels like nothing else but pain.
Second, pain is not merely intense feelings derived from stimulating our other sensations too strongly. In other words, our feeling of pain at the sudden blast of a loud noise or the burning of our hand doesn't come through our sense of hearing or the temperature receptors in our skin. In fact, the sensation of pain is mediated by its own distinct set of unique receptors located in the skin, muscles and some internal organs.
Moreover, pain receptors feed their message into the brain via specific and distinct nerve pathways. These pathways travel up the spinal cord, are relayed through our brainstem (what some scientists refer to as the primitive brain ), and eventually project forward to an area called the cerebral neocortex. The neocortex is the highly complex, squiggly surface portion of our brain that you see so much in brain photographs.
It is in the neocortex, with its billions of nerve cells and trillions of nerve connections, that our perception of pain is actually born. Using mass numbers of nerve cells devoted specifically to pain impulses, the neocortex processes the neutral message from the pain receptors to produce the feeling of pain. Without our cerebral neocortex, we could feel no pain.
Unlike humans, however, fish totally lack a cerebral neocortex. as I wrote a couple of months ago about a bass' learning ability. And without a cerebral neocortex fish are left holding the short end of the neural stick when it comes to perceiving human type pain.
Does that mean fish feel nothing at all when anglers sets the hook? Obviously not, since otherwise they would hardly show the struggling actions that they do. Clearly, fish feel something, and that something must either have a negative quality or is weird enough in the brain to automatically trigger escape behavior. However, merely feeling something is a far cry from feeling pain .
Again, the only way we will ever truly know for sure is to step into the fish's neural shoes and feel what it feels. If fish feel any sort of pain then they assuredly do not feel pain like we feel pain, any more than they see like we see or hear like we hear. Fish pain, if real, is likely to be much less defined, much cruder than our own sensations.