Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Some thoughts on letting them go

Sometimes you get asked a simple question that is difficult to answer. Someone recently asked me, “What is the point of catch-and-release fishing?”

From a foraging perspective, the concept of catch-and-release doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why would you make the effort to go fishing, put a fish through the stress of being caught on a hook and line, and then let it go? It’s a question that many piscivorous anglers struggle with prior to converting to catch-and-release. And “conversion” is an apt description of what often happens to anglers who begin releasing “keepers.” They come to embrace the practice of catch-and-release with an almost religious fervor.

But just because anglers believe in throwing back their catch doesn’t explain why they do it. From the perspective of a fisheries manager, catch-and-release is a regulatory tool that allows anglers to enjoy a limited resource in a sustainable manner. In heavily fished waters, the demand for fish to catch may exceed the available supply. The late angling writer Lee Wulff coined the line, “A game fish is too valuable to be caught only once.” Catch-and-release allows anglers to recycle fish so they may be caught by others.

The practice first caught on among trout and salmon fly-fishers. Later, it spread to other species considered more fun to catch than good to eat, such as bass and muskies. It is fair to say trout, bass and muskie anglers are its most fervent practitioners. In this state, anglers support for regulations requiring the release of all wild steelhead caught in the Minnesota waters of Lake Superior and its tributaries, as well as a rule requiring all muskies less than 54 inches in length be released. Such rules allow all anglers to enjoy the opportunity to catch large and relatively abundant steelhead and muskies in what are essentially pristine fisheries. As for bass, many avid anglers voluntarily choose to let them go.

Fish managers selectively apply catch-and-release with slot, minimum and maximum length limits to manipulate the size and abundance of fish in various bodies of water. It’s also used to protect diminished fish populations and facilitate their recovery. Around Lake Superior, fish managers have used minimum size limits of 20 inches or more to protect native brook trout and restore the trophy-sized “coasters” that had nearly disappeared. Similar regulations are used to recover populations of giant lake sturgeon.

So catch-and-release, either voluntary or by law, is a tool that can be used to create better fishing. But does it also transform fishing from a means of gather food to a form of entertainment? Perhaps the best answer is sometimes, but not always. I’ve heard of fly-fishers who carry little click-counters to keep track of how many trout they catch in a day. Such behavior, whether on a trout stream or a bass and walleye lake, is more about stroking someone’s ego than enjoying an experience in nature. But for many of us, fishing is a way to interact with an unseen aquatic world while spending time outdoors. From this perspective, catching a fish satisfies our inner predator, and letting it go reaffirms our humanity.

But what about the fish? Do they survive the ordeal? “They die anyway,” is a disparaging claim made by some anglers and commercial fishers who oppose catch-and-release. Sometimes, they’re right. A fish with a hook torn from its gills or gullet won’t live. Nor will a fish that is bounced around on the boat deck or kept too long out of water. Fish hauled up from cold depths and released in warm surface water may not make it, either. In late summer, when some fish species are already stressed by living in water that is at or above the upper limits of their preferred temperature tolerance, the additional stress of catch and release may kill them.

All of the above does occur, but I’d wager the meager amount of fish lost is far exceeded in waste by the number of freezer-burned filets tossed in the garbage by someone “cleaning out the freezer” long after the glow of bringing home a limit of beauties has faded. Not everyone eats all of the fish they catch and keep.

My general attitude toward catch-and-release is to keep what I can use fresh and let the rest go. I also enjoy fishing for species that I have no intention of keeping to eat. Over the years, I’ve developed some habits to minimize injuries to fish and improve angling efficiency. For starters, I like to use tackle sturdy enough to land the size of fish I am likely to catch. Using ultralight tackle is lots of fun, but your tackle shouldn’t be so light that you greatly prolong a battle with a fish for fear of breaking your line or because you can’t pull it in. When possible, I try to unhook fish without lifting them from the water. This is easiest if you use barbless, single hooks. I pinch down the hook barbs with pliers on most of my flies and lures. I also replace treble hooks with single hooks on many lures. An added bonus is I have fewer tackle box tangles from snarled treble hooks.

As a fishing writer, I often take photographs of my catches and those of my companions to accompany stories. The trick is to keep the fish in the water, where it can breathe, and then lift it with a firm, careful hold and quickly take the hero shots. Using a wet utility glove, you can easily hold and control fish such as trout while horizontally supporting their body with your other hand. Big pike and muskies require special techniques. You can find instructions and videos for handling these and other fish online. Whatever the species, keep its time out of water as short as possible. And really, do you need to take a picture of every fish you catch? How many fish pictures do you have stored on your cellphone already?

Have we answered the original question: What is the point of catch and release fishing? Perhaps it really doesn’t need to be answered any more than to say it is just another way to enjoy fishing. Very few of us go fishing solely to get something to eat. If we did, it would be impossible to justify the time and expense involved to bring home a few pounds of fish. Whatever draws us to the water with a fishing rod in hand is more than the hope of obtaining a mere filet. That experience is not the same without fishing, whether we keep our catch or release it.

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