Last updated on March 28th, 2022
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When I return from a fishing trip and regale my non-fishing friends with stories from the stream, I am often met with bewildered looks and a predictable slate of questions. Namely, “Where’s the fish?”
As a fly fisherman, it’s a question I’ve had to answer numerous times and my justification never seems quite adequate enough for a non-angler audience. During a recent round of questioning from a good friend of mine, I decided that it was time for me to take a closer look at why I actually participate in catch and release fishing and whether there are truly merits to the method.
Catch and release fishing is a common practice, especially among the fly fishing community in North America. You could go so far as calling it an ethos. When I started fly fishing, it was just presented to me as what we do. But I’d like to take a closer look at the issues and evaluate whether the evidence is there to support catch and release fishing in our modern times.
What Is Catch and Release Fishing?
Catch and release fishing is a practice wherein anglers immediately release fish – unharmed – back to the water where they were caught. If done properly, the catch and release method of fishing is purported to result in high survival rates for the fish.
‘Properly’ is a keyword here because it assumes anglers are using the proper equipment and methods for catch and release fishing.
Fish-friendly Tackle tips:
- Use a sufficiently strong rod, reel, and line for landing the fish quickly.
- Fish with single, barbless hooks to reduce injury and handling time.
- Use artificial lures or flies to reduce deep hooking.
It also assumes proper handling…
Important fishing/handling tips:
- Don’t play the fish to the point of exhaustion.
- Use a landing net made of rubber or small, soft mesh.
- Avoid removal of the fish from the water.
- Use wet hands or gloves to handle the fish.
- Handle the fish gently without squeezing or damaging the gills.
By following the proper procedures for catch and release fishing, anglers can greatly reduce the chances of causing injury or death to the fish.
According to the National Park Service in the United States, the practice of catch and release benefits both the fish populations and anglers. It allows more fish to remain and multiply in a particular body of water thus giving more anglers the opportunity to enjoy the sport.
Catch and release fishing emphasizes the recreational rather than the consumptive value of fish.
The History of Catch and Release Fishing in the US
It’s unclear where and when catch and release fishing actually caught on in the US, but many believe it was in the early part of the 20th century.
Some sources claim that Pennsylvania’s Spring Creek was the first catch and release stream in the United States but others believe it was Michigan’s regulations in 1952, which limited anglers on certain trout streams with a no-kill restriction and artificial flies and lures only.
It’s evident that the practice was on the minds of early-20th century American anglers like Lee Wulff, who famously wrote in 1939: “Game fish are too valuable to be caught only once.”
There is significant evidence that catch and release fishing does, in fact, increase fish populations. In 1954, the US Fish and Wildlife Service studied the Bradley Fork and West Prong streams of the Little Pigeon River in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
What the study revealed, following a 7-year no-kill restriction in these streams, was that the native trout stocks had tripled and that on average anglers were catching fish at a rate of slightly more than four per hour.
The study was influential and in the span of just a few years federal and state agencies began implementing similar restrictions on streams in other states.
The practice has now gone mainstream in the US where, according to a 2020 report, 66% of the country’s 50 million recreational anglers release some or all of their catch. If these anglers were to kill their allowable legal limit, it would lead to the deaths of hundreds of millions of fish nationwide.
Not Everyone Is On Board With the Practice
Organizations like PETA believe that catch and release fishing is “cruelty disguised as sport” and that fish suffer significant injuries during the process of catch and release and “often die of shock.”
Groups such as the Salmon Watchers Assistance Group in Canada have called for a nationwide ban on the practice of catch and release, stating that fish caught and returned to the water suffer significant psychological stress during the process and often die as a result.
For these groups and many people, the practice of catch and release is seen as an act of cruelty rather than one of conservation.
Is There Any Merit to the Concerns?
It is true that some fish do succumb to stress or injury when they are caught and released back into the water. But, there is ample research that demonstrates that most survive.
The factors leading to mortality include water temperature, time played, time out of the water, handling, whether natural or artificial bait was used, water depth at hooking, at anatomical hooking location. These factors can vary between species and seem to be much more critical for some than others.
But, in a number of recently conducted studies across a variety of species, the mortality rate for released fish has been calculated between 10-20%. In a report from the National Marine Fisheries Service, 53 studies determined that the average mortality rate of fish released by anglers was 18%.
What’s the verdict?
It’s certainly true that the catching and releasing of a fish disrupts its life and, in some cases, leads to mortality. But to paint anglers who practice catch and release as cruel torturers of fish is a significant mischaracterization, I think.
Fisheries, research scientists, and wildlife organizations are all in agreement that catch and release fishing supports the protection of fish populations and encourages population growth.
A catch and release angler that cares about the environment and the ecosystem in which he/she fishes should feel encouraged that they are fishing in a sustainable fashion as well as providing an opportunity for their fellow anglers to land the same fish in the future.
It’s this author’s opinion that the practice of catch and release fishing has numerous benefits and a limited number of drawbacks. I am sensitive to the opinions of those on the other side but believe that with the proper gear, handling, and compassion for the fish we chase, we are doing a service to mother nature and maintaining populations of fish that will be caught for generations to come.
What is your take on catch and release? We’d love to hear what you think in the comment box.
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Many thanks for your thoughts on this. However, I must say I don’t think any of it will deter my love of pursuing, and occasionally, catching striped bass.
But I am considering barbless hooks. Also, maybe reconsidering barbed treble hooks on plugs. Catching fish with this kind of lure has often forced me to ripe apart a fish’s mouth which I always regret. But I think if the fish dies it will be good food for its comrades in the deep. I also wonder if fish can experience psychological harm from being caught? This seems to be a real stretch. “Get that striper to a shrink fast! It is clearly suffering PTSD!”
Another point….when I was very young I would catch snappers by the dozens. Always threw them back. And sometimes I’d use my lure to mark them – actually rip some skin off their backs before throwing them back. And often, minutes later, I’d catch the same fish. So, I’ve concluded fish (particularly bluefish) are driven by hunger. Everything else is secondary and doesn’t matter. Hunger drives them without any awareness of anything else, Your thoughts?
And still another point. When I was 12, 13, 14 I fished for hours and days (and nights) at a time. I was not getting into trouble during those times and bonding with something eternal beyond myself. I wasn’t getting into trouble either. Isn’t that worth something in the big picture?
No, thank you John! I agree wholeheartedly. I believe that fishing, when done in an ethical way is a net positive in the grand scheme of things for all, both young and old. Do the best we can and have fun – I can live with that.
This is a issue I’m beginning to face. I’ve been fishing all my life and consider it a wonderful, healthy sport. Striped Bass are my quarry and I often catch bluefish. I release all the fish I catch as quickly as possible. But beginning to think hooking and dragging out of the water is torture for them. What do the experts say about this? And the results of recent studies? On the other hand, fishing is a great stress reducer and actually improves my overall approach to life and my relationships with friends, family and business associates. Does this alone justify any pain caused to fish? Very interested in your opinion.
Hi John, and thanks for your comment. Striped bass are also a favorite of mine. I still remember the many occasions I spend fishing for them on Cape Cod growing up. The ethical debate with regards to fishing is one we see more often today than in the past. We are past the point, for most of us anyway, where we need fishing for sustenance, so it is something we do mostly for pleasure. I know I enjoy it immensely and could not picture a life without fishing. It’s like you said, it helps to reduce the stresses of life and offers so many many other personal benefits. I think fishing is something hardwired into our DNA. The opinions on whether fish feel pain are all over the place with nothing really conclusive. But I choose to be as humane as possible in the pursuit of my favorite pastime. Catch and release is important, I believe, but it’s just one piece. I think we also have to look for more ways to fish without causing unnecessary or excessive harm to them. I have been trying to do more of my fishing with barbless hooks these days. I just wrote a post on it. It really helps to get the fish back in the water faster and is less invasive than hooks with barbs. I believe we need to balance our approach to fishing to also include what’s best for the fish. No easy answers but to try our best to cause the least amount of harm to the fish with every catch is a good starting point.