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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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