How to Fish Our Waters in a More Sustainable Way

Last updated on November 22nd, 2021

recreational fishing sustainably

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Too much of a good thing can make something negative. People have to be careful not to overindulge and take advantage of something they deem to be positive. This principle directly applies to life in the outdoors.

Avid outdoorsmen all have stories about a favorite location that was trashed by tourists or ruined due to a lack of care. This is not only frustrating for others who would like to visit the area, but it also is a sign of trouble for the surrounding locations. As soon as one area is depleted of its resources, people move on and overrun other spots.

The fishing community can get particularly upset when a fishable body of water is ruined. And rightfully so. There is only so much water for people to fish and the more that is ruined, the less there is available.

Conservation and sustainability come down to effort. Is it annoying to pick up used fishing line? Yes, but it’s necessary. Whether it’s cans, live bait containers, or any other sort of waste, it’s important to be a good steward. Carry a trash bag or a backpack to all fishing locations. Do your part and pick up a few pieces of trash as you exit the area.

On top of caring for the water quality and surrounding areas, it’s necessary to know how to care for fish. Whether you’re keeping fish or practicing catch-and-release, be mindful of the proper procedures.

While commercials and pleas from the conservation office bring attention to the issues, they aren’t enough. People eventually have to take initiative and do their part to keep our fisheries in solid shape. 

Know Your Regulations

The first step is to know the rules and regulations within your state. By following regulations, you can help the waters in your state stay healthy enough to support fish. Plus, you won’t thin populations by keeping fish within the allowed size, and you’ll know the bag limits for your area.

In order to do this, you must be properly equipped with a scale and measuring device. There are strict guidelines in place for a reason, so if it’s too close to tell, put it back! It’s always better to be safe than sorry when practicing conservation.

These regulations are easily accessed on a Game and Fish Department website. Most places where you can purchase a license also have a booklet that describes the requirements.

Volunteer and Give Back

Many popular fishing locations have multiple groups that have formed in an effort to conserve their waters. If you’re a passionate angler, do your part and join a conservation group. For one, you’ll likely make new friends and find new locations to fish, but you’ll also have the opportunity to participate in clean-up efforts.

Many of these groups hold contests and make these sustainability days worth your while. Even if you don’t join a chapter, go ahead and spend a Saturday morning helping! It’s a great chance to meet other diehard anglers.

Some of the popular groups include Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and National Wildlife Federation. Joining these groups requires regular attendance of meetings and being willing to participate in the conservation efforts.

Some of these groups also have specific focuses like working with disabled veterans or underprivileged children. There are conservation groups all over the country and they hold a large amount of power within the fishing community.

Handle Fish Properly

how to handle caught fish

Improperly handling fish may be one of the biggest causes of distress for anglers. If you watch any prolific YouTube angler you’ll likely see numerous comments on their video if they haven’t handled a fish properly. Fish are delicate creatures and if we can’t learn to respect them, we’ll lose populations at an alarming rate.

If you must handle a fish, be sure to wet your hands before you touch it. The slime coat on fish is there for protection. It helps them fend off infection and disease. Fish like trout are especially delicate. A dry hand is going to remove that slime coat and increase their risk of disease.

Also, if you’ve had the fish out of the water for an extended period of time, don’t just toss it back. Place the fish in the water, and hold onto its tail. As you hold the tail, move the fish back and forth as gently as you can. This puts water through their gills and is necessary for reviving them. Fish will swim off under their own power once they feel fully revived.

Also, avoid picking fish up by their gills. The gills are the lungs of a fish. The more aggressively you handle their gills, the more of a chance they’ll be damaged. If you’re grabbing a fish with teeth, do your best to use a pair of Boga Grips.

These will allow you to grasp the fish by the mouth and still give you a great look at it. If possible, use a net and try to keep the fish in it. This allows you to keep the fish in the water and pick it up for pictures and place it back as you please.

If you don’t have a pair of BogaGrips, go ahead and grab the fish behind the gill plate, but be careful to not be too aggressive. As you grab the gill plate, grip the tail of the fish. This will allow you a better grip and minimize the chance of the fish slipping and injuring itself by hitting the ground.

The fight is always going to wear out the fish. Be careful with how you land it. You won the fight, now respect the fish as you handle it.

Fish the Right Tackle 

It’s also important to utilize the proper tackle for the location that you’re fishing. For example, if you’re targeting larger fish, be sure to understand what size rod and reel you’ll need. The longer you fight the fish with lighter tackle, the more tired it will become. Obviously, you can’t predict the size of fish you will catch, but targeting fish without the properly weighted tackle can negatively affect their health.

Also, the design of a hook can make a big difference. If you’re using live bait, be sure to use a circle hook. The circle hook is going to minimize the potential of the fish swallowing it. As soon as a fish swallows a hook, its chances of living decrease immensely.

Teach Those Around You

father teaching son to fish responsibly on lake

Conservation happens one person at a time. Similar to Leave No Trace in the backpacking/camping world, it takes people to hold their friends and partners accountable. We’re in an age when more and more people are looking to enter the world of fishing. However, new anglers are likely going to be the least conservative. It’s not out of spite, but it’s mainly out of a lack of knowledge on what to do.

As an experienced angler, take time to teach those around you about the importance of conserving our fish and waters. Bring the younger generation out fishing and show them how to handle a fish and warn them of the dangers of what happens if they treat things in an inappropriate manner.

Also, hold those who are experienced accountable. If you see a fishing partner slacking, don’t be afraid to call them out to ensure that your favorite spots will stay pristine.

Behaviors Have Consequences

People will likely not change unless they see the direct effects of how they are treating the water and fish. By the time effects are seen, however, it’s usually too late.

Lake Mille Lacs, a famous Walleye lake in Minnesota, for instance, has put a one-fish limit on all anglers for the past five years. This was put in place due to the high numbers of walleye that anglers were taking out of the lake. As a result of the limit, the population has returned to where it once was.

However, now, the Department of Natural Resources is put in a difficult position. They are uncertain about whether or not to remove the limit or keep it in hopes of the population growing further. The more and more people behave irresponsibly, the more drastic measures that Game and Fish Departments everywhere have to take.

In another situation, several famous trout rivers across the west are closed to fishing due to the high pressure and lack of accountability. Anglers were keeping too many fish and not doing their part to keep the population thriving.

Further endangering native populations, people have even introduced invasive species into some waters. These invasive species are overrunning many fisheries and can be the cause of a massive drop in the desired populations of fish.

When you do run across one of the invasive species, be sure you are aware of the proper protocol. Some Game and Fish Departments encourage anglers to not put the fish back due to its ability to reproduce and eat all of the necessary nutrients.

Fishing is a way of life for many of us. Everyone needs to do their part to keep our waters and fish populations healthy. Take responsibility, read the regulations, and hold those around you accountable.

Tight lines, and here’s to a bright future for recreational fishing!

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About Daniel Mooers

Daniel is an avid outdoorsman who is passionate about fishing and, in particular, fly fishing. He has fished some of the best waters in over a dozen locations in Canada and the U.S. including British Columbia, Wyoming, South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota. He has also worked as a fly fishing guide and written about fishing for several news outlets. When not fishing he likes backpacking through northern Minnesota.

2 thoughts on “How to Fish Our Waters in a More Sustainable Way

  1. C.C. Hunt

    I’m not surprised to read an article like this here because anglers and hunters are some of the most ardent supporters of protecting our wildlife and natural resources. However, there is a lot of ignorance out there by people and while most people aren’t doing things maliciously, the results can still be harmful and over time, catastrophic. Excellent advice about sharing your information with new anglers.

    1. Dorado

      Hi CC. I agree with you there – we are some the biggest supporters of our wildlife and other natural resources. After all, without them healthy and vibrant we would be depriving ourselves of the activities we enjoy most. Let’s all continue to do our part, and stay safe during these difficult times!

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