By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor
It’s easy to poke fun at fly anglers for being catch-and-release snobs. Not long ago, Hank Patterson did a fantastic parody of the highfalutin’ attitude often associated with catch-and-release fishing.
All jokes aside, catch-and-release fishing plays a vital role in the viability of our fisheries. As my friend and fellow fishing writer Chris Hunt wrote in Hatch Magazine a while back,
The catch-and-release movement is perhaps one of the most effective, self-imposed conservation campaigns ever. It ranks right up there with America’s hunters imposing on themselves tighter bag limits. It was vital to the future of the pastime, just as catch-and-release has been vital to the future of fishing. Those who catch and release all, or even some, of the fish they bring to hand can take a good portion of the credit for the overall health of some of our best-known American trout fisheries.
I’d like to point out that Hunt specified that catch-and-release has been vital to the future of fishing. Not fly fishing, but fishing in general. That’s an important distinction to make, because fly anglers are in the vast minority when compared to the amount of people who fish worldwide.
Also, I’m not trying to paint one group of anglers as more conservation-minded than another. I’m simply recording my observations from a lifetime in the fishing world. Catch-and-release is largely associated with the highbrow fly crowd, and I think that hurts the effort as a whole. Catch-and-release fishing was never meant to separate bait anglers from fly guys; it was meant to bring the angling community together.
At its core, catch-and-release fishing is about improving fish mortality rates, and leaving fisheries better than we found them. It’s a conservationist mindset that aids in keeping our rivers, lakes, and streams viable fisheries for generations to come. It’s not about proving one form of fishing is better than another (it’s not) or that all fish caught on bait die upon release (they don’t).
So, let’s throw pretenses aside for a few minutes and have a clear discussion about why all anglers need to be better informed about catch-and-release fishing.
The theory behind catch-and-release is simple: it’s unsustainable to keep every fish you catch. By properly releasing fish, you help populations remain stable, self-sufficient, and vibrant for the next angler who comes along.
That’s the key, though – properly releasing fish. At the heart of catch-and-release fishing is the impetus to handle fish with care, and ensure they have as good a chance at survival as possible. That’s the real reason the catch-and-release movement exists. It’s not to stroke the ego of tweed-clad, pipe-smoking old guys on a river.
It’s also a phenomenal conservation and management tool. By releasing fish, you allow them to grow larger. As fish grow, they tend to turn to a diet of almost exclusively other fish – a habit known as “piscivorous.” This dynamic with a population of fish creates a class of larger fish – the hogs – and a lot of fish in the 10 – 17 inch range.
A prime example of that succeeding is on Utah’s Green River. The tailwater boasts trout populations of 12,000-13,000 fish per mile, along with an average size of just under 17 inches. And while the river isn’t mandated as a catch-and-release fishery, almost all fish caught are released. What’s more, the Green is limited to artificial flies and lures only, and every year I see more and more anglers booking spin fishing trips.
So, there’s just one example of catch-and-release fishing doing its job, and not creating an environment that excludes conventional tackle, either.
Another key component to the catch-and-release movement is learning how to properly handle fish. And yes, this includes not holding trout out of the water for 2 or 3 minutes while you get just the right angle for your next Instagram pic. I work with some very talented fishing photographers and filmmakers – like Gilbert Rowley and Ryan Kelly – and they’ve taught me a ton about handling fish when filming or taking still photographs.
The point in bringing that up is to show that anglers from all persuasions can learn to better handle fish. Just because you fly fish doesn’t mean you’re inherently better at releasing trout than the guy killing it downriver with a Rapala.
With that in mind, here are some tips for handling fish during the release process:
- #Keepemwet: The #keepemwet campaign really blew up on Instagram, and its key teaching is to keep trout wet. Sounds simple, right? It is. Get your hands wet before touching a fish, and keep them in the water as long as possible. This greatly improves fish mortality rates.
- 5-second rule: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a good grip-and-grin photo. They’re a fun way to provide a lasting memory of a great fish. And without the good ol’ grip-and-grin, what would Instagram be? But when you’re taking these pictures, try to limit the time the fish is out of the water to 5 seconds or less.
When I’m out filming or shooting photos, we adhere to that rule pretty strictly. When we’re not ready for an above-water shot, fish are submerged in our landing nets. It’s perfectly fine to take a fish out of the water multiple times for multiple shots. Just make sure that you limit those out-of-water experiences to 5 seconds or less.
- Cut your losses: When fish swallow a hook deep – and I’ve had it happen with everything from worms to flies – a lot of anglers make the mistake of trying to yank the hook out. If a trout’s hooked so deep that getting your hook or fly or lure back may require surgery, just cut the line. The hooks will eventually rust out, and the trout has a much better chance of survival.
- Don’t place them on the ground: Nothing makes me cringe more than seeing a trout splayed on the rocks, or covered in grass, next to a fishing pole. Placing trout on the ground removes the protective slime that’s paramount to trout health, not to mention that the fish is likely out of the water for way more than 5 seconds at this point.
- Don’t squeeze: This one is hard, because it’s what we all revert to when trout get squirmy and won’t hold still so we can remove hooks. But squeezing trout too hard can damage their internal organs. And, I’ve found that trout tend to wiggle more when I squeeze them too hard. A gentle, but firm, grip directly behind the pectoral fins is all you need to get enough leverage to remove hooks.
Additionally, you may want to turn the fish upside down while it’s in the water. For whatever reason, turning trout upside down calms them, and it’s not bad for the fish at all.
This isn’t a comprehensive list of tips and tricks, but it’s enough to help us all get started on the path to being better stewards of the trout we love so much.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, novelist, and bamboo rod builder from Utah. Spencer’s work appears regularly in national outdoors publications, including Hatch Magazine, MeatEater, and Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine. Connect with Spencer on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.