Catch and release is the mantra by which I’ve lived most of my fly fishing life. I grew up with the understanding to put all trout back unless I planned on eating them. We rarely ate trout while I was growing up. My dad reserved cooking fish for special occasions, and we often had halibut or salmon instead.
Both sets of my grandparents didn’t understand that mindset. One time, while fishing with my late maternal grandfather, I caught a decent brown trout from a reservoir near his home. I was in the process of removing the hook to let it go when grandpa came over and said, “that’ll be good for dinner.”
The fish acted like it heard grandpa and rocketed out of the net.
“What did you let it go for?” My grandpa’s Texas drawl wasn’t accusatory. He was bewildered.
“Why keep it?” I shrugged. “It’ll be bigger next time I catch it.”
Grandpa shook his head and settled back into his lawn chair, and I couldn’t help but feel his disappointment. He grew up during the Great Depression, and knew what it was like to be hungry. The idea of catching and releasing dinner was as foreign to him as his time with the Air Force in Vietnam was to me.
At the time, I didn’t know how to explain the theory behind catch and release. Especially not to my grandfather. What I’ve learned in the years since that day, though, is that nearly everything I thought I knew about catch and release was dead wrong.
Catch and release has been touted as the way to fish for anyone calling themselves a conservationist. I remember, vividly, giving folks an unbearably bad time when I saw them keep fish from places like the Green or Provo Rivers. Yes, the Green and Provo are fished almost exclusively by fly anglers, but early on in my life as a fisherman, I couldn’t comprehend how or why someone would keep trout from a place managed for producing such large, gorgeous fish.
The reason is simple – they taste good.
These days, I encourage folks to keep trout from the Provo and the Green. Both rivers could use a little harvest to thin out the fish crowds, giving the remaining fish the chance to grow bigger. And these two rivers are far from the only fly fishing destinations that could benefit from legal harvest.
Tom Hazelton said it best in a 2017 story for Hatch Magazine:
There is perhaps no more delusional angler on the water than the one who catches and releases a hundred trout in a weekend, admonishes a worm-dunker for keeping five, then pats himself on the back for being a good conservationist. I’ve been that guy.
I’ve been that guy too, Tom. I think we all have, at one point.
Which brings us full-circle to the motto of catch and release. While the idea behind it is good, moral, and respectable, being catch and release focused anglers doesn’t give us any high ground on which to stand. Despite our best efforts, trout still die after release.
Consider this statement from a 2016 paper by Jacob W. Brownscombe, et. al, which is available in full thanks to the fine folks at Keep Fish Wet:
Catch-and-release angling has become popular as a management and conservation strategy, yet releasing a fish may not guarantee its survival. Angler behaviour and tactics play an extremely important role in the . . . fate of released fish.
Even with good C&R techniques, some trout will die after being caught. It’s an inescapable fact – one that many anglers choose to ignore. C&R has, for so long, been touted as an easy way to participate in conservation. But it doesn’t have a 100 percent success rate, and just releasing all the fish we catch doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels.
I’ve had the chance to work with multiple wildlife agencies in my career as a fishing writer – helping out on projects, but mostly, coming along for the ride to document their work. Whether it’s harvesting eggs and milt from wild cutthroat, or rebuilding stream banks after erosion thanks to over-grazing by cattle, I’ve learned that conservation is far from a passive act. C&R feels like you’re doing something, which is why it appeals as a conservation measure to so many folks.
Make no mistake – C&R does help. In fact, I’d argue the practice has helped keep the cutthroat trout off the endangered species list in no small way. What C&R doesn’t do, though, is free us from any additional conservation work. It certainly doesn’t give us the right to look down on those who choose to keep a limit of trout after a day of fishing with worms.
Now, I’ll freely admit that I’m falling victim to the very mentality I’m writing against. I hate being told how to fish, and here I am, preaching from a pulpit of pessimism.
Let me make this as clear as possible – I don’t care how you fish. This story isn’t meant to shame you into practicing catch and release. Honestly, I don’t much care about the folks holding up their trophy fish for a grip-and-grin photo. Fishing is, at its core, a recreational activity. It’s supposed to be fun, and it’s not fun when you’re subject to a set of arcane, unspoken, and constantly changing rules.
What bothers me is the attitude of some anglers who lord their C&R ethics over everyone else, as if they’re singlehandedly saving trout. Never mind that we’re in the middle of a horrible drought here in the West, and bag limits on fish are being raised or removed at dozens of reservoirs in the Rockies. Increasing harvest is a better idea than letting those fish suffocate in a puddle.
Fish undoubtedly need our help, especially with the low snowpack and long summers we’ve had recently. The best help, though, will be cultivating an attitude of respect among the next generation of anglers for the fish and fisheries we hold dear.
The Verdict on Catch and Release
For years, catching and releasing my trout was the end-all-be-all for me. I knew I was doing something meaningful to help my fisheries. That was true, but it wasn’t the whole story.
Catch and release by itself going to save our fisheries. Not all trout that get released survive to be caught again. Yes, fish caught from a stream or river, released properly, have about a 98 percent survival rate. But that doesn’t save every fish. If we, as a fly fishing community, are going to be so set on stewardship and conservation, then we need to look beyond the release shots of trout for Instagram.
We need to remember that conservation involves catch and release, but so much more. It’s about native fish, reconnecting fragmented habitats, restoring spawning habitat, and supporting local projects hosted by state wildlife agencies. Don’t waste your time and money sitting in meetings that stroke the ego – and bank account – of national conservation groups. Get out and do something – and keep releasing the fish you catch (unless, of course, you need dinner).
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, guide, and bamboo rod builder from Utah. He’s the Head Guide for the Utah Fly Fishing Company, News Editor for MidCurrent, and columnist for Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.