Neil Travis - November 6, 2011

Raise the issue of catch and release in a mixed crowd of fly fishers and you are almost certain to start a debate. Debating an issue is a good thing if it leads to understanding, and I think that it's appropriate to explore the history of the idea of catch and release fishing.

Fishing, in any form, is classified as a blood sport. Trace fishing back to its earliest roots and fishing was a way of finding food to eat. Mankind attempted to catch fish for sustenance. There was no attempt to be sporting and the rules were simple – catch fish by whatever method would produce the most fish with the least amount of effort. What we call 'sport fishing' did not begin to develop until man began to have enough food to eat and could afford the luxury of spending time engaged in a pursuit that did not necessarily produce a maximum return for the time invested. It was in this climate that mankind began to develop the rudiments of what constitutes modern sport fishing.

We find the beginnings of modern sport fishing in the writings credited to Dame Juliana Berners in 1486 in a book entitled Treatise on Fishing with an Angle. It's unlikely that whoever the author was that they developed the techniques set forth in this book. Most likely the fly patterns had been in existence previous to the writing of the book and the author merely codified them, and likewise the description of the various baits and construction of the equipment. However, the primary reason for adopting the methods outlined in this book was still directed at catching fish for food.

Fast forward to 1653 and the first publication of Izaak Walton's book, The Compleate Angler, where the author indicated that angling is a contemplative form of recreation, and gave the first hint that angling with a hook and line was moving toward becoming something more than a mere way of providing food for the table. However, Walton and later Cotton were hardly the forerunners of catch and release fishing, and they recorded some large baskets of fish that they killed.

If you search through the early angling literature, including the literature dedicated to fly fishing, you will find no mention of catch and release fishing. Fish were a commodity to be caught and consumed. The only thing that was changing was the methods. Obviously those that chose to use fly fishing methods were handicapping themselves. However, it should be noted that many of the early fly fishers were not above switching to bait or other methods if using flies was not producing the desired results.

Prior to the end of the 19th century the only rules governing the taking of fish were those that were imposed by local fishing clubs and individuals that owned large blocks of land. It's interesting to note that most of the regulations governing the taking of fish involved commercial and not sport fishing. It was not until the late 19th century that laws governing angling began to appear in America and, for the most part, they were quite liberal concerning the number and size of fish that you could catch. Generally the early regulations involved when you could fish and not how many fish you could keep. Rules governing taking limits developed slowly since fish were still viewed primarily as a food source, and it was a widely held believe that the stocks of fish were virtually inexhaustible. Closed seasons were used as a method of protecting the breeding stock but little thought was given to the number of fish that were being taken during the open season. Before anyone realized the seriousness of this error many waters had been overfished to the point of no return. Overfishing combined with dewatering of streams, dams, and pollution decimated many fisheries.

The idea of catching fish and releasing them unharmed can be traced to a book written by Lee Wulff in 1939 entitled Handbook of Freshwater Fishing. In this book he set forth the principles and terminologies of catch and release. In that book he made the following statement; "Game fish are too valuable to be caught only once." Over the intervening years this statement has become the mantra in the world of fly fishing.

The driving force behind the concept of catch and release fishing was increased fishing pressure. I first became involved in the effort to enact catch and release regulations in the late 60's when I lived in Michigan. The late JC and I attended several hearings and I wrote some favorable articles for local newspapers and Trout Unlimited publications. My emphasis then, as now, is that catch and release regulations are but one part of the management strategy that is necessary in maintaining a quality fishery. Water quality and fish friendly habitat are paramount and regulations will not provide a quality fishery if these items are missing.

It's important to remember that under the best set of conditions fish will die after they have been caught. However, studies that have been conducted on trout waters have shown that the rate of mortality is relatively low. I have spent several years fishing and helping to maintain a world class spring creek fishery in Montana. Fishing pressure is heavy from June through September and many of the more popular sections of the stream are seldom vacant. Since the water is crystal clear and most of the stream is not over waist deep dead fish would be quite evident, however it is rare to see a dead trout in the stream. In addition, if fish were dying as a result of being caught and released by anglers fishing success would fall off markedly due to fish mortality, but that is not the case. Angler success in the heavily fished sections remains steady with no detectable decrease in the number or size of the fish that are being caught. I am convinced that if the anglers were permitted to kill the trout that they catch the fishing it would soon have an adverse effect on the number and size of fish available to be caught.

There are other regulation strategies that can be used to protect fisheries from over fishing. Slot limits which allow anglers to kill fish under and over a certain size are one example. Some streams have 'trophy' regulations that allow an angler to keep fish that are over a certain size. The number of fish that can be kept under these regulations is normally no more than one fish per trip and the size of the fish that can be kept is normally large enough to assure that few fish are killed. On some waters anglers are allowed to kill certain types of fish. For example, in certain waters brook trout have a tendency to produce so many offspring that all the fish are stunted due to over population. Under these conditions regulations that allow the catching and keeping of a target species is appropriate and has a beneficial impact on the overall quality of the fishery.

Whether or not you agree with the statement that "game fish are too valuable to be caught only once" the reality is that given the fishing pressure that currently exists the only way to continue to provide a quality fishing experience is to limit the number of fish that are killed. Catch and release fishing is not only answer, and anglers that desire to keep a few fish for consumption are not somehow less noble than those of us that consistently practice catch and release. Some of the fish we release will die. However, all the fish die that are caught and kept.

If you are inclined to practice catch and release fishing you should make every effort to minimize your impact on the fish that you intend to release. The following list contains some suggestions that will help assure that the majority of the fish that you release will live to be caught another day.

Fish should be landed as quickly as practical, this means that you should avoid using tippets that are too light. Most anglers will benefit from using a net to land their catch, but if you are going to land your fish by hand wet your hand before touching the fish. Barbless hooks enable the angler to release their catch quicker and with less damage to the tissue of the fish's mouth. A good pair of hemostats will enable the angler to reach inside the fish's mouth, thus sparing their fingers. Whenever possible remove the hook without removing the fish from the water. If you are going to photograph the fish leave the fish in the water until you are ready to take the picture, and do not leave the fish out of the water any longer than is necessary to secure the desired image. Finally, always take time to make certain that the fish that you are about to release has recovered from being hooked and landed. Hold the fish in quiet water with its head facing into the current until it swims away on its own strength. If you are fishing in stillwater you may need to move the fish back and forth in the water to force water over its gills until it's ready to swim away.

There is one final thought about catch and release fishing. If you are a trout angler, during those periods of the year when the water is especially warm and you intend to release the fish that you catch it may be necessary to either limit the number of fish that you catch or avoid fishing that particular water. This is especially true for trout found in stillwater situations. Some stillwaters, especially those that are relatively shallow, become quite warm during the late summer. The warmer the water the less dissolved oxygen it will hold and it's much more difficult to revive a fish caught under those situations. If you are going to release your catch it's better to postpone fishing any water where the likelihood that the released fish will die.

Practiced correctly catch and release fishing is an acceptable method of preserving fish populations especially on waters where the fishing pressure is heavy, and for anyone that merely enjoys the pleasure of hooking and landing a fish.

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