Proper Catch and Release Conservation
May 15, 2014
A fishing guide I know once got a call from a guy from the Boston area who wanted to hire him to go fishing for lake trout. The prospective client said that he'd heard that lake trout were native to the state and that he would therefore be assured of catching a completely wild fish on his trip.
The client and guide met up early one morning a few weeks later, and headed out in a boat on Seymour Lake in Morgan, Vermont. As the client was new to fly fishing, they decided to troll wet flies. It was a beautiful day, and it took about two hours before they hooked a trout.
After a good fight, the client boated a healthy laker and turned to the guide.
"Okay," he said, "it's time to turn back."
The guide politely reminded his client that he'd booked a full-day trip, and still had another six hours to fish. One fish was all that was required, the client explained, as he'd only come up to catch one fish and now he wanted to go back and cook it.
It turned out that the client wasn't a "sportsman" at all, he was a natural foods distributor and he'd always wanted to eat a meal of completely organic fish. He didn't trust the ocean and figured a pristine lake in northern New England might produce the quality of food he was looking for.
He wasn't aware of our own water contamination issues, or the warnings issued by Vermont Fish & Wildlife not to eat too many fish per month. But all that aside, his motivation was honest. He had fished for a special meal and once he'd accomplished his goal, he was done.
I really had to respect the guy's attitude. For him, fishing was a simple means to an end. He understood the limitations that he had placed on himself and his experience by deciding ahead of time that his goal was to obtain a meal, and nothing else.
The fact that he had selected what must easily be considered the most unpredictable fish market in the world to do his shopping spoke to his faith in the purity of the forest and to his seemingly boundless spirit of optimism. Either that or he had no idea how difficult it can be sometimes to actually catch fish. In fact, most of my less auspicious escapades have taken place while fishing when the evening meal was on the line.
Beauty & the Bass
During the early 1980s, my wife and I were living in Massachusetts together, experiencing the testing period that many couples go through before they actually commit to marriage. Some people used to refer to it as "shacking up." Whatever it was, I was often instructed to go catch dinner. For most of that period, I worked as a freelance stringer for various local newspapers, earning the extraordinary daily fee of $30 to write up stories about town government hearings and meetings.
Given that this far from constituted what could laughingly be referred to as a "living wage," we augmented our diet with veggies we grew in our backyard garden, and whatever I was able to haul out of the water. On one particularly sunny summer day, I decided to go fishing at Lake Noquochoke in Dartmouth, and I caught a huge largemouth bass on a nymph drifted next to a large mass of milfoil. I tossed the fish into a cooler and drove home.
Freshwater bass are extremely hardy, and even though it took me almost ten minutes to drive home from the lake, the fish was very much alive when I pulled it from the cooler and brought it inside our apartment.
I went upstairs to the kitchen with it, but on a whim, I decided not to kill and clean the fish just then. I looked at the wok sitting on top of one of the upper shelves, and thought how I might prepare this bass in some new way. And then it hit me — I could use a Chinese recipe I'd read that called for freshly caught fish, so fresh that the animal is literally cooked alive.
It turned out that I was a bit too squeamish to pull this off. I'm such a candy-ass that I can't even drop live lobsters in boiling water. I have to split them first, which kills them instantly, then I clean them and cook them. The simple truth is that it freaks me out to cook a live fish. So I decided to merely keep the bass alive right up until the moment before I popped it into the wok.
And that's why the bass ended up in the bathtub. I only filled it with perhaps a foot of water, so it didn't have the depth it needed to jump out. After a few minutes of swimming around its new confines, the bass hid itself in the folds of the shower curtain.
I went downstairs, sat down on the couch, and waited for my wife to come home. When she walked in, we exchanged greetings and she went upstairs to take a quick shower. And this was how I learned that there is nothing on earth so startled as a woman confronting the evening's main entrée as she steps into a tub. Well, nothing except perhaps the entrée itself.
All of this illustrates the trouble I sometimes get into when I decide to keep my catch. These days, I rarely harvest fish, and during the past two seasons, I have only brought home three for the table. Unfortunately, that doesn't alter the fact that I have been responsible for killing other fish during that same period of time.
While we all enjoy catching fish, we should never forget that they are actually fighting for their lives when we play them in. The bass in my tub was likely more content than a trout with a hook in its mouth.
If we decide to release fish, it only makes sense to safeguard them while they are under our control and attempt to release them safely. At the same time we should realize that the impacts of catch-and-release fishing are not insignificant.
One late spring afternoon, while fishing the on the Winooski River in Bolton, Vermont, I hooked a brown trout that had been hiding against a rock ledge on the opposite side of the river from where I stood. I had thrown a large stonefly nymph and I was able to watch as the trout moved out of the shadows to attack my fly.
I spent a minute fighting the fish, and about the same amount of time making sure that it was healthy enough to release. I checked my knot and my fly and made a few more casts at the ledge.
Maybe 10 minutes later, I got another strike. This time it was a juvenile smallmouth bass. It fought well for its size, but I was still able to bring it in very quickly.
I reached down with my left hand and lifted the fish out of the water. I stepped back onto the shore, cradled my rod against my right side, and tried to secure the bass's lower lip with my right thumb and forefinger, but it took no time for everything to go wrong. The bass lurched to escape and slipped off the hook. A second later, it lay twitching on the ground next to the rock it had landed on headfirst. Clearly, it was badly hurt by the fall.
I dropped my rod to one side, scooped up the fish, and brought it back into the water. I spent several long, apprehensive minutes trying to revive the bass, but each time I tried to let it go, it floated weakly on one side, not moving its fins or gills. It was gone.
My mistake had been in not paying attention to where I stood when I grasped the tippet and reached over to lip the fish. Had I been where I belonged, standing in a few inches of water, the bass would have easily survived the fall.
Many fish die after they've been let go, either because they were too exhausted after the fight, or were poorly handled as they were unhooked (as was my case), or because they weren't revived sufficiently, or released into water that is too fast.
Everyone kills fish by making mistakes like this and it's one of the challenges to conservation-minded anglers that we can so easily injure the fish while trying to catch and release it unharmed.