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Has Catch and Release Ruined Fishing?

I know that title has already got your mind reeling!  You may want to cuss me out already, you may have already shouted in agreement, or quite possibly, you are asking yourself "has this dude lost his mind entirely?".

Well before we get into the nitty gritty, let me tell you a little more about my perspective so you get an idea of where I'm coming from.

I grew up in the 80's and 90's absolutely addicted to fishing and hunting.  I read every magazine, book, and newspaper article that I could find on fishing.  I read all the books, even the really old ones from the library on fishing.  I read books about saltwater fishing  years before I ever made it to a coast.  I had a subscription to Saltwater Sportsman, Missouri Fish and Game, Outdoor Life, Field and Stream, and Fur, Fish and Game.  I constantly perused the magazine isle at the grocery store looking for fishing magazines.  Many times I came home with Marlin, In Fisherman, or one of the several tournament mags available at the time. So I kept up on the fishery issues of the day.

The idea of "Catch and Release" was first implemented seriously in Michigan in 1952 and by the 80's it was hitting its stride nationwide.  Young kids like me were all about it and the oldtimers thought you were crazy for throwing a perfectly edible fish back.  By the 90's it was anchored into fishing culture and we were going to save all the depleted fisheries around the country!

And lets face it, a lot of fisheries were in bad shape by the 70's and 80's.  One of the worst was the Jewfish (Goliath Grouper).   Its delicious flesh made the grouper sandwich a very popular menu item in Florida restaurants.  Its fearless nature made it an easy target for spearfisherman.  Combine the two and the goliath grouper was nearly nonexistent.  Thanks to a ban on fishing for them in 1990, they are doing much better today and on the way back to recovery.

What about the Chesapeake Bay rockfish(striper)?  By 1983 they were in terrible shape.  The commercial haul was down to 11% of what it was just a few years earlier!  From 14.7 million pounds to just 1.7 million.  With the conservation mindset that was gaining popularity, states and the feds got to together to put a moratorium on rockfish.  Since then numbers have been steadily increasing with thanks also to less polluted waters.

I remember when billfish tournaments would bring in all the monster fish and leave them on the dock to spoil. It made me sick to see all that go to waste, and it hurt billfishing. Between that and commercial longlining, they were in trouble. 

These are just a few huge examples. I could go on with more local issues and smaller bodies of water, but I think we all know that we had taken our natural resources for granted during most of the 20th century.  Little guys like me and my fishing buddies really felt great about "catch and release".  We felt like we were doing our little part to preserve the future of fishing. It left a warm fuzzy feeling when we watched those beauties swim away.  Oh yeah, we still kept some fish for a fish fry, but not the big ones, and mostly we kept those fish that God designated for eating like crappie and catfish.

So you're now thinking "See! Catch and Release is GOOD Thing!".    And you'd be right.  It is good, I participate myself, but I still think it may be ruining fishing.  I'll explain.

The first time I thought the C&R thing might be getting out of hand was in the late 90's.  I remember reading a flyfishing magazine(God bless flyfisherman, they are always at the forefront of conservation), and there was an editorial about what to do if you foul hook a trout and it dies.  His answer was to release the dead trout downstream to decompose.....  Huh?  Sorry this caught me off guard.  The fish is dead, you accidentally killed it and you're just gonna toss it back?  I was taught, "you kill it you eat it"!

That article has always stayed in the back of my mind.  No big deal really. To each his own.  Hard core fly fisherman are a different breed anyway, and everyone has their own values.  We'll leave it at that.

But then, it happened,  I joined some fishing groups on Facebook....  Just like the good ole days of going to the bait shop and looking at all the pictures on the lunker board right?  Everybody giving each other a virtual high five over that super cool catch right?......Wrong.  Actually, dead wrong.

C&R had turned into CPR "Catch Photo Release", and anyone not participating is gonna get their lashings!  I've seen little kids post pictures of their catch just to have adults rip into them for keeping it. How is cussing out a young kid gonna save the future of fishing?  Post a picture of a flathead catfish on your tailgate and prepare for the onslaught.  Want to set Facebook land on fire? Post a stringer of largemouth bass, or worse smallmouth.  Hateful comments, insults, profanity and all kinds of gutter language will ensue.  Honestly this was a shock to my system. This is not how fishermen should treat each other and its gotten out of hand.  I know this article may ruffle some feathers, but its too bad.  We have to change because the future of fishing depends on having future fishermen.

There are 3 main points that I think are wrong with this CPR Nazi mentality.  I'll cover them and try to keep them as short and sweet as possible.  I appreciate you hanging with me this far.

1. Catch and Release is a conservation tool, not an ideology.

C&R was supposed to be a tool to help preserve decimated or sensitive fisheries. Its not a one size fits all approach.  Just because you shouldn't keep a Colorado cuthroat, doesn't mean that a farm pond shouldn't have some bass removed to keep it healthy.  Every fishery is different and we have really good Wildlife departments that are healthily funded in every state thanks to hunters and fishermen.  They do extensive studies to set the regulations.  You can trust if its legal to keep a certain size fish, and someone does, it will not negatively effect the fishery.  On a short side note here, even if you do practice C&R, some of the fish die.  There's lots of studies on it.  It is one of the main topics that come up if you search C&R, so check into it.

2. Commercial fishing and/or environmental issues have been the biggest culprit in hurting fish stocks

Even in the extreme examples above you can see that commercial fishing and the regulation of it is what had the biggest impact on the fisheries.  Pollution is another big one.  You only have to look to Florida and the red tide issue to see its still very relevant today.  Thankfully, sport fishermen are out there putting pressure on all involved parties to get it solved.

Obviously there are cases where sport fishing impacts fisheries.  Even catch and release tournaments have had negative impacts with massive fish kills.  Luckily tournaments these days go to great lengths to keep the fish healthy.  Still time out of the water increases the chance that fish will die

 3.  We are all on the same team

Lets face it, there are a lot of forces out there working against fisherman.  Radical environmental and animal rights groups put a lot of pressure on politicians to restrict sportsmen.  Commercial interests spend a ton of lobbying money to protect their interests.  Big time industry tries to keep on polluting.  

We need to work together and support each other.  If you are CPR type, well then cool!  If you are a Release In The Grease type, that's awesome too!  As long as everyone is following the regulations, and not poaching, lets high five and move along. One of the best aspects of fishing is the camaraderie, lets preserve that. 

We've come a long way from the decimated wildlife populations of the early 20th century.  "Catch and Release" is one the tools that has helped get us here.  Instead of becoming as radical as a crossfit vegan, lets use it as a tool in the toolbox and adopt a more appropriate mindset of "Conservation Management". We can all work together to protect what we love so much, even if we eat fish.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.  Feel free to comment below. 

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  • Completely agree. I partake in both methods. I keep the fish I want to eat and return the fish I don’t. The social media warriors have grown up to learn to judge others via SM. Most wouldn’t have the stones to confront you face to face, this age of yelling at others online is disgusting. Instead of being willing to accept others may think or believe differently they treat it as you referenced an “ideology” and only their version of truth is acceptable. It’s disgusting. IMHO.

  • Catch and release was cemented in bass fishing by the Bassmaster tournaments. Most of your state biologist do not feel it’s helping. Just look at the crappie population, they are killed by the hundreds everyday, yet they are very prolific. My best fishing memories were pre C & R.

  • I grew up being a ‘meat fisherman’.
    Usually catfish, crappie, and bream.
    Maybe a bass or two. Life intervened. Went several years with minimal fishing.
    My son got old enough and fishing began anew. Still meat. Bream, crappie, catfish again. Busy intervened again. Finally made a trip or 2 to Canada. C&R, kept just enough for shore lunch. Smallmouth, northern, walleye.

    Back to US, began trout fishing. After a few years stopped keeping. Face it trout not that tasty anyway. So back to C&R for last 10 or so years. If ever in saltwater generally keep. Redfish, trout, amberjack, etc. I say to each his own. I have walked both sides. As long as neither goes to extremes. Leave it be.

    Jeff Dunaway
  • I only fish for me, not for the approval of the next man/woman.


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