This following is a wildly unpopular opinion, but it’s backed up by science and personal experience:
Catch-and-release fly fishing is hurting fisheries across America.
Now I’ll pause a moment for your rage/anger/bewilderment to simmer before continuing.
I’m a proponent of catch-and-release fishing. I use barbless hooks. Mesh nets (although I’ve had to resort to my string one, my mesh one disappeared somewhere in Wyoming) are a must, and I’m an avid supporter of the #keepemwet campaign.
But in local tailwaters, spring creeks, and lakes, I’ve watched catch-and-release ethics have an effect opposite their intended purpose.
The Lower Provo River is a prime example. Situated just minutes from the most populous area of Utah, the river probably sees more fishing hours than any other river in the state (aside from maybe the Green below Flaming Gorge). While the river is home to a good population of big browns and rainbows, there are nearly 6,000 fish per mile in some stretches, according to the latest information available from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
An average skinny brown trout from the Lower Provo River in Utah. This is a prime example of how catch-and-release can negatively affect the health of trout in Western rivers.
6,000 fish per mile sounds awesome, right? Well, it is. Just not in a river the size of the Lower Provo.
The Lower Provo (below Deer Creek Dam, just south of Salt Lake City, Utah) is less than 30 feet wide at its best, and at time the winter flows dip into the 30cfs range. Fisheries biologists are practically begging anglers to take their limit home, yet nearly every fish caught on this stretch of water goes back for another swim.
This creates a situation in which too many trout are competing for a finite food source. There’s only so many BWOs, caddis, green Drakes, sow bugs, and ants to go around. When there’s not enough food, you end up with a ton of small, skinny, unhealthy fish.
This situation is seen all the time in high country lakes stocked with brook trout. Often, if the winters don’t kill enough of the trout or anglers don’t keep their limit, the brookies will overpopulate and “stunt” within a few short years.
We’re doing the same thing to our rivers in parts of the West – and it needs to stop.
As the venerable Chris Hunt wrote for Hatch Magazine,
“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. Famous rivers, like the Henry’s Fork or the Roaring Fork or the Delaware, likely wouldn’t be the angling destinations they are today without anglers foregoing the legal limits and leaving fish in the river for the next angler—and for the next spawning run.
But, as is the case with almost everything inherently good, too much of it can have undesired ill effects. Sometimes, as is almost always the case with brook trout west of Minnesota, catching and keeping fish for the grill or the smoker is the right thing to do.”
Hunt hits on a key part of catch-and-release fishing here. It’s almost always the best thing to keep as many brookies as you can when fishing Rocky Mountain high country, unless of course you happen to stumble upon a lake managed for trophy brook trout, or stocked with triploid brookies.
The point is, as an angling community, we need to make the mental shift from catch-and-release 100% of the time to selective harvest. That’s what I practice, and I’ve seen it work wonders on various water bodies here in my home state of Utah.
The theory behind selective harvest is this: take home your bag limit from streams, ponds, rivers, and lakes which contain a population of fish that can handle a limit being removed. Some high country lakes and streams would suffer dearly from the removal of fish – especially those in the West managed for native cutthroat. But others – most notably spring creeks – would benefit hugely from selective harvest.
There’s a small spring creek about 40 minutes from my home that’s something of a family secret. My grandfather fly fished it, my father fly fished it, and it’s where I learned to fly fish. My grandpa even has mounts of 20-inch trout taken from this stream.
I’ve seen a few fish that may be pushing the 18-inch mark, but the average catch from this stream now is around 10 inches.
A large part of the blame for that lies in the fact that those who fish this stream never keep fish.
Let’s juxtapose that with another stream here in Utah – Gooseberry Creek. Closed from January 1 to 6 am on the second Saturday of July (to protect spawning cutthroat) Gooseberry sees a ton of harvest. Rainbow trout from the reservoir above the creek provide excellent table fare, as do the larger nonnative Bear Lake cutthroat trout.
Gooseberry is roughly the same size as my family’s stream, yet boasts larger fish on average.
Because people often keep their bag limit on this stream.
Catch-and-release fly fishing has its place, and is largely responsible for the amazing Western fisheries with which we are blessed. Utah’s Green River wouldn’t be the world-class trout destination it is without catch-and-release ethics. However, if more people kept fish off the Provo River, we’d see a bump in size of fish.
Just as with hunting, the selective killing of a few animals results in a better overall herd. Fish are just the same.
I love eating trout, and for a starving writer such as myself, they’re a great cheap meal. I encourage you to think about selective harvest in your own waters – but don’t throw catch-and-release out the window altogether. As with all things in nature, we must strive to find a balance that benefits us all.
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Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer and novelist from Utah. He authors the Trout Bum column for Ogden, Utah’s Standard-Examiner, in addition to regular columns for Fishwest, KSl.com, the Orvis Fly Fishing Blog, and Hatch Magazine. His debut novel, Learning to Fly, is set to be released later in 2016. You can connect with Spencer on Twitter or Instagram @Spencer_Durrant, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/spencerdurrantauthor.