Catch and Release

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Years ago a couple friends and I went up to Elktrout lodge in Kremmling Colorado. The plan was a to fish the Colorado River but run off had come a little early and it was blown out. To counter this annual event Elktrout leases and manages spring fed ponds on ranchlands throughout the area. The ponds range in size and the folks at Elktrout have grown enormous trout in them. With the river unfishable we loaded up and headed to the ponds.

We were having fairly good success catching decent size trout. The weather was taking a turn for the worse when we arrived at the next pond. It was pretty much right in the heart of the ranch compound with corrals and cabins surrounding it. The guide assured us that this one had HUGE trout in it. Soon after we had wet our lines the sky let loose and people went scrambling for cover. Jim and I decided to keep fishing and in one of those iconic fly fishing moments, we both had a fish on the line. The drag on our reels screaming told us they were big. For about 15 minute our lines raced back and forth across the pool and eventually, we landed our fish. Jim released his first as I was tailing mine. I popped the hook out and gently picked up a 30” Rainbow out of the water. Jim quickly snapped a picture and I slipped the fish back into the water and released him. It was at that moment I heard a loud groan and looked behind me to see a couple of guys on the front porch of a cabin eyes wide and their jaws in the mud. One of them stammered, “You let it go? Why would you let it go? You guys just let them go?” Cleary, the concept of catch and release was foreign to these gentlemen. They were in complete shock as to why anyone would catch and release a fish like that. It is an exchange I seem to find myself in a lot.

I’m getting a little tired of people looking at me sideways when I tell them I don’t keep the fish I catch. This huge look of disbelief or concern appears on their face and it happens so much I feel a little self-conscious about it. In an attempt to neutralize the situation so no one (me) feels awkward I usually offer up some excuses like I don’t like the taste, or the regulations confuse me or my personal favorite; I don’t want to walk around in bear country with a bunch of dead fish on me. Ok, the last one is mostly true but the point is that based on the number of times I have to use these excuses so as not to appear freakish, I appear to be in the minority when it comes to releasing caught fish.

Why is it that people don’t get the concept? Why do people feel the need to enjoy the outdoors by killing its inhabitants? That’s not what this is about. To each his own. I just need to get up on my soapbox through the anonymity of the internet, seeing as how I mostly make up stories to explain why I don’t kill the fish I catch when confronted in the real world. So here it goes.

I like to fish. That may be an understatement. I like to fish a lot. And I do. I like to eat fish too. Of the two, catching and eating, I prefer to catch them… By a wide margin. Oh yeah, the only thing I like more than catching fish is catching big fish. Studies have shown that there are 28 times more trophy-sized trout in catch and release waters than in harvested areas. See where I’m going with this?

Catch and release is one of the single most important practice to improve the quality of a fishery and ensure that there will be lots if big fish to catch now and in the future.There is a reason that the best trout streams in the world are full of big fish – catch and release. The best trout waters in the world all seem to have a culture of conservation. They are fished by anglers that care deeply about these waters. They treat the fish with respect and educate others on how to do likewise. The Elktrout ponds are certainly no wild river ecosystem but they demonstrate the effectiveness of catch and release on a fish population.

A trophy-sized trout is a truly remarkable creature. Big fish are rare. The mortality rate for newly hatched trout in the first year is over 95%. It falls to 40-60% in subsequent years. Do the math. Out of 1000 eggs spawned by one trout after the first year, only 50 fry will survive. After the next year, only 25 fingerlings will have survived and by the next year of 1000 eggs only 12 will have become fish. The chances that one of those 12 will go on to reach trophy size? The odds are staggering. It is truly a numbers game. The more fish that live to spawn the greater the chance that one of their offspring will grow into a trophy sized fish.

If big fish are constantly taken soon the river will be left with little fish that are too small to be taken as well as diminished numbers of fish. So the next consequence of not practicing catch and release is stocking with genetically inferior hatchery fish which eventually breed with the wild population and even further reduce the quality and size of the new resident population.
We are not a part of a river’s natural ecosystem. The less interference and management by humans the more stable that ecosystem and the more it will flourish. We should feel fortunate to be able to interrupt it briefly with our angling pursuits. There are many ways to give back but the easiest is to just simply take care of the fish you catch and release them.

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