Popping The Ball, Why Guides Release Fish

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Photo By Louis Cahill

Photo By Louis Cahill

By Brian Kozminski

If you popped a basketball every time you make a basket, you might be missing the point.

It’s a burning issue, and hot topic across the midwest right now. Nothing new for me, really. I received a call from a potential client the other day, I was just getting done washing off the mud and cedar debris from the Adipose in the drive-thru car wash, so I decided to take the call. The kind lady first asked if I was Catch & Release?

“Well, of course I am, ma’am.”

“But we want to fish up there next week when we are up for vacation. Can’t we keep the fish we catch?” replied the lady.

I had to take the opportunity to explain myself. I am an advocate for C&R, but also believe there is a time and place for selective harvest—meaning taking out certain sized fish in a population that is self sustaining in order to ensure future healthy size class, whether warm water or cold water species.

“I would gladly take you fishing, but if I let you keep fish, that would not only deter the quality of guide trips next week, month and next year, but also, if the word got out that True North Trout catches and kills trout, I could quickly gain a negative reputation and lose potential clients. It works like this: if you popped a basketball every time you make a basket, you might be missing the point. The relaxation, the art of tying and fooling a fish on a fly, therein lies the reward and why we chase eight-inch brook trout with a three-weight rod. Fly fishing is about the peace, the serenity and the enjoyment of seeing the beauty in nature around us.”

“But what if we let the females go?” she retorted. “My husband and I would like to learn to fly fish.”

She was relentless. I felt backed into a corner. How can I turn around a possible learning situation for these anglers and for myself?

“I would be more than happy to take and show you how beautiful the river is and some fly fishing technique, but I won’t purposefully kill or take a fish home. Simply put, if you catch a nice 18-20″ trout, I know where he lives, and perhaps have the opportunity and chance to share catching that mature fish with future anglers, even a couple more times in a year, and next year, he is a 22-24″ fish. If we take him out of the ecosystem, there is zero percent chance of catching him again or that he will be a two-foot streamer crashing trophy next season.” the best I could come up with.

“Well, maybe. Let me talk with my husband, we would like to learn how to fly fish. Do you know any other guides that will let us keep our catch?” She is not giving up easily.

“I am sorry, I do not, sounds like you are looking more for a charter boat captain and would enjoy a trip on Lake Michigan trolling for salmon or lake trout.”

“Thank you. We will get back with you. Good Bye.”

“Thank you. I am sorry. I hope you understand. If we as guides killed every fish we catch, we wouldn’t have a job in a few short years, similar to a restaurant that gives away a lot of free drinks, they don’t manage the resource very well and end up dry.”

Scenario phone calls like this seem to pop up every other week or so. Kind of crazy when I think about it. What is driving this customer my way? Google Search shows TNT at top ten? Most of these anglers are from out of state. I understand the need to bring a fish home, a bit of a keepsake from Michigan, and understandable with our of state license fees. But these fees are exactly what helps keep Michigan an often sought fishing destination. What about where they are from? I see a trend in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and even Georgia residents seeking a piece of our northern Michigan heaven. So I looked into these states and why the popularity.

First, The PURE MICHIGAN campaign. Laugh a little. I did. But a considerable quantity of out-of-staters have said they were influenced by the Pure Michigan campaign, either on TV, billboard or on Social Media. It does get the word out on what a water wonderland we live in. It is much appreciated. Maybe we could focus these ads to incorporate a “Leave It as You Found It” mantra.

As I dug deeper, and asked other guides from around the state, I found stocking practices in other states to be very instrumental in the anglers outlook on the fishery. It seems many states to the south are mostly “put-in/take” fisheries. There is nothing wrong with that, Michigan used to be fairly seated at the helm of the same practice. In the seventies and eighties, if a fair number of anglers complained about a local river or lake that wasn’t putting out, it would often receive a healthy dose of fish early the next spring. Later, with coordinated efforts of concerned non-profit groups like Trout Unlimited and Anglers of the Au Sable, we realized that these practices were short term answers.

It was only in recent decades that DNR biologists have shifted focus on rehabilitating the resource instead of just throwing more fish at it. This allows for better and more natural reproduction. And it also provides a wild fishery, not hatchery stockers that will readily accept any food-like particle that floats near them. Most of the stocking done by the DNR are fingerlings or just below keepable size limit fish with hopes that they will establish themselves and become a more viable adversary within a season or two, IF we allow them to grow. Some states are raising their hatchery stockers to a much larger release size. This is due to the fact that many of the fisheries don’t often see holdover fish from previous seasons. The water either gets too warm, dissolved oxygen depletion or outcompeted by other cool-warm water transition species. Often it is all three factors that play a part. So these states actually expect you to keep your catch, they will often start the season with a “flies-only” regulation for the first month and transition to all gear/tackle regulations, when all the anglers head out to stock up the freezer.

Not a monster, but a fine adversary caught on a river that is slowly getting better.

Not a monster, but a fine adversary caught on a river that is slowly getting better.

This then reminded me of our childhood. I vividly recollect many ice fishing trips with dad, filling our 5-gallon buckets with perch, bluegill and crappie, bringing them home, reviving them in a sink of cold water and cleaning a mess of panfish. Without consideration, we would also clean out the freezer of ziplock bags or perch and bass caught in previous years outings. They became fertilizer for our rose bushes. Our father and grandfathers generation were survivors, they kept and saved everything, from rubber bands to Cool-whip containers, simply because you never knew when you were going to need them. Fishing was very much a machismo sport, and you had to bring home your kill, otherwise, what proof would you have? We didn’t have cell phones with cameras. I would actually have to wait until all my photos were used up on my Kodak Instamatic 110 and drop the roll off at Meijer Foto Lab, and wait a week longer to show others the bounty of our day on the water. I am certainly glad times have evolved, some for better, some for worse. Sure, we see more posting on our FB feed from the great hatch last night, or someone who hooked into a monster across the country, but more often they are released and pictures have proven the same fish to be caught more than once on many rivers in our neck of the woods.

We are advocates of our resources. I believe we need to teach and share responsible catch and release practices with as many people as we come in contact with. It is simple. I realize I am preaching to the choir, but it amazes me how many people still feel the need to fill a freezer with fish that they never end up eating before it is freezer burnt.

We enjoyed a great fresh-caught walleye and morel meal the other night, one of the rewards of fishing with Chef from Sante’ and being on Lake Charlevoix in the spring. I love fish. The best tasting fish is brookie, fried stream side while camping with nothing but butter, lemon and some fresh cracked pepper. I only do this on occasion—that is why it is special. Otherwise it would be as ordinary as a PB&J sandwich.

Brian Kozminski
Gink & Gasoline
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14 thoughts on “Popping The Ball, Why Guides Release Fish

  1. I have been 100% C & R since I began Guiding as a full time job 27 years ago, when confronted with this question, I always answer: “It’s a bad idea to kill your business partners!”

  2. I strongly agree with you. However, as for Ohio anglers gong North to fish, perhaps it is because we only have ONE stream what will support trout year around. That is why ODNR stocks so many fish knowing that if not caught, they will die anyway.

  3. Another C &R level

    Many years ago my wife and I were SCUBA diving in the Maldive Islands off the tip of India. At the time, certain islands catered to particular countries so that customs, language, etc. would be comfortable for the guests. All islands were “no kill.” Well, the Italian resort went broke because Italians would not visit if they couldn’t bring their spear gun and shoot something.

  4. Great Read as always. I agree, I rarely keep and eat any fish, but if I do it is a mess of bluegill the kids and I catch; we do a big fish fry and invite friends and make it a special event. Our sport is special in that we can release our quarry and catch it again. So when and if we choose to keep our catch it needs to be a special event to be savored not just an occasion to say “hey look what i killed”.

  5. Brian,

    Do you feel any differently when it comes to areas with mixed Hatchery/wild fish? I’ve been mulling this over in my mind quite a bit over the past week or so. I recently moved to the west coast and about an hour from home is a Fantastic Steelhead fishery where about 1/2 the run is wild and about 1/2 are hatchery fish. I’m not looking for a justification to ethnically cleanse the hatchery fish, but a fish or two a year. From a guide’s perspective, what are your thoughts with a mixed run of anadromous fish like that…? It’s just been on my mind since there should be Steelhead in the river in a couple weeks.

    • honestly, most of our rivers get 8-9K steelhead a year, keeping one or two is totally fine, I hear of guys who keep in excess of 100 per season, come on, really? who eats THAT much fish? There is a time and a place, a fresh brook trout while camping for breakfast, nothing better, keeping maximum limit, only reduces numbers for future generations. Many anglers still fish like they did in the eighties, unfortunately, the DNR does not maintain sticking practices in the Great Lakes like that era, we are seeing the effects of reduce salmon #’s because of the astronomic numbers of fish people feel they need to bring home, not allowing the salmon to spawn for a possible return 3-4 years from now…
      Keep a fish here and there, but as a guide, I am C&R.

      • Thanks Brian!! That pretty well confirms what I’ve been feeling. I’ve kept a total of 1 fish in the past 3 years, I don’t eat that much fish, but when I took a 26″ pike (which were introduced about 6-8 years ago) out of one of my favorite trout streams, I decided to put that one on the grill and hopefully save a few trout. Think a steelhead or two a year might be a nice change of pace. Thanks for the insight!! I genuinely appreciate it!! I’ve only fished one day of guided fishing so far, so it helps me to understand your perspective.

      • Chinook numbers crashed because zebra and quagga mussels out-competed alewives for plankton. Alewives are the only thing a chinook will eat in the Great Lakes. Alewife numbers are at an all time low since their invasion in the 50s. All the biomass that used to be in the form of alewives which transferred to chinook, is now in the form of zebra and quagga mussels on the bed of the lakes. Hence the increase in water clarity as well. Chinook populations didn’t crash because people eat them. If that was the case then we would see huge amounts of alewives but its the opposite.
        Eating fish is actually environmentally friendly because its a relatively efficient way of getting food. There is a lot of energy, pollution, and chemcials that go into producing the burgers, steaks, hot dogs, chicken etc. that many people eat everyday. It is arguable that you’re doing the environment more harm by not keeping fish but consuming farm raised meat. Then there’s the whole unethical treatment of farm animals, living in confinement on top of their own shit their whole life getting pumped with hormones and antibiotics. Those chemicals end up in people. Anyways, many people will choose to serve their own desires in the end.

        • First the foreign lamprey, then the foreign quagga and zebra, affect the foreign alewife, which affects the foreign steelhead and salmon…what could possibly go biologically wrong.

          • The ironic part of it is as invasive alewives are being extirpated, people are freaking out and actually suggesting the state or federal agencies actually stock alewives to sustain the chinooks and keep the sport fishery. Well little do people know or maybe don’t care, alewives are the reason for the native lake trout’s demise because of the alewives’ thiamine deficient biological composition. When alewives are available, lake trout feed heavily on them and become thiamine deficient and this affects lake trout in a tremendously negative way. The lake trout offspring are unable to develop properly because the gametes did not get enough thiamine while developing in the parent fish. It completely destroys the brood. It’s called cleverly, “early mortality syndrome.” The reason there were ever salmon in the great lakes is because of this terribly destructive invasive species. The federal service has spent millions over the last 50 years or so trying to restore lake trout. So when people kick and scream to keep chinook, they are actually working against native lake trout. Restoring native species in their native range should be priority. So it’s really a good thing alewife populations are crashing. Also, with less chinook, there is less Mercury being brought into the rivers when they migrate to spawn as chinook are known to bioaccumulate substantial amounts of mercury.

  6. It is all about the money. Here in New York, a few years ago, our illustrious Governor had the bright idea of offering a 3-day fishing license to out-of-staters for $5 in an attempt to increase tourism which translates into dollars.

    I started seeing more and more cars with Jersey plates in the parking lots of some of the smaller ponds and lakes that I fish. As a result the bass catch rate in the 2 lb & up is almost non-existent. The crappie and 8″ plus bluegill catch rate has suffered tremendously.

    I sent an email complaining about the “free” licenses and apparently so did other fishermen in the state because 2 weeks ago I was talking to a guy fishing at one of the waters who was from Pennsylvania and he said the $5 3- day license isnt available anymore.

    Another problem that I saw on the lakes for the first time during this fishing license give-away was the increase of invasive plant species. Most have what I call ‘lake snot’ a silky looking bright green algae like growth that attaches to substructure like frog eggs and floats freely on top of the water. One lake, the 4th Binnewater, had literally acres of this stuff completely covering the surface of the small dirt launch area of the lake. It was a good lg mouth bass lake that I dont even fish anymore because I dont want to transfer it to other lakes.

    This is the sign of the times, if you see something disturbing for the first time, follow the money trail back to our glorious leaders who in their infinite wisdom trade long term sustainability for short term monetary gain.

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