Sunday Classic / Take The Right Fish

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This Wild Rainbow is a Treasure Photo by Louis Cahill

As I’ve said plenty of times I’m a dedicated catch and release angler. That said, I recognize that it’s a personal choice that I have come to in my own time. There are a lot of good ethical anglers out there who keep a fish once in a while and although it’s not for me, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with it. The reason I say necessarily is this: fish are not all created equal and while killing a fish can be ok, killing the wrong fish is a tragedy.

Where trout are concerned, in most places a great many of the fish we catch are hatchery raised stockers. There are a couple of things about these fish that are worth mentioning. The breeding of fish for stocking is a pragmatic endeavor. It is done with a clear cut goal in mind. To raise fish in the fastest, cheapest, easiest way possible and get them in the river. There is very little, if any, thought given to the quality of these fish.

Well, what does that mean, quality? Several things. For one, the fish are raised on a diet of high protean fish food that promotes fast growth. This yields fish that have little of the natural color found in wild fish. There are other factors that contribute to this but food plays a role. It also yields fish with unnatural proportions. Small mouths and fins but big bellies. A trout that’s shaped like a football is a poor example of it’s kind.

Hatchery fish are generally raised in concrete runs. They rub against the rough concrete and wear down their fins to nubs. Not very attractive. The runs also contribute to the lack of color. Trout, like most fish, have natural camouflage. They take on the color of their surroundings. What color is concrete? Makes sense right?

Ok, admittedly this is all superficial. Are we going to kill them for being ugly? It’s true that stocked fish don’t provide us with a “natural” angling experience. They don’t look like wild fish and they don’t act like wild fish but there’s more. They also don’t spawn like wild fish. The rare stocker will successfully spawn but the majority don’t for a simple reason. Fish are wired to spawn in the same place they were born. I can’t explain what it is about home that gets them all hot and bothered but that’s how it works and stockers can’t get back to the hatchery because they don’t have trucks.

That said, it’s probably for the best. The biggest problem with these guys is genetics. There has been no care taken with their genes. No natural selection. No choosy female picking the strongest male, just a minimum wage employee with a turkey baster. ( please don’t write me nasty emails. There is nothing wrong with working for minimum wage.) My point is none of the good stuff that goes on in nature is at work here and that results in poor fish genetics. In streams where there are wild fish present, the last thing we want is these guys getting busy with them.

My point is, if you are inclined to take a fish, the stocker is your guy. They may be homely but they’re tasty. Unfortunately there is all too frequently something else going through an anglers mind when they decide to keep a fish. Trophy hunter syndrome. I’ve heard it said many times. “I would have let it go but it was the biggest fish I ever caught”. Usually it’s from a good guy who’s new to the sport and it’s the first really nice fish he’s caught. I understand, you’ve worked your ass off for this! It’s not easy. You might have spent years getting good enough to catch that fish but this is the exact moment for you to really grow as an angler. Hear me out, this is what you need to understand. You’re there, brother. This fish may be your first trophy but it will not be your last or likely your best. Pull out that camera and that tape measure. Keep that fish in the water and get a photo and a measurement. Now you can walk into the fly shop and show everyone what a great angler you are and they won’t call you a dumb ass when you walk out! They’ll respect you as a guy who understands the value of a quality fish and knows how to catch one. That’s the guy you want to be, right? Let that big fish get back to what he was born to do. Pass on the rare genes that made him such a brute so you can come back and catch his offspring. And their offspring.

That said, while we’re whacking a few stockers, let’s take a minute to think about it. More and more folks get into fishing every day and that means more fishing pressure. If everybody kills their limit, what happens? The river is empty. Now all those good folks are pulling out the map and looking for that wild trout stream you’ve been trying to keep a secret. Well, that sucks. Meanwhile, back at the hatchery they are having to ramp up production to keep up with demand. Guess who’s tax dollars and license fees they’re using to do that? The more you think about it, the more sense catch and release makes on every level, so take only what you really need and are going to use. Granted it’s a big job to get everyone in this mindset but you are an excellent place to start!

So hopefully you’re on board already but some of you may still be a little fuzzy on identifying the good guys, the fish we want to release. Here are some tips. Color is a good start. Brightly colored fish are all wild. This doesn’t mean that a bright silver fish is not so we need to look further. Look at the mouth. A fish who got big in the wild did so by eating big food not pellets. His mouth will be up to the job. A mature fish in the wild will have full well developed fins, often with white edges. Be aware however that a spawning hen will wear her tail down making her redd. She’s one of the good guys. With those criteria you should have no trouble sorting out wild fish from stockers.

There’s one more thing we should consider. Know the stream you’re fishing. Some streams have unique challenges to take into account. A stream may be under such pressure that it can’t stand to loose a single fish. Another stream may have an invasive species out-competing a fragile native fish. Like the South Fork where anglers are asked to kill all Rainbow Trout to save the precious Yellowstone Cutthroat.

When fishing in Alaska I choose to keep, at most, two wild salmon. I have had guides, eager to get on to trout fishing, unhappy with me for not giving my salmon to other anglers who want their limit. I have been told many times, “they’re here to die”. I answer “no, they’re here to spawn”! Those same guides will complain about diminishing salmon runs without making the connection. I know sport fishing is the least of the problems facing Salmon, but by the time they make it to the sport fisherman they’re home free. At that point us and bears are all they have to worry about. A fish is a fish and I will not take what I don’t need and if others want to, they can catch them for themselves.

So for the record, I’m not a snob who is going to come down on you for eating a fish. I’m simply trying to help you make an informed and thoughtful decision. At the end of the day if you decide to keep a fish you should be able to feel good about keeping the right fish.


Come fish with us in the Bahamas!

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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15 thoughts on “Sunday Classic / Take The Right Fish

  1. I agree. I am a catch and release fan. I enjoy the occasional trophy and will take some pics and those pictures hang on the wall in my man cave. The only time I bring a fish home is a king salmon or a steel head to share with family and friends during the holiday season.

  2. It’s ironic that you wrote this today. I’m currently writing my final research paper on loss of genetic diversity in hatchery-reared fish. Great post!

    • Thanks Hayden, I’d love to see that paper when it’s done. The average angler has no idea what a cluster the hatchery system is and how it effects wild fish. I’m glad to hear someone is thinking about it.

  3. Louis- a few things I have to take issue with. Respectfully. “They may be homely but they’re tasty.” Eaten a hatchery trout on/about opening day? Tastes like Purina Trout Chow. Hatchery steelie who’s been in the salt for 2 years, yes. Most hatchery trout can’t touch a wild trout in taste unless it’s a holdover. Eating a legal striper a couple times a season is bliss, and does zero measurable harm to the current spawning/breeding population, though I disagree strongly with killing any striper over say 15-20 lbs. Bonito even sweeter; sushi on board while the flesh is minutes fresh. Spanish Macks? Tastiest ceviche on the east coast. I know you have eaten lightly smoked whitefish caught the day before. (Try Justin Rhea’s recipe for your clients; won’t ask for pate any more). And I have a hundred bluefish recipes for a hundred fish I keep every year. Point is, I don’t think it’s 100% helpful to tell newbies to be really thoughtful before killing a fish in ALL circumstances. By targeting and taking a legal striper, blue, pickerel, crappie, musky or bonito on fly, and eating it, it satisfies an urge/need for a newbie to kill a fish, so as to complete the angling ritual by cleaning it, preparing it, eating it, sharing it; the process breeds a more fond appreciation of the resource and sport as a whole. By fostering the appreciation you get a better long term angler, who can then be better informed about why he/she believes in killing/keeping; and 98% will choose releasing in a troubled fishery/watershed. Finally, the same newbie who buys a license and fly rod, is the same guy who hires ummm… guides and reads blogs to learn everything from reading water to knot tying to species ID to stress-reduced landing/release technique, etc. As many people are leaving the sport as are entering; the net is pretty flat.You were at the show, yes? The reason the states spend more is NOT new fishers; it’s that the sport raises other businesses in the local economies (guides, hotels, flyshops, restaurants, real estate, out-of-state $, gas and associated tax revenues) and sadly grows government involvement in our private lives. New fly fishermen/women do not suck. Ouch! My daughter bought her first license this year and brought her boyfriend on his first fly day. They are exactly the type of person I want to hike with to seek out a new creek. No one is planting or raising more trout for them or their ilk; should they feel badly for entering the sport and seeking a new place and the associated journey, successful fishing or not? Isn’t that the idea? And most stocked watersheds cannot hold more 9″-20″ stockers anyway. There is not enough food, shelter, spawning area, cool water year-round…or there might be a sustainable wild fishery there in the first place. The other option is to close watersheds for several years so the fishery and riparian landscape can be repaired…with man’s help at great cost; much greater than annual stocking of mature fish. Then, you’d lose a huge chunk of license revenue and gear/bait sales, not to mention having people go elsewhere or drop out. I am sure you know that a lot goes into how many fish a resource can support, and the vast majority are maxed or close to it.

    Don’t get me wrong; I RARELY take a wild, native or even hatchery trout (and then to not only eat, but to dissect and learn and show newbies so they will understand how precious and fragile the resource can be) despite fishing many places where the fishery is robust, and would never take a wild Atlantic or steelhead. Never. I hope you get a King in the Bahamas and make some sweet ceviche! Pomps, jack and dolphin too! Then you can post some recipes and pics. 🙂

    • Simbo,

      Thanks for this very well articulated comment. I’m flattered when I can get someone’s blood boiling. You make some very good points but I will inject one other idea for you to think on.

      There is a great deal of nostalgia is fly fishing. I too would like to return to the good old days when I could go out with my Grandfather and kill a fish for dinner, but those days are gone.

      You make a great point about stocked streams being over populated. It’s true that the average stocked trout stream is a man made environment that is unsustainable in nature. Unless these streams are hatchery supported the fish will die off until a natural sustainable population is reached.

      The problem is, it is us, the humans, who are over populated. The grain fields of Kansas and the cattle land of Texas are the hatcheries that support us. We are and unnatural and unsustainable population.

      In making the evolutionary move to being a cooperative agrarian society we have grown in numbers in a way no species has before. We have also given up the right to simply pluck our food from the river. That model no longer works.

      If on Thursday, let’s say, every will intentioned human decided to go out and kill a single trout for supper in an effect to learn how precious the recourse is, there would be no more recourse.

      You and I will have to agree to disagree on this one. With power comes responsibility and we have the power to rid this earth of every fish you mentioned in your comment. We have the responsibility not to.

      Sincerely, thanks you for your thoughts and for your support. Please comment often. I sure as hell don’t know everything and we need voices like yours.

      • Good man, Louis. My blood wasn’t boiling, and I love reading your stuff. All good. I’ve taught 3 kids to fish and a few others, protect the resource, buy a license, be good fishing citizens. None of them would dare kill a stocked fish now, much less a native. The main reason is I have educated them about the things you mention above, all important stuff. And, they have dissected with me a stocked trout which we’ve shared (I held my nose), opened the stomach so they could understand the fish and it’s environment and life more clearly. Having done that, the mystery is gone for them and the cycle complete. They get it. Now they have no need to kill a trout or anadromous fish again. By the same token we have killed salty fish for supper, and they appreciate this, too. But for every blue, striper or mackeral we’ve eaten on a fly, we’ve released hundreds or thousands more. And my son caught a bonito on fly when about 14 years old and loved it. He has a great story for his life about eating it on board, but hasn’t killed one since. Try a poached bluefish with my dishwasher recipe or smoked white fish, neither of which you can keep off your line sometimes.
        I appreciate all your sentiments and agree 99% for fresh water. I also love to eat fresh fish and I’ve been eating blues and stripers for 40+ years. Not sure I could give that up IF the resource remains healthy, though I did not have striper for about 15 or 20 years when the population declined to scary levels in the Northeast. It will always be fragile unless folks like you who are so diligent continue to fight the good fight. I do applaud the thoughts, but I’m not eating a 2 year old hatchery that’s been in the river for a few weeks trout nor would I recommend it to anyone! Seriously, you gotta try mackeral ceviche when you head down south. Chris

  4. Louis this is an awesome article! I wish we could have articles like this on the headlines of newspapers across the country! I am a Senior in my last year of a fisheries biologist program and most anglers I speak to have no idea what taking/killing a native fish does to their environment and they know even less on what a reproducing hatchery fish can do to a native trouts gene pool. I appreciate you spreading the word of smart angling. Thanks!
    “Recycle Fish. Catch and Release!”

  5. AWESOME ARTICLE. About 6 years ago I ran into a guy deep in the woods whose plastic shopping bag had over a dozen native brookies in it. When I asked him why he took over his limit, his reply was “it ain’t going to hurt this creek”. I asked him what if everyone had that same attitude. That pretty much ended our friendly fishing conversation. This should be headlines news for the folks “not in the know”. Very well written and explained.

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