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.

 
Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
www.ginkandgasoline.com
hookups@ginkandgasoline.com
 
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19 thoughts on “Take The Right Fish

  1. So true, however I have seen stockers with white tips on their fins and they do tend to achieve greater colors the longer they live in the wild, so I like to look for cut fins. Most places cut a certain fin before releasing them so that it’s easy to tell which one is wild and which one isn’t. That said, there is nothing more beautiful and pure than a wild trout. Great article!

  2. While l do commend you for your insight, there are many more issues not addressed in so far as fishery management and production of introduced fish, regardless of species.
    We must remember that almost all trout fisheries known today are the result of mans intervention. Granted there are very few that are able to sustain what is now termed a wild trout population, many of those are now in a deline so far as fish numbers and angler catch returns, all be it they are catch and release systems.
    Like it or not fly fishing pressure does cause mortality, be it to the spawning redds which are waded over or the loss of adult fish due to mishandling.

    By and large the fly fishing fraternity do recognise the value of a fishery and the enviroment that fish live in. It is by far the fly fishing fraternity that support organisations for the issues related to conservation and support of regulations.

    It would not be true to state that all hatchery fish can be easily recognised as such, may be as newly introduced stockers, but not always.
    Unless there was some obvious fin disortion l wudl defy any person to tell otherwise.
    My own river the White here in Arkansas has a massive stocking program, in the case of brown trout over 150,000 are stocked each year. Many survive to well exceed 20 ins and exceed 10 and 20 lbs.
    That is not the case for bows due to limited life span or subject to mortality for one reason or the other.

    It is at the end of the day a issue that each individual need to make or encourage the relevant State game and fish departments to regulate.

    The fly fishing industry would not be what it is today without stock fish.
    What you would see other wise is very restricted access to waters that trout would habit, which is as we know i becoming more of a issue.
    We have to maintain waters that do allow for anglers to harvest fish, provided they are not those that do contain a natural supporting population or endnagered species.

    Davy.
    American International Schools of Fly Fishing

    • I’d like to thank everyone for commenting, but especially you Davy. I’m so happy to have your voice in this discussion. Thank you!

      So guys, pay close attention. I don’t know anyone more knowledgeable on this subject than Davy Wotton. Were proud to have his thoughts here.

  3. Louis, this is something I have been preaching for years, thank you for bringing it to everyone’s attention. I definitely agree with Davy as well.

    In PA we have many streams that have a native or wild population . These habitats typically cannot support mass harvest. There are several waters I fish, where harvesting the “right fish”, i.e. the stockies or the invasive brown in a brookie stream, would be extremely beneficial, as the wild/native trout population suffers as a result of the “invaders”. Teaching fellow anglers how to distinguish between stockies and wild/native fish is important…but more important I think is teaching them why stocking over wild/native populations is a bad idea in general.

    Also, there are many in PA that feel their limit is not so much that, but rather a goal. This has obvious repercussions. I have had success in the past converting some of this mindset, but it can be a difficult goal.

    While I rarely harvest fish, I can understand some people’s desire to do so, and if done responsibly, I don’t see anything wrong with it. I truly believe that most anglers will do what is right, if they understand why it is right.

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  5. We have a place on the White River (same river that Davy commented about), many times I will catch a limit but not keep any. When we have guests that want to eat fish, I’ll keep enough for the group, But that isn’t often. I have been at the launch as the “Stock Truck” pulls away and seen how these fish don’t really know what is Food and what isn’t, but they are fun to catch.
    Very good information here and Thanks!

  6. Hi Louis,

    First off, that was an excellent article. I support and I’m an advocate for militant catch & release. However, I have friends and family members who enjoy eating the odd fish, and there isn’t anything wrong with selective harvesting either.

    I found it interesting how you defined stocked trout, and they’re profile being more football shaped with smaller mouths & fins. I’m from Canada, and reside close to Lake Huron which leads me to fish many of it’s rivers and tributaries. Being that the Steelhead I catch are not native, but are a result of government regulated stocking programs [and I’m thankful for it], I have caught Steelhead of all shapes and sizes. But this fall has produced some rather football shaped fish with small mouths and not the typical streamlined Steelhead I’m accustomed to catching.

    The Steelhead originated from Cambell’s Creek and McCloud strains from California as well as from the Klamath River in Oregon. Since most of the large fish I catch are normally long & streamlined, would there be any reason for the recent insurgence of fall fish that fit your stocker description? Or is it purely a case of fall fish that have been feeding heavily and I’m just not used to their proportions?

    My second question is: Any ideas on how Great Lakes anglers could best approach this idea of “wild fish” catch & release? For me this personally it doesn’t make a difference because I don’t keep the Steelhead I catch unless I’m forced to. For me this sport isn’t about table fare but rather about the experience the Steelhead provide me. That’s just the way I personally have found I enjoy most…to release the fish and watch it swim away regardless of size or beauty.

    I Really enjoy G&G!

    Thanks for your time & thoughts.

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