Deep in the temple of catch-and-release |

Deep in the temple of catch-and-release

Alan Kesselheim

Not long ago, a friend told me a fishing story: He and his son were paddling the Big Hole River, one of Montana’s renowned trout fisheries. Along the way, they decided to catch some dinner. They cast over those legendary waters until they had three trout, which they bonked on the head and stowed. Then they quit.

At the take-out they were packing up when a drift boat of fly-fishers coasted in. There was a heady level of banter going down, along with a lot of backslapping amid claims of a day’s catch of more than 50 fish.

One of the drift boat guys sauntered over to chat. Suddenly, he saw the three dead trout. The sight stopped him in mid-sentence. “You killed those fish,” he spluttered. His friends looked up, shook their heads. Accusation lay heavy in the air.

“I heard you guys say you caught 50 fish today,” my friend said. “Caught and released,” said the fly-fisher, looking significantly at the corpses.

“We stopped after we caught three for dinner,” my friend said. “If even one in 10 of the fish you caught died, you guys killed more fish today than we did and probably injured a few more.” The debate stopped: There is precious little rational ground when it comes to sin, and my friend had murdered three trout.

This tale and others like it illustrates the extent to which this business of hooking and freeing fish has gotten out of hand. Given the popularity of angling these days, the catching-interruptus concept does have merit. But it’s another example of our tendency to overdo a good thing. Who needs to catch and torture 50 fish at a whack?

Beyond that, it’s another example of the what-we-can’t-see-we-can-ignore syndrome we so easily get seduced by, and that has tripped us up before. Witness how eagerly we’ve dumped our garbage in the ocean and overfished the commons.

Once trout have been hooked, fought, brought into a net, unhooked, remarked over, photographed and then placed back in the water, they are forgotten. Usually, they flick away and disappear. Sometimes they drift, dazed, for an anxious few moments before floating off to revive. Sometimes they remain lifeless in the current. Except for the fish stories that follow, they are gone.

Fact is, catch-and-maim might be a more accurate banner than catch-and-release. Biologists see increasing numbers of scarred and disfigured fish in heavily fished streams. Mortality rates are tough to pin down, but it’s clear that some caught-and-released fish die from the trauma. When push comes to shove, justifying any mortality on the basis of satisfying our urge to repeatedly bend a rod and play fish is a stretch.

I’m fighting the tide. It’s heresy to blaspheme in the temple, and now that whole regional economies in the West are feeding at this altar, it’s enough to get me thrown out of town. But what about lightening up a tad? You know, ease off on the obsession with hooking things, and simply drift along from time to time put the rod down – notice the birds, think about life, close your eyes and feel the river.

At the very least, cut the guy who just fishes for dinner and stops for the day a little slack at the take-out.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo. ( He writes in Bozeman, Mont.

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