Debate: Is Catch-and-Release Over-Hyped?

One thing the past few years of blogging have taught me is that nothing sparks a heated debate among anglers quite like the topic of catch-and-release fishing does.  (Which, of course, is exactly why I’m dropping the puck on catch-and-release fishing… right here on the Trout Unlimited blog no less!)

The other day as I was driving to the river, I was passed by a car with a Trout Unlimited license plate holder that said “Catch and Release.”  I was pleased to see that, though I assumed I  got snaked for the spot I was hoping to fish.

I am a catch-and-release angler, 99 percent of the time.  And that’s partly because I believe in the Lee Wulff mantra (“a good game fish is to valuable to be caught only once”), and partly because I don’t like to eat trout nearly as much as I like to catch them. 

But lately, I’ve been hearing more from those who think that catch-and-release isn’t the end-all/be-all conservation approach some of us think it is.  We know, for example, that despite best practices, some fish die after they are released.  If that’s five percent, you tell me who’s stressing the resource more–the guide who catches and releases 30 fish a day five days a week, or the weekend warrior who catches a couple to eat (perhaps even with lures!)?  How many fish are killed for the photo op, though the angler doesn’t realize it at the time, and releases the fish with a clear conscience after the gripping and grinning ends?  

And while we’re on that issue of a clear consicience, one of my editor friends at Field & Stream cannot accept that catch-and-release is an ethical high ground–to the contrary, he doesn’t fish unless he knows he can keep a couple.  To him, fishing should be “finite,” just like the deer hunt.  That’s was also the feeling among many of the native Yup ‘ik students at the Bristol Bay Academy I attended a few years ago.  Cuturally speaking, it shows disrespect to an animal, merely to play with it and let it go.

And then there’s another layer entirely, and that is, in some cases killing certain fish can help save others.  In efforts to preserve native cutthroats in the West, for example, anglers are encouraged to keep the brookies and rainbows they catch.  Sometimes not keeping a fish is a bigger tax on a watershed than keeping it is.

But alas, I don’t think fly fishing for trout could exist as it does in this country were it not for the catch-and-release ethic.  Personally, I cannot shake the thought that fish I have caught are swimming in rivers right now where you have your shot to catch them also… and by and large, I think that’s a really good thing.  I appreciate it when other anglers extend the same favor my way.

I don’t think there are any clear answers to be had.  But I think the dialogue is good nonetheless.   

So where do you net out on catch-and-release?  I’m just throwing the topic back for you… and the pun definitely was intended.

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