I don’t know how many times over the years I have been asked how I can claim to be a practitioner of catch-and-release while, at the same time, also write in my column sometimes about cooking and preparing fish for a meal.
The answer is simple: I enjoy fishing.
I do not see a conflict between catch-and-release and eating fish. Truth be told, there is an ever-increasing number of reasons why there is something to be said for catching and cooking fish from local waters. Quite simply, it is safer and healthier than using farmed or imported fish.
I release the vast majority of fish I catch immediately and only keep a fish when I plan to eat it – usually right away as a shore lunch. I do not catch fish and put them in the freezer.
I buy most of the fish I cook at home from one of several fresh fish shops in the area. That, however, is a whole other kettle of fish.
As much as I enjoy fishing and eating fish, I do have concerns about wild fish stock populations and, consequently, advocate the practice of catch-and-release as a means of helping to prevent fish populations from dwindling or disappearing from what are, in certain cases, too heavily fished waters. I have completely stopped salmon fishing altogether and have stated that I will not cast another line for Interior salmon until their numbers come back significantly. I can only hope.
A fair number of B.C.’s salmon and trout waters have been designated “catch-and-release fishing only,” in an attempt to preserve the quality of sport fishing. Catch-and-release has been similarly promoted by governments as a management tool in an effort to reduce the cost of rearing and using stocked fish, while at the same time ensuring the sustainability of natural fish stocks.
Countless studies have measured the effectiveness of catch and release on fish mortality and, in pretty well each and every study, the link between fish mortality and post release survival rates boils down to one thing: the amount of stress fish are subjected to while on the line.
To put things in simpler terms, the manner in which fish are caught and played is as important as the manner in which they are released. Most fish are caught using either some form of artificial lure or natural bait. Numerous studies have compared mortality rates and angling methods, and have found the use of artificial baits, such as lures or flies, does significantly reduce both the incidence of fish swallowing bait too deeply and the rates of fish mortality. A majority of fish mortality studies would also seem to indicate the physiological effects of stress (as a result of being caught) are usually pretty well reversed within a 24-hour period. One could infer from these studies that the use of heavy tackle is desirable in lowering mortality rates, and conversely, that lighter tackle and lower strength lines may increase the risk of mortality.
Common sense, as well as scientific data, show the longer fish are out of the water the more they become stressed, and that a minimal amount of handling not only reduces the amount of post-catch stress, but also the risk of physical injury due to struggling and loss of body slime.
Holding a fish out of the water puts added stress on its inner body and organs that are, in part, held in place by the external force of water pressure. I cradle fish right on the surface – but still in the water – when removing the hook.
Proper catch-and-release practices are important not only to the survival of fish that are caught, but also to the future of fish generations in years to come.