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Thoughts on catch-and-release

How total catch and release on stocked rainbow trout fisheries can affect the fishery



Catch-and-release is an important part of fly-fishing in that it is a major tool when it comes to fish conservation. Thus, with the Atlantic salmon population in many of the UK’s rivers being on the low side, the fish that we catch and put back carefully and quickly, without taking them from the water, will contribute to the next generation. Alas, many anglers seem to overlook the fact that when a salmon or trout is held out of the water to have its photograph taken with the grinning captor, the chances of its survival begin to fall, and after five minutes the chances really are increasing that the fish will die, even though it swims off apparently none the worse from its experience.

What is worrying me today is catch-and-release in small rainbow trout stillwater fisheries, where most paying guests opt for a ‘sporting ticket’, which is cheaper than a catch-and-kill ticket.

Some years ago, Geoff Haslam and I headed for the Dove, found it in a filthy spate, so decided to visit a very small stillwater on our way home. It was Easter Tuesday. We bought our day-tickets and headed to the water. Lots of trout were moving at the surface, so this sort of water – being predominantly a midge/buzzer lake–  we cast out teams of emergers and small dries. Occasionally a fish rose very near our flies. A few times a fish swirled underneath our flies without taking. Twice, at least, a trout nudged my dry fly without taking. I was fishing flies dressed on size 14 hooks and decided to try a big Daddy, a fly that often brings up a reluctant trout. Nothing. So I then decided to go down in size and eventually caught a couple. I killed and spooned them. Their guts were completely empty.

Later we went to the hut to record our catches and there we learned the pool had been stocked heavily on Maundy Thursday evening, and that it had been fished very heavily on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday of Easter weekend. Only the odd fish had been killed, and of the rest, each had been caught-and-released on an average of seven occasions. It seemed therefore that the trout that had been put into the lake had, by being caught and then released, been conditioned to avoid eating anything. They had learned quickly that to eat something would mean being played out, pulled into a net, handled and a hook removed from their jaws.

Not long after this another stillwater fishery here in the north-west of England was found to be suffering from an excess of catch-and-release. Thousands of rainbow trout had been put in the water over several months, few had been taken by anglers with most practicing catch-and-release, but the thousands seem to have disappeared, perhaps taken by cormorants or poachers. Large numbers of fish were still being stocked just to provide feeding fish for fly-fishers to catch, and these were quickly being infested with fish lice (Argulus).

The EA came to investigate and they found that a huge number of trout were deep down in the lake, emaciated with atrophied stomachs, and infested with Argulus. They concluded that this mass of trout had been caught and released so many times that they had given up feeding and had moved deep to avoid the hooks cast out by fly-fishers. One recommendation was that fly fishers should be encouraged to kill fish to prevent this happening.

“But we don’t want to kill trout. We don’t like cooking and eating them!”

My attitude is that in such waters everyone ought to tap one on the head and give it to someone who will enjoy cooking and eating it.

I recall being involved, many years ago, in a big cull of grayling in a river some distance from home (this sort of cull no longer occurs, thank goodness), with the fish being buried and not eaten. The last year I took part I hired a Ford Sierra Sapphire (that tells you how long ago!) and I got the organiser to fill the boot with fish so that I could take them home. As I set off, I phoned wife Yvonne to tell her to gather carrier bags and newspaper and about five hours later we arrived at our local pub. Most of the imbibers headed homewards at closing time with a bag of grayling and all were eaten.

Two evening later Yvonne and I popped in for a pint.

“When are you going again?” implored three, one an old lady in her seventies, one a retired coal miner, and one a retired road sweeper.

You see, there are folks who will greatly enjoy eating the rainbow trout you might not want to eat, and in killing a few you will improve the water as a trout fishery.
 

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