Does “Catch & Release” = “Probably Dead”? (Pt. I)
It may be comforting in some circles to claim that modern catch-and-release fishing isn’t truly a bloodsport, but the facts don’t follow. Studies of release mortality range from around 4 percent to well past 40 percent. At the lower end are fish caught in cold water and properly released by experienced anglers using barbless hooks. At the upper are fish caught from warm water on barbed hooks and held aloft for the obligatory hero photograph. With catch-and-release, lack of knowledge quickly turns Probably Survive into Might Survive. Take a fish home for supper, though, and it always ends up dead.
~Via The New York Times
For the longest time I’ve lauded fly fishing for it’s low-impact on the species we chase in our silly little obsession. On the face of it there’s something to such a notion: fly fishing is often catch-and-release, the mechanics of it usually prevent gut-hooking fish, and (frankly) we often catch far less fish than other techniques, which limits the impact further. That’s all well and good but I can’t escape much of the scientific data coming to light about the actual impact that some of our so-called eco-friendly practices have on the fish we love. For example, those fish-gripper devices—like the Boga Grip®—were praised as a safe and clean way to handle fish. They prevented excess touching of the fish—which removed their protective slime coat—and kept the fish under control so the angler could quickly remove the hook and release it. Turns out they’re about the worst thing you can stick in a fish’s mouth. Worse than a hook.
The lip-gripping device caused mouth injuries to 80% of bonefish restrained in the water and 100% of bonefish held in the air, always when fish thrashed while being held. Some of the injuries were severe (40%) and included separating the tongue from the floor of the mouth, creating tears and holes in the soft tissue of the lower jaw, and splitting the mandible.
And that’s just one example. Lipping fish has also been shown to be deadly to many species, even though it is standard practice with bass and snook and baby tarpon. Then there was that study that showed how bonefish that were held in the air were subject to lost equilibrium and subsequent predation in areas that sharks were common. (For more on this visit Bonefish & Tarpon Trust.) It seemed like everywhere I turned I saw the charade of my harmless little sport crumbling. Then I remembered an episode from my early bonefishing career, and episode that proves nothing conclusively but does offer me some hope and (more importantly) justification for continuing to practice my blood sport…
1 Funny story here: Before I knew who Aaron Adams was I found his little side project Tribal Bonefish which (among other things) highlights good catch-and-release practices. Well, if you’ve seen the site it’s pretty bare-bones (and, frankly, looks like a high-school kid’s website project—come on Aaron, what about an updated design, bro?) so perhaps I can be forgiven for my arrogance when I emailed him with my list of catch-and-release tips from a “professional” guide. It was a very long and thorough email and I even quoted the article Aaron had helped research and (presumably) author! Here I was, quoting his article back at him in a fairly haughty manner, as if I, as an actual guide, knew more than the author of a simple website ever could. To his credit he responded with amiable humility and never pointed out my horrible gaff. Not until later did I connect the names on the email and article. [back]