Catch-and-Release: Have We Gone too Far?

“Nothing in excess” applies to fishing as well as life.

Please note the publication date of this article. Statistics and seasonal information were accurate at the time of publication. Check links provided for the most current information.

By Larry D. Hodge

Published in Texas Wildlife, March 2006

Catch-and-release fishing—throwing back every single fish caught—comes near being a religion among bass anglers, many of whom would consider eating a largemouth bass to be a mortal sin.

That’s a shame. Bass taste good, and research conducted by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries biologists shows that in many cases, keeping some fish does no harm to the bass population and can actually improve it.

The trick is in keeping the right fish. Only a very small percentage of the fish in a population survive to the age of five or six and become the trophy everyone dreams of catching. Those fish are also the brooders. Trophy fish are just naturally scarce, and protecting them from harvest is logical—and research supports catch and release of big fish.

John Tibbs, TPWD’s Inland Fisheries district biologist from Waco, encourages anglers to be selective about what fish they keep. “I wouldn’t argue that releasing a 5-pound fish is a bad thing. It’s almost always a good thing,” he adds. “Those are the kind of fish that make anglers happy. Even though there’s a chance that fish may die after you put it back, at that size they are rapidly putting on weight and are more likely to become a trophy. But when you are talking about 2-pound fish, not all of them will grow to be big. Anglers don’t need to feel guilty about eating some of them.”

Catching fish for fun rather than for eating is a fairly recent phenomenon. When George Perry caught the world record largemouth bass in Georgia in 1932, he never considered turning it loose. It wound up on the dinner table that very same day.

Catch-and-release began catching on in 1972, when the first catch-and-release bass fishing tournament was held in Florida, according to Ray Scott, founder of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.). Scott did not invent the catch-and-release religion, but he did evangelize it among bass anglers.

Scott was converted at a Federation of Fly Fishermen meeting in Aspen, Colorado, he says in his book Bass Boss [Whitetail Trail Press, (800) 518-7222].

… Suddenly, downstream, a guy stuck a fish…The trout was not more than eleven or twelve inches long. Lord have mercy, I thought—bass bait. The guy brought out some little tool that he had stored somewhere on his vest, wet his hands and used the tool to unhook the trout. Then he released it, very, very gently. All the other fishermen began cheering and high-fiving each other. I couldn’t believe it.

The next day on the way home, I replayed this scene in my mind. I thought, if they had so much fun releasing this piddlin’ little trout, what would it be like if a big, hairy-legged bass fisherman released a five-pound bass?

The biologists told us that tournaments had no impact on the fishery. And we always gave all the bass we caught to an orphan home or some charity, but there was always the grouchy old timer in the bib overalls standing by the weigh-in saying, “Thass why ah ain’t catchin’ no fish.”

At that time there was no such thing as a livewell, and many fish weighed in at tournaments were terminally unfit to be released. Scott realized that stringers of dead fish were bad public relations, and his promotion of catch-and-release was based on sociology, not biology. Yet the practice soon became almost universal among bass anglers.

TPWD biologists look at harvest of fish by anglers as one of the tools they have for managing a fish population. “Harvest regulations are designed to modify the population, and the correct regulation depends on the population dynamics of each reservoir,” says John Tibbs, district biologist from Waco. “If nobody takes any fish, the harvest regulations on all lakes will essentially be the same. The concept that releasing all the fish you catch is always the best thing to do is just wrong.”

Tibbs bases his opinion in part on a study he conducted on Lake Limestone, near Groesbeck. “In 36 creel survey days involving hundreds of anglers, we found that not one single person took a bass home,” he says. “If nobody harvests fish, lakes that are not very productive will not produce larger size fish. Most anglers throw fish back believing they will get bigger, but that is frequently not the case. We modeled the bass population on Lake Limestone using all the data we had, and even with no harvest and fairly limited tournament activity, we still had a mortality of over 50 percent per year on bass. Fish are going to die whether anglers take them out or not. I don’t know for sure, but I think statewide the figure would probably range between 30 and 60 percent.”

Tibbs arrived at his estimate of fish mortality by comparing the number of fish in each age group collected during electrofishing, a widely-accepted approach termed “catch curve analysis.”

“We know electrofishing does not collect many large fish, so we looked at fish from age one to age four,” he explains. “Say each hour of electrofishing we were catching 50 age one fish, 25 age two fish, 12 age three fish and 6 age four fish. The slope of that line on a graph is the mortality rate of the population—50 percent. Half of each age group is dying each year.”

Fish in Lake Limestone essentially die from natural causes such as old age and being eaten by other fish, Tibbs says, though some die from hooking mortality and handling stresses. “From a practical standpoint, those fish that are dying could be harvested and eaten without having any detrimental effect on the population,” he says.

Lest you fall into the opposite of the catch-and-release trap and think that you should always keep some fish, remember that each lake is unique. “The thing for anglers to remember is that the harvest restrictions on a lake have been carefully thought out by biologists and implemented for a reason,” Tibbs advises. “For example, catch-and-release works well on reservoirs like Purtis Creek, where you don’t have over-recruitment or overpopulation of young fish. There is a combination of physical, chemical and biological parameters that make a lake suitable for a particular regulation.”

As is generally the case when living organisms are involved, there is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer. “If anglers have any questions about why a lake is managed a particular way, I encourage them to contact the biologist in charge of that lake,” Tibbs says. “He or she will have the best handle on the population dynamics of that lake and the reasons for it being managed the way it is.”

For example, slot limits are used on lakes that have a surplus of small fish as a way of encouraging anglers to keep some of them. On a lake with a 14- to 21-inch slot, anglers can keep fish 14 inches or less or 21 inches or greater. When fishing such a lake, end your trip with a fish fry. However, it’s important to remember that big fish are the brooders. That’s one reason the Budweiser ShareLunker program was started, to publicize how important it is to let big fish live and reproduce. Eat more fish—but eat the small ones, and put the big ones back.

Talking to a fisheries biologist may change the way you look at the next fish unlucky enough to find itself on the end of your line. “One of the possible results of no angler harvest is reduced growth rate of all the fish in a lake because of competition for food,” Tibbs points out. “Harvesting some fish can let the ones that remain grow bigger, faster.” Instead of looking at a 2-pound fish as a future lunker, you may need to think of it as one of the reasons you aren’t catching 10-pounders.

And then you need to decide whether it will taste better with catsup or tartar sauce.

Additional Information:

For contact information for the TPWD biologist in charge of each Inland Fisheries district, with a list of the major reservoirs each manages, look up Inland Fisheries Staff on the TPWD website.

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