The Ethic of Catch and Release

Catch and release is a question of ethics: action precipitated by a firmly held belief. In the not too distant past catch and release was rarely practiced and far from even being considered by most as an option. Like hunting: you fished to attain food, yes pleasure was involved, but the ultimate goal was to acquire sustenance. Now within many fishing communities, catch and release is the norm and some within these communities would not hesitate to shun another for violating it. Fly fisherman, the tournament bass crowd, and muskie anglers all come to mind immediately. In the following brief article I hope to address three topics. 1.) Why I practice catch and release 2.) My take on those who do not 3.) Defend the practice of catch and release against those who think it is nothing but a cruel bloodsport. 

1.) Why I Practice Catch and Release

Beginning in middle school I began to go against the grain in my family and release 99% of fish I caught. To this day I consider myself a catch a release angler. Quite simply I admire the beauty of the animal and find greater pleasure knowing it was released alive compared to any utility gain from eating it. I love fishing and have a deep love and respect for the fish I pursue. Do I keep fish, sometimes but rarely. I may keep a walleye or crappie here and there or a fish that has somehow been severely injured as the result of me catching it (a rarity, and a situation I have not encountered for years), but again I release 99% of what I catch. Finally, I catch a lot of fish each year. I am not trying to brag by saying this. The simple reality is if you spend as much time on the water as I do, and I know as many as you do as well, you will catch a lot of fish, more than you would ever want to eat or is practical to do so. 

2.) My Take on Those Who Do Not Practice Catch and Release

With a few caveats, I am fine with this. I grew up in a family that was almost exclusively catch and take. You fished for a fish fry, end of story. Catch and release is an ethic that I have adopted, NOT something I push upon others. To each their own. However, I do have a few caveats. I am not fine with the following:

a.) Keeping rare or recovering species. 

b.) Killing fish you do not intend to eat (a direct remark to bow fisherman who kill gar in my area then leave them bankside in droves). 

c.) Breaking regulations; if you snag it let it go, if its undersized let it go, if you have reached your limit let it go. The rules and regulations were put in place for a reason, follow the law. 

d.) Keeping more fish than you and your family are able to consume. 

3.) A Defense of the Practice of Catch and Release

Throughout my angling career I have heard something like the following numerous times: "it is cruel to inflict pain on another animal purely for your own enjoyment". I think we have to take these statements seriously and for me it is something I have thought of both often and deliberately. To be blunt, yes we anglers forcibly puncture and inflict pain upon another animal, fight it, then let it go. The end to those who see the logic thus far would be that at least anglers who catch and eat their fish are serving an end. So then the question becomes, to what end are we serving? In summary, I believe the end we ultimately are serving is something much higher than face value, I truly believe the net impact of catch and release on the environment is positive and outweighs and harm we may cause. 

a.) We as anglers act as a sentry to our waters. Most avid anglers I know are keenly in touch with their local waters; they know its rhythm, fluctuations in fish populations, and deviations in water quality. We work to enhance and raise awareness when things become off kilter. Your average joe may visit such and such water say a couple of times per year, most likely on a sunny day and will have no bearing on its ebb and flow. Fisherman are out year round, sometimes multiple times per week. When something is off, we know it. 

b.) We as anglers act as stewards and advocates for improving water quality. Because we have a passion for our hobby and genuine respect for the fish we pursue, we more than anyone have worked to increase the quality of habitat. Here are a few examples:

     i.) Restoration of the Driftless Area from muddy streams with threatened native trout populations due to poor agricultural practices, to clear healthy water restored with native trout and increased biodiversity.

    ii.) The complete and full protection of Bonefish, Permit, and Tarpon throughout all of Belize.

   iii.) Initiative by several organizations including the Eastern Brook Trout Join Venture to reverse declining water quality and restore clean water to protect and promote Brook Trout.

   iv.) Campaigning by many to protect Bristol Bay and its Salmon from the Pebble Mine Project which could cause severe disruption to the historic salmon run so vital for its continuation as a species.

   v.) Efforts from groups like Sturgeon for Tomorrow, to protect and ensure Sturgeon populations can rebound.

   vi.) The work of World Muskie Alliance, to help protect Muskie spawning grounds, protect water quality, and to reintroduce populations where they have previously been eradicated.

c.) Given increasing populations and increased angler pressure, without catch and release, many of these fisheries would be void of viable populations. 

d.) We as anglers through the sale of permits, licenses, park passes so forth support the DNR and Biologist whose job it is to protect and promote these waters. 

I apologize for the length of this post. As you can tell it is something I have thought long and hard about. I welcome all and any comments or criticisms. 


This is an excellent interpretation why all fishermen should practice the rule of catch and release. I never keep a trout or bass that I land. I do keep crappie and bluegill at times for a meal.
In some cases especially in small waters the bluegill population and even the crappie population need thinning at times and the rule can be bent in that situation; but to merely obstruct the law as in keeping large numbers of fish is unacceptable. Great post enjoyed the read.

Josh said...

What irks me is that people have the mindset that they have to keep the fish they catch and to fillet them. And yet, most of the folks I talk to seem to just leave it in the fridge or offer it to me months later. I'm talking about recreational fisherman that go out once in a while and can't fillet a fish - guys who may catch one or two bass. It's like they have to keep it on the stringer to show other folks. I know of an instance when a buddy caught a crappie and cut it up to catch catfish and only to give away their stringer when they left because they didn't want to clean the fish. I preach catch-and release. About 20 years ago, I put a Catch-and-Release sticker on my bumper and it just about caused a riot here in Arkansas where folks worship bass fishing. They thought I was representing trout fishing.

Josh said...

And what burns me most is that here in the Ozarks, you can only keep only 1 or 2 in the Ozark zone (4 in rest of state) and I stumble up gut piles from 4 or more smallmouth on local streams.

Atlas said...

Bill, thanks for reading it. I am glad you enjoyed it and yes you are certainly right, there are times when certain fisheries need to be culled in order to restore a natural balance. Though a rarity, sometimes it needs to be done. Great point.

Atlas said...


Yeah I had a roommate like that. He would keep fish from the 2-3 times he went out each year, filet them then they would sit in the freezer for months at a time until he would discard them. Very unfortunate.

Thats sad about people disregarding the regulations down there. You guys have a treasure of a fishery for smallies. You would hope people would treasure that.

Thanks for reading.

Mel said...

Brian, I have not kept a fish for years and years. I try to release them in a manner that they can swim and bring enjoyment to another angler on another given day. Guess I should clarify the above statement some. I do "cull" Bluegill, Crappie, Perch etc. depending on the particular water as Bill brought up. Bass, Trout, whatever go back immediately. Thanks for addressing your feelings and keeping this subject up front for everyone to keep in mind.

Mark Kautz said...

All good information and right on the mark. Being one who catches and releases and catches and keeps, I draw a line in the sand where the two meet. I don't ever keep anything taken on a fly rod unless it hit the fly so hard it's bleeding. Any I catch and keep are usually stockers put there for that reason, but never more than a limit (5). I do have to keep Bob in fish so I get my driveway plowed if it ever snows again.

Unknown said...

It all comes down to the regulation. I release 99% of the fish I catch but I have no issue with someone who keeps fish within the limits and makes use of what they keep. I enjoy fish, hard to beat a fresh cooked Rainbow stream side. I set my own standard within the regs. I never keep a Brown and even when I could keep one fish over 18 inches I never would. To much fun to catch. At the same time I absolutely will turn you in for violating the law.If the limit is one that doesn't mean two because no one is looking. I have no stomach for Poachers.

Atlas said...

Thanks guys for the comments. As stated I have no problem with those who keep within the regulations and are conservation mindful. For me catch and release is a personal ethic I choose to abide by 99 times out of 100. To Kevin's point, I absolutely agree. I too have no tolerance for poachers. I have called the DNR twice and would not hesitate to call again. Ha, the number is programmed into my phone.

FishnDave said...

Great post! I agree with all of it. Those of us that fish a lot and catch a lot KNOW we could do serious damage to our waters if we kept all the fish we caught.
I also agree with Bill's and Mel's observation about the importance of panfish harvest.
This became very apparent to me last summer when I visited a flyfishing aquaintance in southern Iowa. He lives in a small town, and helps manage something like 70 farm ponds and small public lakes in his area. He keeps all bluegills under ~9" to eat and share with the farmers who own the ponds. The bigger ones he returns as brood stock. He keeps all crappies. He keeps a few bass, the low numbers harvested are based exclusively to not exceed a set ratio of the number of bluegills he harvests. The results are impressive. The ponds we fished together are full of really nice bluegills...most we caught were in the 8"-9.5" range. He catches plenty of 10+inchers each year, as well as some really big crappies. Harvest there is crucial to growing these big panfish. Conversely, my local ponds are heavily pressured, but only a couple have significant harvest. Some get overharvested. Most are underharvested and have stunted overpopulated panfish.
I'm conflicted...I know these local ponds need more harvest, but I can't bring myself to do the harvesting. Perhaps the other option is to introduce more large predators to these systems, but bass and catfish alike get fished and harvested by the neighborhood kids/adults.

Atlas said...

Dave, thank you for the well thought out post I greatly appreciate it. I for one am always fine with more predatory/bigger fish. Joking aside I am with you and find it hard to do the harvesting. Which for me tends to be almost never even as you state if the ponds need it.

dead fisher said...

Like you I grew up in a catch and keep family and now keep 1% for dinner, mostly panfish and the occasional small pike. A few years ago a controversial local TV fishing personality stated that we should occasionally keep a few for dinner to maintain the hunting/fishing heritage, otherwise we would be perceived as animal abusers by the uninitiated and special interest groups like PETA. Given enough pressure from such groups, legislatures could severely impact our pastime with outlandish rules. Switzerland and more recently Germany banned catch and release, favoring catch and kill with no live bait. Given those restrictions I'd hang up the rod permanently.
Just this week an oldtimer on Lake of the Woods landed a 52lb lake trout through the ice and immediately had it confiscated by the MNR and was charged with going over his daily limit. I don't know anyone who wouldn't be flipped out with such a catch, but there's no way in hell I'm killing a fish that could possibly be twice my age. A photo will do just fine.

Atlas said...

John, thanks for the comments. I had no idea about the German and Swiss laws, you prompted me to do a little research. I greatly appreciate it and share your concerns, especially following my readings you prompted.