Should Anglers Catch and Release or Harvest Their Catch?

July 14, 2020 at 1:44 pm

By Fisheries Resource Biologist Liz Thorndike

When fishing, anglers are faced with many responsibilities. We’ve seen the signs at boat launches and been taught over generations to use the land responsibly, don’t move fish or plants from one water to the next, carry in – carry out, but a responsibility often forgotten is the age-old question of whether to harvest or release your catch. Making a concise decision once a fish is to your boat goes beyond the dinner table or social media but instead to the health of the resource.

Once you have decided where you are fishing, the first step is to know the regulations for that water. Regulations are unique to each body of water and designed to best manage and improve that water’s fishery, however, a regulation only works if anglers follow it.  

If a water is catch and release only, your decision has been made for you and that regulation was designed to protect a unique resource. If a water allows for harvest it means biologists recommended a specific bag limit, length requirements, or even a slot for anglers to harvest fish that won’t negatively affect the resource but ultimately maintain and enhance the resources.

MDIFW Fisheries Resource Biologist Liz Thorndike holding a brook trout

Bag limits may be set low due to limited recruitment or to distribute the catch over a longer time period and among many anglers; or bag limits may be set higher if there is an unhealthy overpopulation of fish and biologists want anglers to keep fish. Length limits and even slot limits are set to protect or “thin out” specific size classes of fish, allowing remaining fish to grow faster, and enable large fish to be caught and released or kept. A healthy fishery depends on anglers and biologists working together — designing regulations with public input, anglers following regulations, and biologists monitoring the effects of regulations on the fishery.

If you’re going fishing where harvest is allowed, be prepared. Bring a smaller cooler or ice with you, since taking care of your catch quickly will improve the quality of the meat.

If you choose to release your fish, there are several techniques that anglers should follow to increase the chances a fish will live to be caught again:

  1. Time is of the essence. Respect your catch, don’t overplay the fish. Play and release the fish as quickly and carefully as possible.
  2. Keep the fish in the water. Minimize or eliminate the time your fish is out of the water. As little as 30 seconds of air exposure can cause delayed mortality of released trout, and in the winter months the fish may be subject to a quick freeze.
  3. Wet your hands when handling the fish. Dry hands can remove the layer of slime that protects the fish from fungi, bacteria, and parasites.
  4. Photograph responsibly. Photo sessions can be stressful for a fish. Prepare for the photo with your fish safely under the water surface, and only lift the fish out of the water for 5-second intervals or less. Try to get the shot (within reason), but return your fish to the water for a rest between attempts.
  5. Be gentle. Keep your fingers away from the gills, don't squeeze the fish, and please, never drag a fish onto the bank!
  6. Choose the right landing net. Rubber nets are easier on fish than traditional twine nets.
  7. Safely remove the hook with small pliers or a similar tool. If the hook is deeply embedded or in a sensitive area such as the gills or stomach, cut the leader close to the snout. Make an effort to use regular steel (bronzed) hooks to promote early disintegration. Avoid the use of stainless or gold-plated hooks. One way to release your fish quickly is to use barbless hooks. If barbed hooks are all you have, you can bend the barbs over or simply file them off.
  8. Revive the fish. Hold the fish underwater in a swimming position until it can swim away (note: do not use this method if surface water temperatures are unusually warm).

Anglers often set expectations of what they feel the perfect fishery looks like, it differs from one angler to the next, but one constant is a healthy fishery. Anglers taking ownership significantly helps in maintaining a healthy fishery – release a fish when the resource would be negatively affected or keep a fish when the resource requires a balance.

Ultimately, the fishing lawbook isn’t only telling you the laws, but it also is a guide anglers should use to know how best to maintain a healthy fishery. If you have a specific water in mind and want to make sure you’re a good steward, call a local biologist, we’re happy to talk fish with anglers about best practices for the resource!