Over the years this has been the debate to release or keep the fish you catch. Early anglers fished to supplement their food supply. The idea of putting anything back certainly was viewed as a foreign concept. Currently many people have chosen to “live off the land” more than in recent history. License sales have increased by 20% in my home state of Tennessee and harvest of fish, fowl and wildlife in increasing numbers has become common place. Managing the resource for sustainable populations is the goal of many state and local agencies. This is possible and allowing actually encouraging outdoors folks to act responsibly in their chosen activity including fishing. I’ve always enjoyed watching fish swim off after a spirited battle, the satisfaction comes from knowing that you fooled that fish, especially a big one and have the chance to give it back its life. It’s also my belief that every person or creature involved leaves better off after that experience. Big fish are a resource and as in the world of almost all creatures, the larger mature animals or fish are the gene pool that you would like to perpetuate. Superior size fish, deer and other living things influence the future of a specific area and create a specific balance in every eco-system. Removal of the biggest, strongest and best examples of the species minimally has immediate impact also eventually, and ultimately, the future health of the area.
Catch and Release
While advocating catch and release it’s important to note that any fish caught legally and ethically is the possession of the angler. The decision to keep or turn back their catch is an individual choice. Standards as to legal length, total of a specific species are set with the intent of maintaining a sustainable population. There is no “right or wrong” decision if it falls into the standards set by the governing body. If my goal is to release my catch as it is most of the time I begin by using single hook lures. Single hook baits like jigs, spinnerbaits and Texas rigged soft plastics facilitates the release and is most friendly for the fish and the fisherman. For the topwater anglers a buzzbait is similar and relatively easy in the process of hooking and then unhooking bass.
Deciding to Keep Fish
When deciding when to keep fish I take many factors into account. Certain species are prolific and can be removed without much population degradation of the waters they inhabit, bluegills are a prime example. Every body of water seems to have a healthy population of these little scrappers. Bluegill can be caught with virtually every type of rod, reel, and live bait or artificial lures, they fight well and taste great. Many has been the time when I planned on a fish fry with bluegill and or crappie as the target. Catch the right size and they can be filleted, will cook fast and bring smiles all around the table. If bass are present, especially in a farm pond or small lakes I will remove smaller legal bass, they are the most renewable resource. A bass can grow eight to ten inches a year in the optimum environment. A few of the factors in a healthy environment that would foster this growth rate is an adequate plus diverse food supply, clean water and good genetics. Because of their quick recovery a bass harvest can be replaced within a few years by the remaining population.
The 10:1 Rule
The ten to one rule applies for removal of fish, for every bass you take string ten bluegill. This ratio will keep a balance of both fish especially in smaller waters and aid in the effort to even out the population in almost any body of water. Crappies were over harvested for many years. Stories of anglers cleaning a hundred per day were not uncommon. As the quality of the fishing declined the state stepped in and limits were reduced and minimum size lengths were determined, currently in most Tennessee waters, 15 crappies that measure ten inches long are the legal limit. In areas that were previously damaged, “slab” crappie are now routinely caught in the two to three pound range. Once you start catching BIG bass you have an enormous decision. A wall mount can be replicated in graphite so that trophy can live on. It’s no long cool to have a wall full of huge bass adorning your den. Big bass are too precious to be caught once. Careful handling and immediate return almost always assures great fishing for years.
Release More Fish in the Spring
Another recommended practice for keeping your favorite fishing holes full is to increase the release of fish in the spring. Most freshwater fish spawn in the spring and in water temperatures ranging from 55 degrees to around 70 degrees. Those spawning fish increase the odds that those fry (baby fish) will populate the lakes, rivers and streams we fish. There’s already a high mortality rate for new hatches. I keep fish in the fall and freeze a few to allow me to consume some in the spring with removing spawning fish from my frequently fished spot.
My self-imposed limit is what I can eat in one meal. The legal limits are only a guideline to say you can’t remove any more that the specified number. To borrow the words of my longtime friend Bill Dance, he used to close his show with the message “Keep what you can use and release the rest”. That’s a simple and great philosophy.
Joey Monteleone is an outdoor writer, Radio 650 WSM / TV personality for Tennessee’s Wild Side and Land and Lakes, a seminar speaker, former member OWAA (Outdoor Writers of America Association, Tennessee Outdoor Writers Association, former fishing guide, personal appearances 32 years with National Marine Manufacturers Association, a karate instructor (third degree black belt) and has more than 40 years of community service with United Way, American Heart Association, and the American Cancer Society.