Recently at the Tenkara Summit 2018 Yvon Chouinard made a statement that has been wearing on me heavily. It wears on me heavily because I am sure that I am guilty of it. I am guilty of keeping fish out of water too long.
Yvon basically stated that if you keep a fish out of water for more than 20 seconds that you have reduced the trout's ability to survive by 80%. I am going to take Yvon at his word on this. I will also keep looking for the scientific studies to support his claim. I have read that you can keep a fish out longer but why don't we just all consider 20 seconds as being too long?
We must learn to be gentle
As someone who catches and releases his fish 98% percent of the time I started to think back to times that I am sure that I stressed a fish too much. I know early on I probably man handled the fish I caught. Learning to be gentle is very important step we must practice and teach younger fishermen. We have all probably stressed at least one fish out beyond levels of good conscience. I realize that I may be preaching to the choir on this however it has taken me a long time to really grasp the reality of the importance of doing catch and release correctly. A slippery fish can accidentally be squeezed in our haste.
Fish need us to be mindful.
Since the Summit I have taken to really paying attention to this. I have become VERY mindful of the time I am exposing a fish to air. I am also being much more conscious about how long I play a fish and how I hold a fish. A few people and articles suggested that we hold our own breath while the fish is out of the water and consider this too. I don't know about you but I would rather focus on getting the fly out of the fish's mouth than try to have a game of see how long I can hold my breath.
Changing the definition of "Caught".
Maybe we need to look at how we define a "catch". This year I decided to adopt the philosophy of my friend Mark Cole. He and his wife Judy are just the greatest fishing couple you will ever meet. Mark has decided for himself that if a fish takes your fly and then shakes free it is as good as getting a fish to hand. This is not to say that he doesn't get fish to hand himself. Another friend has a 3 second rule that he uses. If you play a fish for 3 seconds it is as good as caught. We can perhaps stop being so stringent in our definition of success in fishing and remember that we fish to be outdoors and to connect with nature in a very unique way.
How important is that photo?
Catch and release folks love to get a quick shot of themselves and the fish. I used to take a lot of fish pictures but have since cut back to one or two fish at the most on any given day on the stream. I realized that it was partially my own ego I was feeding with the photos. Showing off on facebook is a poor reason to collect photos of fish. Maybe we should look at just being with ourselves in those moments. The experience of catching a good fish can never be captured in a single photo. That moment is yours. You should decide how badly you need to share proof. Best suggested way to get a photo is to not be the one who has to take it. If you have a fishing buddy there, let them take a quick shot for you if it is not too much trouble and they are ready.
Being prepared for the catch is everything.
Knowing what you are going to do once you bring the fish in is important. Premeditate this and have your tools at the ready. Maybe the first step is as we bring a fish near the shore or near to us that we let the fish just swim near us and rest. We can then decide what to do next. Get your net only after the fish is close enough to you to catch in the net. There is much to be said about nets and the potential damage they do at another time). They are still the most acceptable way to figuratively "land" a fish. I cringe now at early pictures I have taken of fish sucking air while sitting on the bank in blades of grass. There is no need to put a fish on the land unless you have resigned yourself to keep it for consumption.
Try to keep the fish in the water until you can no longer get the fly out.
If you get the fish into a net there is little reason to take it out and handle it. There is also little reason to take the fish and net out of the water. You can remove the fly while the fish is still in the net and submerged. Often I have had a fly release itself in the net. If you don't get the fly out of the fish's mouth easily on the first attempt keep the fish in your net. Let the net just float in water and act like a little aquarium. Get out your hemostat or needle nose pliers and take the fish out of the water just far enough to get to it's mouth and throat. Hopefully you have already stopped using barbed hooks for your flies and the removal of the fly from the throat will happen very fast.
When a fish "deep throats" your fly.
Sometimes a fish just hits a fly and starts to swallow it faster than they can realize it is not a real bug. When this happens you will have to make a judgement call. If you can't get the fly out quickly enough you may just have to leave it in there and cut the line. The second choice is to sacrifice the fish. Consider sacrificing the fish only if it is appropriate. Don't waste the fish for nothing. Eat it yourself or give it to someone you know who likes trout. My mother in law will take any fish you have to sacrifice. This situation may be the dark side of fishing but if you see bleeding it is a good sign that the fish cannot be saved. When you have dedicated yourself to catch and release fishing this may be a wake up call to slow down and give this all more thought. Maybe to compensate for every fish you have to sacrifice you can decide to make a charitable donation to Trout Unlimited or your favorite wildlife fund.
This all comes down to is mindfulness and having the best practice established for how you are going to treat the fish you catch. For those of us who have chosen to practice catch and release as a way to assure that there are fish to catch tomorrow it is important to fulfill that reasoning with good fish release techniques otherwise we might as well keep every fish we catch anyhow. I look forward to insights from my readers in the comments and I will update this post with some studies when I can get them to support some of the claims here in this post.
Dennis Vander Houwen lives in Colorado with his patient and supportive wife, talented artist son, a smart older dog, a new river puppy, and a very lucky cat.