Protecting recreational fisheries is not a new concept.
Lee Wulff, one of the legends of fly fishing (author, filmmaker, conservationist, and outfitter) wrote about catch and release (versus keeping and killing fish) in 1938.
It took many years for catch and release to take hold, but now most recreational fishers of all types recognize that it is better to catch and release a fish in what are increasingly threatened fisheries.
Even with catch and release, many fly fishers like to take “hero shots” of their catch – this can be particularly a problem on guided trips.
A well-cited study shows that fish caught and released in the water had a mortality rate of 12 percent.
However, once taken out of the water, mortality increases dramatically: 38 percent for a fish taken out for 30 seconds, with 72 percent mortality for fish held out for one minute. Catch and release should mean keeping the fish in the water and minimizing handling.
Perhaps the bigger issue is one of ethos.
As the numbers of fly fishers have increased, many have become focused on the numbers of fish caught in a day.
Professional guides – particularly on famous trout streams – make their money from being able to put well-paying clients on large numbers of fish.
The numbers of fish caught can become an obsession for some, rather than the experience of being in a beautiful place and appreciating the actual casting and catching of even a single fish.
Equipment and technique have also evolved to increase the catch rate – particularly in areas where dry fly fishing may result in being skunked on most trips.
Techniques have evolved from solely single flies to dry/dropper (floating surface fly trailing one – or more – nymph-like flies beneath the surface) – or using an indicator (think floating ball to indicate when a fish is tugging on the fly)
There are even techniques that do not require a typical fly cast – rather the fly rig is tossed out a bit and then the fly fisher holds a rod out and maintains the fly at a known depth over an arc as it moves downstream, before lifting and repeating.
Now, there is nothing wrong with using any of those techniques to catch a single fish. There is an almost spiritual quality about bringing a fish to a net and seeing the life force in the animal.
And particularly in the case of a fly-fishing travel to a trout stream such as the Henry’s Fork or the Madison, catching even one of their trophy trout leaves people with an awe for nature and internalizing the need for its preservation.
But, we are at the point that our focus must always be on the pressures and risks to fishes and fisheries and taking responsibility for our owns actions – even on a guided trip, a client can establish how he/she would like to fish.
Note, the discussion above is primarily about trout streams.
Saltwater fly fishing (whether warm water or cold water) is almost solely about casting bait-fish imitations either toward a single fish or group of fish – or blind casting to suspected areas where fish might be. But these environments and fisheries are under stress too.
If there are to be recreational fisheries in the coming decades we must be responsible for our actions and approaches to fly fishing.