By Nick Simonson
The principles of catch-and-release angling and selective harvest have been part of the public fishing consciousness for several decades, with the idea that through proper landing, handling and treatment of caught fish, productive fisheries can be sustained and maintained through the actions of anglers. While a noble pursuit and one practiced by many, simply releasing a caught walleye, bass or muskie doesn’t guarantee that it will survive to be caught again, spawn next spring or make the fishing any better – or is even necessary to ensure continued success on certain waters in North Dakota. Through the various forms of angling and species fished for, the implementation of these ideals also diverges, and each code is not a one-size-fits-all option in the Roughrider State, subject to situational factors.
C&R and Selective Harvest
In order to understand both principles and their impact on angling in this region and across the United States, a history lesson is in order. The earliest catch-and-release practices occurred at the start of the twentieth century in Europe, where many anglers noticed a decrease in the population of the fish they pursued in heavily utilized waters and began releasing some of the fish they caught recreationally. The practice spread to the U.S. in the mid-1950s, where Michigan first employed it in certain flows to help populations recover and preserve areas of good angling. C&R advanced to other states throughout the late 1900s, through efforts of species-specific conservation groups like the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS) and Muskies, Inc.
Selective harvest falls somewhere between fishing for food, and catch-and-release, and either involves a personal slot limit of a certain size, such as keeping only 14-to-18-inch walleyes on a trip, or is mandated through set slot limits by a managing agency. With very few such limits in North Dakota, excluding a handful of minimum length requirements for certain species on select fisheries, the decision of keeping only fish of a specific size falls to the angler, with the idea that small fish aren’t as desirable for consumption due to their lack of meat, and larger fish and trophy-sized specimens are the result of luck, significant time, and many other factors which make them too valuable to harvest, including their ability to produce more eggs. As a result, fish over these personal limits are selectively released, while those falling within are harvested for the table, or more prevalent species such as bluegills, perch and crappies are harvested instead.
“We get questioned a lot from the public with some of our population estimates on the big fisheries, when fishing is good we get ‘we’re overharvesting fish’ … but the reality is we just are not seeing a lot of impact on our fish populations, especially the sustainable large fisheries,” said Greg Power, North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) Fisheries Division Chief adding, “some of these prairie lakes succumb, but they’re dictated by weather patterns, so long term we don’t push catch-and-release for something like that, they’re there to be taken, so have at it…our lakes are so unlike Minnesota or Wisconsin, they’re highly productive and when they’re good, they’re really good, and when they’re bad, they’re really bad and it can go south real quick.”
A Time & Place
Catch-and-release angling also has a time and a place, and its successful practice is often a matter of exposure for the fish. Due to deep hooking in the gills, stomach, eyes or other vital areas, or perhaps a rough landing where a fish is dropped in the boat or otherwise stunned or possibly killed, it should be kept if allowed and possible. Additionally, particularly in summer and through the ice, fish can suffer barotrauma, where their bodies cannot adjust to the rapid change in pressure of being reeled up quickly through the depths and then released, to ultimately die because they cannot swim due to damage to their swim bladders that results from the shift. Here Power offers a word of caution to those bent on maintaining a strict code of C&R or selective harvest.
“Some of these people push catch-and-release and then they’re fishing Deepwater Bay in 30 feet in August, and catching 100 walleye, then there’s a fair amount of angler-delayed mortality; they go home with no fish, when in reality they just took out ten,” Power explained, “we’re telling people if you’re going to fish 25 or 30 feet or deeper to keep what you catch,” he concluded.
In addition to tracking depth, monitoring water temperature and limiting other factors, such as overhandling and time out of water, which lead to delayed mortality, there are tools which can help. Rubberized nets prevent damage to scales and skin and limit hook entanglement which can slow release. Needlenose pliers and hook snippers can get hooks out faster and spur a quicker turn-back to the water for caught fish.
The catch-and-release mantra runs strong in species-specific angling circles which have typically driven the conservation ideas behind the process. As competitive angling, especially for bass, took off in the 1970s and 80s, so too did the idea of releasing caught fish to be angled for again in the following year’s event and in the future. While the mortality of fish caught, tagged, transported and weighed at a tournament is often higher than in the normal course of angling, groups like BASS set a solid example on the conservation front, and the idea took hold among casual anglers.
In some instances, the practice of catch-and-release has driven the creation of mandatory minimums which establish trophy sizes. No other group of fishermen serves as a better example of public practice influencing such rule making as that embodied by muskie anglers over the past three decades. A truly large muskie was once thought of as 40 inches or bigger, then 48 inches, and now in some states, 52 inches is the benchmark that agencies set to allow an angler to keep the fish of a lifetime; though those measurements rarely cause devoted muskie anglers to keep a fish that has taken more than two decades and a lot of the right conditions coming together in order to grow to that size. In addition to muskies, catfish east of Highway 1 in North Dakota, predominantly those on the Red River, have a “one over” rule, where only one fish in a limit can be greater than 24 inches, but that according to Power is a rare regulation in the state, which similar to the muskie minimum, comes from angler demand in places like Pembina and Drayton where the pursuit of channel cats is most popular.
“We historically have not gone toward trophy management – muskie might be a new kid on the block there, but I would say with the bass, by and large, it comes with the constituency, they’re out there for the fun of fishing, whatever harvest is going on in New Johns Lake is not a big factor,” Power stated in relation to management practices for the species, “what’s unique about muskie though is that there’s a real cost involved for those fish, to stock one on one day at about $12 a fish, and it’s harvested the next day – that’s not much of a return,” he explained, detailing that in addition to angler consensus, there is a management reason for North Dakota’s 48-inch minimum on the fish of 10,000 casts.
Catch-and-release and the process of selective harvest work well when things are done right. It isn’t uncommon to return to a piece of structure to pull the same smallmouth bass off a certain rock or bridge piling time and again throughout the season, or from season-to-season due to catch-and-release sportfishing. Tempering these principles with common sense, conditional factors, and with an eye toward monitoring fish health during the landing process is key to making sure they are effective and that unwanted waste of released fish does not occur and enjoyment of the resource continues for all anglers.
Featured Photo: Fine Selection. A 16-inch walleye is added to the live well on a fishing trip. Whether it’s selective harvest or catch-and-release, both mantras require some understanding of fishing conditions and a dash of common sense. Simonson Photo.