When I was much younger, I was always told that to maintain a healthy fishery I should release all the trout I caught, especially the larger ones. Releasing fish had a nice ring to it. What a way to help supply others, including myself, with plenty of catchable trout. "Just don't kill them and you'll have many more to fish for, I thought."
After watching all the fisherman who killed trout over the years, including myself, I thought that most fish deserved a break, and the efforts by at least a few fisherman to start throwing trout back should improve all fishing waters.
Then it all seemed to happen overnight. I believe it was during the years around 1972 or '73, anglers from all walks of life were beginning to preach to others, especially the flyfisherman, to throw their catches back to fight again. Everyone was on the band-wagon, and catch and release was born in a big way.
Nowadays you don't see many anglers kill trout. Most seem to frown at anyone taking a trout for dinner. What todays anglers don't understand is that some fisheries need harvest to help maintain a healthy fishery, and by not taking trout could actually do more harm than good. Let me relate some of my findings after fishing my favorite fishing water, the Beaverhead River, in southwest Montana, for more than thirty years.
When I first started fishing the Beaverhead on a daily basis back in the 1970's it was full of very large trout. Both browns and rainbows were in catchable numbers (population - 2500 per mile) and fish of over four pounds were obtainable on any given day. There were many days where I would see no one fishing the river and I felt like I had found Eden. Six pound browns and rainbows came to my net, and I released them all. At times the anglers I did see were keeping their fish and over time I became very protective of my so-called fish, and I wanted them to realize that they should too release their fish. After all, we had an abundance of large fish, and since I was lead to believe that releasing fish would benifit the fishery, I made it a point to try and convince others to do the same. I became so obsessed with catch and release that I began to criticize others, and thought of them not to be worthy as anglers. Little did I know that my way of thinking was evenually going to change, and with it, my understanding of trout as a viable catchable product of today's flyfisherman.
It was 1984 and our water in the Beaverheasd reached an all-time high. We had a hard winter, a very wet spring. and we had water. In fact, it was flowing over the spillway by June, and the water in the river reached 2400cfs. For a river that 1000cfs is big, 2400 was enormous. The fish were responding to the overwhelming food supply. One fish I weighed at 8 pounds was only 22" long! And a friend landed a magnificent brown that tipped the scales at 16 pounds that summer. It was truley a season to remember. The water was everywhere. Surrounding fields were covered and the fish were having a hay-day feeding on everything from mice to the billions of midges that were hatching on a daily basis.
That fall our spawning conditions were ideal and our trout population exploded. My friend, Dick Oswald, who was our new bioligist, told me we were at 4000 fish per mile by spring. A river a quarter the size of the mighty Missouri and with the same population of trout. I thought things couldn't get any better. Then 1987 rolled around and things were to change, and not for the better.
The winter of 1987/88 was bleak. We had very little moisture and water levels in Clark Canyon Reservoir was at the lowest point since the beginning of the water storage period starting in 1964, after the dam was built. Needless to say the fish we caught during the '88 season were nowhere close to what we had been catching prior. They were not in good shape and fish that should have weighed 4 pounds were coming in at 2 pounds, maybe a bit better. They didn't resemble Beaverhead fish at all. They were still good fish but not what we had come to expect from the Beaverhead. We simply had too many fish for the water flows, and we needed to do something about it.
Anglers all over were thinking that we should see a big fish kill during the winter of '88/89, but it didn't happen. Yes, the flows were down, but trout are hardy ancestors of years gone by and dieing wasn't how they survived. The Beaverhead is such a prolific river, with major springs to inhance winter conditions, that the trout have learned to migrate to these areas to stay alive. We needed harvest. But how would we convince today's anglers to kill fish?
As a long-time shop owner, flyfisherman, and an angler that has seen the Beaverhead longer than most others, I wanted the old Beaverhead back, so I made it my mission to try and talk fisherman into killing their legal limit of fish. Afterall, you can not raise 100 cows on an acre of land, nor 4000 fish in a winter flow of only 30cfs. Neither idea works for the benifit of the animal. I was soon to find out that trying to convice anglers into taking a few fish was a mission I wasn't going to accomplish easily, even with the help of Dick Oswald and the Montana F&G Department. One day I had an angler come into my store and chew me out for even mentioning the idea. He thought I was crazy and a trout killer. Another time, when I was guiding a good friend of mine, I killed a fish that he caught, and when I threw it in the cooler he said to me that if he new I was going to kill the fish he wouldn't have caught it. I had no idea it was going to be such a job to get anglers to see the other side. Afterall, just like me, they were convinced that the only sure way to have a quailty fishery is to release all trout.
Years went by and by 1996 the Beaverhead had rebounded. We were seeing a healthy fishery, full of big trout and happy anglers. The water was up and the river could support the over population of trout again. Then 2000 hit, and another drought period was evident.
This time we knew we had to do something, so a few of my guides and I got together and founded the Beaverhead Trout Harvest Club. We were out to try and lesson the burden of the over populated trout. We wanted to try and maintain a healthy balance of trout per water conditions so we did our best to try and convince our clients and others to take a few trout home. It worked, and even though we didn't get the response we were looking for our efforts were rewarded and in 2001 we would see an incredible, healthy population of trout again.
Fast forward ahead to 2008. We are now facing another over population of trout inthe Beaverhead. In fact my friend, Dick Oswald, of Montana FW&P, has told me that we are back up to 4000 fish per mile, and the Department is once again urging anglers to take their share of fish. Of course we always suggest to release the rainbows, as they seem to have a tough time with spawning conditions. But the browns are in large numbers and taking a few is recommended.
More on Catch and Release later,