Deep in the Temple of Catch-and-Release

Essay by Alan Kesselheim

Fishing – June 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

NOT LONG AGO, a friend told me a fishing story. He and his son were paddling the Big Hole River, one of Montana’s renowned trout fisheries. Along the way they decided to catch some dinner. They cast over those legendary waters until they had three trout, which they bonked on the head and stowed. Then they quit.

At the take-out they were packing up when a drift boat of fly-fishers coasted in. There was a heady level of banter going down, along with a lot of backslapping amid claims of a day’s catch of more than 50 fish.

One of the drift boat guys sauntered over to chat. Suddenly he saw the three dead trout. The sight stopped him in mid-sentence. “You killed those fish,” he spluttered. His friends looked up, shook their heads. Accusation lay heavy in the air.

“I heard you guys say you caught 50 fish today,” my friend said.

“Caught and released,” said the fly-fisher, looking significantly at the corpses.

“We stopped after we caught three for dinner,” my friend said. “If even one in 10 of the fish you caught died, you guys killed more fish today than we did and probably injured a few more.” The debate stopped: There is precious little rational ground when it comes to sin, and my friend had murdered three trout.

This tale and others like it illustrates the extent to which this business of hooking and freeing fish has gotten out of hand. Given the popularity of angling these days, the catching-interruptus concept does have merit. But it’s another example of our tendency to overdo a good thing. Who needs to catch and torture 50 fish at a whack?

Beyond that, it’s another example of the what-we- can’t-see-we-can-ignore syndrome we so easily get seduced by, and that has tripped us up before. Witness how eagerly we’ve dumped our garbage in the ocean and over-fished the commons.

Once trout have been hooked, fought, brought into a net, unhooked, remarked over, photographed and then placed back in the water, they are forgotten. Usually they flick away and disappear. Sometimes they drift, dazed, for an anxious few moments before floating off to revive. Sometimes they remain lifeless in the current. Except for the fish stories that follow, they are gone.

Fact is, catch-and-maim might be a more accurate banner than catch-and-release. Biologists see increasing numbers of scarred and disfigured fish in heavily fished streams. Mortality rates are tough to pin down, but it’s clear that some caught-and-released fish die from the trauma.

When push comes to shove, justifying any mortality on the basis of satisfying our urge to repeatedly bend a rod and play fish is a stretch.

Dick Oswald, a career fisheries man with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, admits there are times he asks himself, “What am I doing?”

“I’ll defend hunting and fishing to my last breath,” he says, “on any terms, without reservation. But if you put me on the stand to make me defend going down a river and playing with fish all day, I’d probably turn into a babbling idiot.”

ANOTHER THING. A disturbing undercurrent of selective treatment crops up here. There are the chosen and the scorned. Trout are exalted. So too are Arctic grayling, various salmonoid species, walleye and small-mouth bass. But then there are the less attractive members of the fish clan, at least to the human eye. The bottom feeders. Whitefish. Catfish. Suckers. They aren’t pretty to us, and they don’t get equal treatment on the end of filament.

It isn’t uncommon, along a Montana stream bank where the catch-and-release credo is fully worshipped, to find whitefish or suckers — “trash fish” — chucked on the bank to gasp out their death throes in the obscurity of the disdained. Even if catch-and-release practices are adhered to, when it comes to the less-favored, there’s an increased tendency to rip out hooks, toss the fish and get on with the chasing of more sanctified prey.

I’m fighting the tide. It’s heresy to blaspheme in the temple, and now that whole regional economies in the West are feeding at this altar, it’s enough to get me thrown out of town. But what about lightening up a tad? You know, ease off on the obsession with hooking things, and simply drift along from time to time — put the rod down, notice the birds, think about life and close your eyes and feel the river.

At the very least, cut the guy who just fishes for dinner and stops for the day a little slack at the take-out.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( He writes in Bozeman, Montana.