Catching and releasing

Posted: Friday, July 03, 2009

I've done enough catch-and-release fishing to know that it doesn't feel right to me.

Bringing home a nice salmon makes me feel invigorated. By bringing home food, I've accomplished something worthwhile. I eagerly anticipate the delicious meals. On the other hand, catching and releasing salmon leaves me feeling empty, uneasy and dissatisfied.

Try as I might, I haven't figured out how to catch and release a fish without injuring it. In my mind's eye, I see a previously perfect rainbow trout trying to make a living with one eye or a torn jaw. Worse, I see a fish that I've released sink to the bottom and die, just so I could have fun. These visions nag at me.

Conflicts within me about catch-and-release fishing are why I've turned down invitations to fish for trout in recent years. Before I knew how much damage was being done to trout by catch-and-release fishing, it was fun. Now that I know, the fun has gone out of it.

King salmon are another species impacted by catch-and-release fishing. For conservation reasons, Kenai River anglers can legally harvest only two king salmon from the Kenai each year. Yet, some anglers kill far more than two by relentlessly catching and releasing kings.

If you harvest even one king salmon when the annual limit is only two, you're setting yourself up for a moral dilemma. If you catch, say, a 10-pound king and it's bleeding profusely from the gills, do you keep it as your second fish, or return it to the water and look the other way, knowing it will probably die, but convincing yourself it won't?

When I reel in a "bleeder," no matter how small it is, it's dinner. I like to go to bed at night with a clear conscience. Some anglers, however, aren't bothered by pesky ethics or any sense that maybe they ought to be helping to conserve the run. Even though they know that studies have shown that many king salmon die from being caught and released, they'll fish all season, killing several kings in the process.

When push comes to shove, most fishermen prefer a harvest fishery over a strictly catch-and-release fishery, even if it means restricting fishing to only a few days each year. Seven years ago, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and the Kenai River Professional Guide Association convinced the Alaska Board of Fisheries that a king salmon was worth more as a "trophy" than on an Alaskan's dinner plate. The board voted to stop the harvest of early-run Kenai kings and replace it with a catch-and-release fishery. Many fishermen were outraged. The precedent-setting decision, had it stood, would've spread to other fisheries around the state. The fish board eventually reversed itself, but the highly controversial issue caused bad feelings among the sport fishing community that linger still.

This year, with several rivers around the state closed to king salmon fishing due to dismal runs, the kings have enough problems without being caught and released for "sport."

The term "meat fisherman" traditionally has been used by catch-and-release anglers to express disapproval of those who prefer to fish for food. In my book, catch-and-release is far more deserving of contempt than the noble goal of providing food for the table.

Meat fisherman Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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