Outdoor Writers Association of America
This Week's View

by Deanna Lee Birkholm

July 31st, 2000

A New Spirit?

Back in 1939, Lee Wulff authored a book, Handbook of Freshwater Fishing, published by Frederick Stokes Co. In that book is the much quoted phrase: "a good game fish is too valuable to catch only once." Lee Wulff has been credited with being the father of Catch and Release, not just in the US, but for his ongoing efforts to protect the Atlantic Salmon both here, Canada and worldwide. The Atlantic Salmon was not considered a 'game' fish at the time, but was eventually designated as such. Lee was also active in the formation of the Atlantic Salmon Foundation.

The notion that anglers should put something back for the next angler, (or for themselves the next time are on the same stream) was looked at as more than a bit strange. At the time Lee first fished New Brunswick, there was no daily or possession limit for Atlantics at all. After an impassioned speech to some New Brunswick business people, they began to realize the value of the sportfisher to their communities. The following year a daily limit of eight fish per rod was imposed. That of course is no longer the case, and the limits are very restricted.

My husband Jim and I were very involved in Trout Unlimted in Michigan, and when we moved to Livingston, Montana in 1973 we endeavored to start a TU Chapter there. We were laughed at. They had tons of fish! Why would anyone want to form a Trout Unlimited Chapter there? They already had 'unlimited trout.' Well, there actually was a limit, I believe it was 20 fish per day. It was pretty common for a guy to catch his 20 fish, take them home to his wife to can, and go back for another limit. We had been though the Michigan battles to restore the fishery, designate Flies Only water, and saw the results of stocking. (Such as totally mature brook trout who grew to the huge size of 6 inches.) We had seen all this before, and knew what would happen.

Within about two years the limit was dropped to 10 fish a day. Still an incredible number of trout to 'harvest.' Montana was still planting fish in those days, so the fish taken probably didn't deplete the put-and-take stock. The theory at the time was the winters were so severe the fish probably weren't going to over-winter anyway, so they might as well be taken. The planted fish however did complete with the native fish, and over-all size of the fish declined. At this writing Montana does not stock any streams, although I understand some lakes may still stocked.

I read a neat book this past week, The Waters of Yellowstone with Rod and Fly. Actually it is a re-publication of a book published in 1938. The author, Howard Beck, was not familiar to me at all. What a shame! He was a contemporary (and fellow fishing club member) of such names as Halford, Skues and other prominent anglers. But apparently the printing of the book was only about 1,500 copies, and not widely read.

The book is what sparked this column. It's about fishing Yellowstone National Park, and surrounding waters in 1936 and 1937 - a delight to read (Check out the Book Review on it here as well. The final chapter is comments on his conclusions and "with suggestions." Here are two paragraphs of the last chapter, quoted as printed:
"Just think a minute what a ten-fish limit means. It means that any angler today may take out of the water TWENTY POUND OF TROUT per diem. Is that good sense or in any way reasonable? I contend that it is not. I think that the limit should be reduced at once to six fish per rod per day, and that the law should be rigorously enforced.

But, in addition to sound protective legislation and the strict enforcement of that legislation, something else is needed. There is needed the creation of a new spirit among anglers, I do not say all anglers, but the majority of them; and please do not think I am being critical. I fully realize that the basic trouble is ignorance, ignorance of the difficulty in maintaining a good head of fish in the face of heavy angling. I believe that if the average American angler is led to see the underlying truth of the problem, he will play the game. It is unfair to expect him to alter his code unless you first educate him as to the underlying facts which justify your request. I look for the creation of a new spirit and code, a spirit of admiration not for the man with the overloaded creel but for him who has released all fish beyond his own reasonable requirements. It is all a question of point of view. I fully realize how humanly chest-expanding it is to empty a full creel before an admiring circle of friends. There is a great kick in it. But THERE IS A GREAT KICK IN THE OTHER POINT OF VIEW IF ONLY YOU CAN ONCE ACQUIRE IT. There is a great kick in taking a fine trout, who has fought you well (remembering it is only fun for you but life or death for him), gently removing the hook, holding him firmly behind the pectoral fins, and placing him for a few seconds, head up-stream, in the water, whilst he recovers his breath; them watching life come back, his tail begin to wag, as though in gratitude, and finally seeing him glide away happily into the element from which you took him. There he will be for you, or another, on another day, and you will not be saving just one trout; you will be sponsoring a new form of pride amongst anglers which in time, I hope, will replace the pride in the long string of dead fish. It is only the creation of this new pride which can really preserve the life of these waters as an angling wonder-land for the generations that will come after you. Remember that you are but a life tenant. Remember that to angler is greater than to kill. Remember that the more fish you kill the fewer fish will there be for your angle."

Isn't it interesting that 40 years later, about 1972 when we moved to Livingston Montana the limits were still what they had been in Yellowstone in 1937? It took a few more years for the powers of the fisheries to wake up. Yellowstone Park of course, ten years earlier, 1962 I believe, adopted Catch and Release throughout the park. There were/are occasional exceptions to that, mostly involving the Yellowstone Lake cutthroat fishery.

Catch and Release Club So here we are, 63 years after Howard Beck's journal on Yellowstone fishing, 62 years after Lee's Wulff's plea, still floundering around trying to manage fisheries. Yes, T.U. has had an impact as has B.A.S.S., and perhaps neither has been effective as a guy who ran a fly shop in West Yellowstone Montana, called The Trout Shop. Bud Lilly created a little silver button with a happy blue fish on it, with the wording, "Catch & Release Club." The motto was, "Limit Your Kill - Don't Kill Your Limit." As I recall they were a buck. Bud Lilly may have influenced more fisherman than all the high-priced advertising combined.

The reason? It made sense.

So much of what we recognize as appeals for conservation are thinly veiled requests for money - and we don't see much for results from any of the groups, and some spend part of our money supporting political parties. What a waste.

I'm afraid what we have not done, is exactly what Howard Beck suggested; "create a new spirit and a code, a spirit of admiration not for the man with the overloaded creel but for him who has released all fish beyond his own reasonable requirements."

I like the tone of what he has said. It's not the current bragging of how many fish a person has released either. It is however exactly what Bud Lilly recommended so many years ago.

"Limit your kill - don't kill your limit."

Where catch and release is the law, we must be careful not to kill those fish we release. And if as some claim the death rate on released fish is 10%, then obviously catching and releasing 50 fish in a day has caused 5 to die. Fishing with too light gear which causes a longer fight is one of the problems, and another, because we are in the heat of summer, it is especially important, fishing for trout where the water temperatures are above 65 degrees is not recommended. The warmer the water the less oxygen it carries. The less oxygen in the water the harder it is on the fish. Play a fish in the oxygen depleted water and chances are the trout won't make it. A couple of years ago in Yellowstone, JC and I made one cast each on the Madison. It wasn't this late in the year, but JC took out his stream thermometer and checked the water. It was 72 degrees. We reeled up and left. It just happened to be one of my favorite stretches of water. But we left because it wasn't right to fish it. We drove up to Yellowstone Lake and caught cutthroats.

When the stream temperatures rise above 70 degrees, fishing for trout is totally unacceptable. Find a lake with colder water. If you don't have that available, find a place where there are panfish. They are adapted to warm water, and if you haven't fished for panfish on a fly rod you've missed a terrific fishery!

We may not have succeeded in educating the fishing public as well as we should have, but you do know the difference. And yes, you can make a difference. ~ LadyFisher

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