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How to Decide: Catch & Release vs. Catch & Keep

By Gary Heffley
Let us talk or at least allow me to talk about one of the biggest gorillas in the fishing room. Catch and Release or Catch and Keep? Both have merits no matter where your position lies, as there is a time and place for both. And they apply whether you are fishing for steelhead on a coastal river, for salmon off the coast of Humboldt, in the Upper Trinity or the Lower Sacramento River. The same holds true for catching trout, bass or panfish in one of our inland lakes like Lake Shasta, Whiskeytown, Eagle Lake, the Sierras or Lake Oroville.

Back a number of years ago when I had just started writing for, I was fortunate to watch a couple of young anglers catch some fine limits of trout at Baum Lake. I was able to take their pictures as they struggled to hold the stringer high as they proudly held what was destined for the dinner table. They were proud that they did this with their fathers, that they were supplying food for the family and that they had caught the fish themselves. Was there anything wrong with this picture?

A few days later at a gathering of fly fishers I overheard a couple of fly anglers bemoaning this picture that they had seen in a local newspaper. My picture had been published in a local paper it turns out and they were upset that the youngsters kept the fish and that they were not being taught catch and release. I kept quiet and just listened as the discussion continued on the subject of catch and release.

By the way, since I don’t eat fish or seafood as a matter of taste preference only, I tend to practice catch and release as a rule no matter where I am. But, I will occasionally catch and keep if family or friends request a fish or two.

The first rule of thumb is that no matter your preference, always know and obey the regulations set for the body of water fished. If the regulations mandate catch and release with tackle specifications, follow the law. It is costly and counterproductive to do otherwise. Some waters are being managed to establish stronger native wild fisheries or enhanced fisheries and removing fish from these areas illegally can offset the efforts.

Case in point is the Wild Trout Section on Hat Creek. Special regulations are set in hopes of bringing this section of water to the prominence it had in the 60’s and 70’s as a world-class trout fishing water. However, if you take a hike near Powerhouse 2 below Baum Lake and count the empty bait cartons and jars of baits prohibited for the area, you’ll realize the regulations are being violated. Baum Lake which allows the taking of trout is just upstream. Why break the law? While there are other issues being debated as to the cause of the decline and how to best reestablish this stretch of trout water, the illegal taking of fish does not help the process.

Many waters are managed as put-and-take or have a healthy natural population where taking a legal limit does not harm the population or the future of the fish population. In the case of put-and-take waters, it may do some good to take fish. If fish are not harvested, overpopulation can occur. This will offset the natural balance of competition for the prevalent food sources, usually resulting in a stunted growth population. This is why certain bodies of waters and even certain species have different catch limits. A good example is Iron Gate Reservoir near the Oregon border. There is no limit on the delicious yellow perch that can be caught there but unfortunately the average of the size of the perch caught is much smaller than it should be.

I had found the debate of the continuation of trout plants in certain waters ludicrous. A natural balance, after many years of stocking, had been met. As in most cases, the threatened frogs and trout co-existed and populations of both were found. I would be curious to see how the potential overpopulation of frogs now impacts the areas as the predator base and balance has been altered in lakes and habitat where trout stocking was ceased.

Put and take fisheries are managed as such. Upper Hat Creek and Baum Lake are managed as put and take fisheries. Trout are raised, allotted and stocked into these waters so anglers can keep a limit of fish if they wish as more will be distributed into the area to offset those removed.

Bass fishing in the many lakes and rivers in the North State or Sourthern Oregon are mostly managed as natural reproducing fisheries. The introduction of spotted bass (which have better success spawning in the fluctuating conditions found in many of the steep, deep reservoirs like Lake Shasta, Bullard’s Bar and Lake Oroville) has provided an excellent type of bass fishing for anglers to enjoy. It has taken the place of the largemouth and smallmouth that once held prominence in these lakes.

Again catch and release or catch and keep are debated. Bass tournaments target and cull catches so only the largest fish caught are brought to the scale. It is great that the anglers and organizations practice catch and release. The dedicated care the bass are given to insure very low mortality rates before release should be applauded. These anglers are practicing what truly is conservation of the fishery. By releasing the larger fish they are helping insure that the gene pool from these fish remains in the system.

For angler’s who practice catch and keep or as some prefer to call it “catch and release to the grease,” there is no reason to keep exceptionally large fish for the stringer. A limit of 2 pound bass will provide a great meal for a family. It is best to keep the gene pool alive by releasing large or egg laden fish to help produce more fish. Some anglers keep only those fish that have been hooked deep and our bleeding badly. If not kept, such fish often become a meal for osprey, eagles or other predators, so in most cases they become part of the food chain anyway.

For those of you who are trophy hunters, a picture and a couple of quick measurements will allow any good taxidermist to produce a replica mount that would be hard to distinguish from the fish itself. There is little good reason to keep big fish, with the exception being that of a potential record fish to be taken to the Department of Fish and Game (excuse me, make that the Department of Fish and Wildlife) for verification, certification and study.

Both sides of the C and R issue should use common sense as there is a time and place for both. Young anglers should be schooled on both sides, how to properly practice catch and release, as well as the proper handling, cleaning and cooking of their catch. Most importantly, young anglers should be taught to always follow the regulations set forth and to be respectful stewards of the fisheries and surrounding areas.

[Editor's Note: Another alternative is C-P-R. Catch-Photograph-Release. Please share with our readers what you know that will enhance the experience of fishing in Northern California or Southern Oregon. What have you learned? Your expertise, no matter where you fish (fresh or saltwater) or what species you target, could be invaluable to other anglers. What not to do is just as important as what to do. Please send your strategies, ideas, tips, techniques and personal experiences to Please include your name and hometown.]

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