Tag Archives: catch and release

Catch and Self Release

I used to have a friend that fly fished, fished with flies, or so he said.

I remember a fair amount of conversation about the topic, but I don’t recall a whole lot of actual fishing going on. I do recall a fair amount of time being spent hunched over a table tying flies. Since I didn’t see much fishing happening, I would imagine he had quite a collection of flies. He was at a disadvantage. He lived in a heavily populated north side Chicago neighborhood. To go anywhere to fish was a chore. If it were trout he had in mind, which was likely, it was even more of a chore to go to an adjoining state.

Every winter he would make a trip to the Rogue River in Michigan for steelhead. I was invited along, but I have a rule to never fish when air temperatures were below 32 degrees. Besides, that used to be my busy time of the year.

On his return I would always ask the same question, how did you do?

Every year it was the same response, oh, I hooked a few.

On the fourth year I pressed for more details. It winds up that yes, he always hooked a few, but in all these years he had never landed one. He always left out that bit of information, but he was always content that he had the opportunity to hook a few.

Being a river fishing guide, for smallies not trout, I pay attention to what other fishing guides are doing. One I’ve been following for years is Dustan Harley of Ripple Guide Service. I’ve always noticed that he mentions how many fish his clients tie into. Then, kind of nonchalantly, he’ll mention how many they landed.

This trait of being perfectly content tying into fish and not landing them must be something unique to trout anglers. I can’t recall other anglers thinking like this. The bass neanderthals crawl out from under rocks to lambast anyone that even mentions catching small fish let alone mentioning the few that were hooked and not landed. Apparently they aren’t even worth talking about unless you can add the word hawg or pig in front of the mention of the species and the exact length down to 1/64th of an inch.

Showing pictures of small bass is even worse.

I’ve never had that problem.

I’ve always kept track of the fish I’ve caught, I have a head for numbers and it’s easy to do. I used to measure them, but now I just guesstimate. I’ve noticed over the last few years I’ve started keeping track of the fish I miss. This trout fishing anomaly seems to be wearing off on me. I don’t mind though. Counting the self released fish gives me an idea of what could have been if I knew how to set a hook. The remaining members of the Fox Tribe here in Illinois even made me an honorary member of their tribe with the new name of Cantsetahook.

Three hours out on the river and after two of them, it was starting to look like a complete wash out. You would think if you came across a shore line made of boulders that were sitting in the sun all day, you would think you died and went to smallie heaven.

Every nook and cranny was painstakingly picked apart. Lures were tossed on top of boulders and wiggled just right to drop into even more potential fish holding spots, with nothing to show for all the effort. A break was needed, a sign was ignored and a log made a good thinking spot.

To get to the last stretch of the day I had to wander through shallow water over rock. I let the river play out it’s mysterious song. I let the river song and the mesmerizing pattern of water over rock take over my brain wave patterns to get in tune with the river.

Something changed, I felt confident this next stretch would treat me well.

And I was correct.

Only I was living up to my Fox Tribe name as fish after fish self released.

I slowed my heart rate even more and tried to time my breathing with the soft rise and fall of the river. This did the trick. My catch rate increased dramatically, culminating in the hooking of a tree fish. Not only did this fish head for a downed tree along the shore, it leapt into the air at the last second and wound up hanging from a branch, making it easy to go over and pluck it off the hook. Like taking an ornament off a Christmas tree. I chose not to humiliate the poor little fish by photographing it in it’s embarrassing position.

If I told you I landed six smallies in that last stretch, you’d probably think that was no big deal.

If I told you I hooked 16 smallies in that last stretch, you’d probably say that was a damn good hour of fishing.

Oh, and, by the way, I landed 6 of them… I’d say nonchalantly.

Creek Hopping

The past weekends rains must have been pretty localized. They had no effect on the Fox River and it continues to come down to something that can be waded, almost. But this is the time of year I like to spend wandering the creeks. I decided to do some creek hopping and headed west from my house late afternoon Tuesday.

The first creek I crossed was in good shape. A little high, but it’s clarity was perfect. The next creek I crossed looked a little high and definitely off color. That wasn’t a good sign. When I got to the creek I wanted to fish, it was a disaster, high and muddy. I headed back to the good looking creek, disappointed to be wasting time. Who knew two small watersheds would take the brunt of the weekend rains?

I hiked a half mile up stream through the woods. There were no cars in the area where I parked, so I knew I would have the creek to myself. As I approached the spot where I usually hop in, there was a kid around 12 years old bent over, fussing with a metal stringer. He was trying to put a fish on it. I noticed the smallmouth bass.

I hesitated in saying anything. I detest the law that says catch and release only on smallmouth bass for this time of year. From what I know, it’s based on sentiment and not science. The Fox River used to have a section that was catch and release on smallies year round. It was done away with years ago. A fisheries biologist told me they were finding more bigger smallies outside of the catch and release zone than in it. The catch and release zone no longer made any sense. I think the same could be said for this sentimental short catch and release time frame.

Before the kid got the smallie on the stringer, I spoke up.

“You can’t keep that.”

“Why not?”

“They’re catch and release only this time of year.” Luckily he didn’t ask why.

“Oh. I was hoping to take it home for dinner with my dad.”

I felt like an idiot for speaking up. “They’re good eating, aren’t they?”

He nodded in agreement and let the fish go.

I gave him the dates for the catch and release period. I was still glad he never asked why.

I wandered down stream to let him have a good section of the creek to himself. I was impressed he came down here all alone. He was pretty far from just about everything. It was a stunningly beautiful day and he was fishing rather than texting or playing video games. I wondered if he spent time in his head making up stories. That might be an old man’s game.

A huge tree that had been laying across the creek for a few years was gone. In over a half mile of hiking down the creek, I never did find it. I knew that it had created a scour hole in the time it had spent in the creek. I stopped in the fastest of the knee deep water and let a jig and twister swim around in front of me. I was trying to get it down into the wide scour hole. The hit came and a smallie was hooked.

When I lipped it, I turned around. The kid was watching me. I held up the fish. He gave me a thumbs up. I guess I’m cool.

I stood there swimming the jig back and forth, up and down, trying to cover as much of the hole as possible. Wound up with 6 hits and 3 smallies hooked.

When I finally walked through the hole, it was nearly waist deep. The water was also cold. I could tell by the amount of shrinkage that immediately occurred when the water went past the crotch leak.

I kept wandering down stream fishing the same type of water with the same end results all the way down the creek.

It had been almost a year since my last visit here and the creek had changed.

Besides the missing tree, the creek bottom had moved around. Areas where I normally could walk through and barely get my knees wet were now impassable and I was having problems negotiating a way around them.

A pile of small trees completely changed the flow in one small stretch. I gave up trying to get around it completely and hopped up on shore. The brush was dense and a bitch to get through, but it beat getting swept under a pile of trees.

As I walked along the shore I thought I was smelling perfume. A field of pink flowers covered the forest floor.

I used to know what these flowers are, but now I lump all spring flowers into the category of wild flowers. Those things that come up while the sun can still make it down to the ground. A couple of more weeks and the canopy will be so thick that the flowers will all die off.

Bridges of trees blocked the way.

Once upon a time I would have tried walking across, but I think those days are over. No point in tempting the water gods to screw with me.

Pool, fish, pool, fish, it became a rhythm.

Wildlife on and around the water. Bright blues skies and stunningly green shores all made for a nice walk down a creek.

Catching 10 or more smallies, I lost count, in the few hours spent here were an extra added bonus.

Ended the day in a long slow pool that leads to an old railroad bridge. It’s massive arch stands sentinel over the creek.

I never have waded past that bridge. More fish caught in this slow pool.

A young couple with rods in hand appeared. I was impressed again that a couple so young would come down here to fish. I stopped, hopped on shore and gave them the pool.

No point being greedy, I caught enough.

On the short hike back to the car, I kept thinking about that kid and his stringer and his smallmouth bass.

I should have kept my mouth shut.

Greenfish and Sustainable Fishing

This blog entry is my submission for the GreenFish and Outdoor Blogger Network Writing Prompt Giveaway

What does sustainable fishing mean to you? What fishing practices do you engage in that help fisheries? Any other thoughts you might have on this subject?

First we’ll catch and eat, then we’ll talk about catch and release.

That statement was made by my former father-in-law many years ago while we sat in a canoe fishing primarily for largemouth bass, but accepting anything that would take a lure. He had got me involved with a rod and gun club outside Richmond, Virginia. Eventually I became a member. This was a private club owning 440 acres of land surrounding three 30 acre lakes. There were only 35 members. Some of those owned another 600 acres that protected even more of these lakes.

Considering the circumstances, it was an easy statement to make and understand. There was no problem with the lakes. Healthy fish populations of bass, chain pickerel, crappie and a wide variety of panfish populated each lake.

A healthy bass from well managed healthy lake.

There were so few members that you never gave thought about fish sustainability. You caught enough fish for dinner, you put the rest back. If you wanted protein for a meal, you had no choice. The nearest store was 20 miles away, why go shopping.

That’s why you first caught to eat. It could be a bad day of fishing, so better to keep what few you catch right off the bat.

Where I lived and grew up in the Chicago area, that type of attitude toward the creatures of the water doesn’t work. In the Chicago area there are just over 9.5 million people. Considering the whole state has around 12.9 people, that’s a lot of people crammed into one corner of the state.

Through this area flows rivers. Their history has not always been stellar. I got to live a few blocks from the Chicago River, not far from the former stockyards. Picture groups of 9 year olds standing on a bridge, book of matches in hand, lighting matches and dropping them into the river. Hopes were high the river would burst into flames.

A few years later living on the outer edge of Chicago, hanging around the shore of the Des Plaines River was a favorite past time. We weren’t allowed to go in or touch it though. There were even signs around that gave that warning. It was no more than an open sewer.

In 1996, not till I was 40, did I start fishing rivers. It never dawned on me that those rivers might be right in the Chicago area, including the ones described above. I had decided to get involved with a couple of conservation groups. One for Salt Creek, which I lived near in a near western suburb, and the other for the Des Plaines River, the former flowing sewer.

Fish had been stocked in both these bodies of water and the usual catch and release mentality prevailed. But to me that wasn’t good enough. I support that effort, but for struggling bodies of water, bodies of water that had been horribly degraded for decades, catch and release on fish shouldn’t get the lions share of attention.

Instead, I kept pushing for cleaner waters. Sustainable practices on shore and inland to prevent the waters where fish live from becoming unlivable. Setbacks of property from rivers edges. Control of point and non-point sources of pollution. Community awareness programs that educate residents on these valuable resources. The list is endless on what was done to promote the health of these flowing waters.

In 1997 I spearheaded the clean up of 19 tons of garbage from along this stretch of Salt Creek. Five years later it was all back and then some.

On Salt Creek, things didn’t go well. In the late 90’s, over 40,000 smallmouth bass were stocked in the creek. It’s been years since I’ve heard of any being caught. The assumption is that they have all died off. Catch and release is a moot point when there’s not much to catch.

Other rivers in the area have fared better, but these are still urban rivers with urban problems. Development doesn’t always adhere to best practices when it comes to building. I now live near and know of many areas along the Fox River that probably should have never been developed. Flood plains that were paved for parking lots. Natural water retention areas that were moved and pushed into small subdivision ponds. These same things apply to the DuPage River, which flows through some of the Chicago areas most densely populated suburbs.

To me, setting aside swatches of land that border creeks and rivers should be a given. There should be no reason for anyone to build a parking lot or building that butts directly up to one of these waterways.

There is plenty of information available out there on how to avoid this and communities shouldn't allow it.

There is a tremendous amount of information available that shows how to control and contain water runoff. In the house I had in Elmhurst, the back yard was low and flooded. Grass absorbs water down for about 2 inches, that’s the length of grass roots. Some prairie plants have roots that dig down 10 feet into the soil. I planted those and the flooding stopped.

When it comes to sustainability of our fishing resources, I’m all for it. But first things first, the fish need healthy ecosystems in order to survive and thrive.

So the next time a hand sized brook trout is being released, or a powerful steelhead is held by the tail being revived or a pissed off smallie is flipping you off on release, stand up and look around. What is up or down stream. What is just over the rise. Where is that useless dam that exists solely to block fish migrations.

All the talk of sustaining fish populations through the practice of catch and release is pointless when there’s nothing to catch. I’ve seen it happen in the past, I would hate to see it ever happen again. Rather than admonish the one that may want to take a meal home to see what it tastes like, admonish the many that adversely effect the waters we fish and should know better.

Better still, concentrate on educating those that don’t know the effect they’re having on the water around them, but are out there hiking and wandering along the waters even though they don’t fish. These are the ones that can be the most help, the interest is there, now the knowledge is needed.

A Fox River smallmouth bass.

Some day I would like to be able to wander down to a river, catch a smallie or a trout or any kind of fish and put it on a stringer. Catch a few more and release them for next time. Go home, beer batter the filets and sit down for a fine fish dinner . . . without feeling a single twinge of guilt.

Sunset on the Fox River in the western suburbs of Chicago.