While for some, the jury may still be out regarding the overall effectiveness of catch and release programs, in my opinion the jury has completed their deliberations and rendered a verdict - that if properly designed, implemented and administered – they work.
Consider this case in point.
Twenty-two years ago, when current owner Eric Lund purchased Esnagami Wilderness Lodge, he concluded that the long - term success of his business would be largely dependent on him taking proactive steps to secure the future of his fishery.
He therefor decided to take a chance, and implemented what was certainly at the time, a unique and innovative catch and release program.
And taking a chance he was.
Catch and release was anything but popular back in those days, with many believing that programs of this type were best left to tree huggers and rest of the Birkenstock crowd. To this day, there are still a good number of anglers who consider it their absolute right to keep any fish within the allowable legal limits – and technically speaking it is – and would never consider going to a lodge with a policy that dictates otherwise.
There was some question as to how this was going to be received by his quests, and potentially not great for repeat business to require them to release what were possibly the biggest fish they had caught in their lives. This was undoubtedly compounded by the fact that Esnagami Lake is something of a fish factory, so what could be the harm in keeping a few of the really big pike and walleye?
To his credit, Eric stuck with the program, and to say that it has paid off in terms of the ongoing quality of the fishing, and the overall success of his business, is definitely an understatement.
Guests are required to release any Walleye that is 24 inches and over, and any Pike, 30 inches and over. Statistically speaking, it looks like this:
- Program Implemented – 1990
- Fishing Season – Late May to early September.
- Single Season Record – 787 trophy fish were released in 2010.
- Total number of Walleye 24” and over, and Pike 30” and over released to date – 10,000 plus - and counting!
For the first six years of the program, the seasonal average of trophy fish released was between 350 and 400.
From 2000 on, there have been a minimum of 550 released, and in each of the last six years, over 600 fish have been released each season!
What’s truly amazing is that not only have the number of trophy size fish caught and released steadily increased since 2000, the number of Walleye over 27”, and Pike over 40” has been increasing at a much faster rate than was the case in the previous eleven years. By way of illustration, in 1995 there were eighteen Pike over 40” released, and by 2010 that number had increased to forty-six, with the biggest that year being a monster measuring 48”.
It is worthwhile noting that in 1989, Eric’s first year of ownership, catch and release was voluntary. In that year 250 trophies were released, but when it became mandatory in 1990, the number jumped to 335.
So with all of the variables that can, and do come into play, how do you know if the program is actually working?
Well, for one thing, analyses of the statistics, which have been collected over the past twenty - two years, certainly support my contention - and Eric’s - that it does.
Personally, having fished the lake for over twelve years, the fishing in terms of numbers is as good as, if not better than it was twelve years ago, and I have certainly seen an overall increase in the average size of the fish I have been catching over that same period.
Statistics and personal experiences aside, if seeing is believing, then what really sealed it for me was the following story involving two of Eric’s guests - Kyle Randall and Ric Jackson.
The Pike in the picture on the left was caught and released by Kyle Randall during the last week of August 2004, in a spot known as the “Cabbage Patch.” Kyle’s fish was an impressive 42 inches in length, and weighed in at 24 pounds.
The Pike in the adjacent picture was caught and released by Ric Jackson during the last week of August 2011, in a spot known as – wait for it – the “Cabbage Patch,” about 100 yards from where Kyle’s fish was caught, and was an even more impressive 46 ¼ inches in length, and weighed a hefty 30 pounds.
Nice fish to be sure, and obviously a great spot for big Pike, but what’s really special is that they are both, without a doubt, the same fish!
The markings on the gill plates of a fish are like fingerprints, with no two being the same, and if you compare the pictures carefully, you will see that the gill plate markings are identical.
Because a Pike that size can lay upwards of 50,000 eggs per year, just think about all of the potential trophy Pike she has likely spawned over that seven-year period, and will continue to produce in the years to come.
Come to think of it, perhaps I should have entitled this story – Until We Meet Again…
A Final Word about Catch and Release
To be successful, a catch and release program cannot be one dimensional, and by that I mean there is more to it than simply pulling the hook out, and then dropping the fish back into the water. It’s very much about changing both attitudes and behaviours.
Angler education, and in some cases, offering incentives are two of any number of important components that contribute to building a successful program.
For example, Eric personally presents each guest who catches and releases a qualifying fish with a custom designed “Trophy” t-shirt, thereby formally inducting them into the Esnagami Trophy Club, and then enters their name into a draw for a free trip back to the lodge.
Guides are trained, and expected to handle fish gently, and quests are actively encouraged to do the same. In addition, each boat is equipped with a live release cradle.
What I find interesting, and even refreshing, is that most guests invariably talk about how many fish they released - not how many they caught.
Practicing safe, and effective catch and release can make a significant contribution to the preservation and enhancement of our fish stocks, and is every bit as effective as any lure in your tackle box when it comes to increasing your odds of catching more fish.
Here are a few tips that should help you to practice safe and effective catch and release.
- Decide whether you plan to keep any fish before heading out on the water, and if possible, only remove the fish you intend on keeping from the water.
- If planning on taking some pictures, make sure that everyone you are fishing with knows how to operate the camera beforehand. Place the camera where it is easily accessible, and that way you can get your picture, and the fish back into the water as quickly as possible.
Hook, Line and…
- If fishing with plugs and/or spoons rigged with treble hooks, either cut off one or two of the trebles from each hook, or consider replacing them with single hooks, as they are quicker and easier to remove. Fish such as Pike, love roll and splash around, so it’s very easy for one of the trebles to become imbedded in some sensitive part of the fish, such as the stomach or gills.
- Give some thought to pinching down the barbs on your hooks, as this will make releasing the fish much easier.
- If a hook is deeply embedded in the fish's gullet, and cannot be safely removed, cut the line close to the fish's mouth and let the fish keep the hook. Studies have shown that a fish can get rid of the hook up to 120 days later.
- It is very important to minimize the time a fish is out of the water, and the amount of contact with your hands and the inside of the boat and/or it’s contents.
- If you intend to release a fish, avoid netting or even removing it from the water. Use needle-nosed pliers to pry the hook from the fish while it is still in the water.
- When using a net, one made from a material such as neoprene will minimize the amount of protective mucous likely to be removed while the fish is flopping around in the net. Nets made of natural twine can do a real number on a fish’s protective coating.
- Wearing soft cotton gloves that you have dipped into the water are also an effective way to safely handle your fish. In the event you don’t have any gloves, wet your hands first.
- If fishing for Pike, Musky or any other large freshwater species, having a live release cradle on hand will make the task of releasing these larger fish much easier and safer.
- Return the fish to the water headfirst. In most cases, it’s best to point the fish's head straight down and allow the fish to plunge into the water.
A Match Made in Heaven
Match your tackle to the type and size of fish you are likely to be catching.
It truly amazes me that some people still think it’s “fun” to purposely use ridiculously light tackle, thereby taking an inordinate amount of time to land a fish, where if they were using properly sized equipment, could be safely landed within a matter of minutes
Fish, like people, don’t react well to stress.
The physical exertion of a long fight causes an oxygen deficit in the fish’s tissues, forcing the muscles to function anaerobically, or in other words – without oxygen.
This causes a lactic acid build up in the muscle tissue, which then diffuses into the blood. This acts as an acid in the blood, causing the pH level of the blood to drop, and even slight changes in pH can cause major disruptions in metabolic processes, and ultimately kill the fish.
Some fish, after a long fight, may appear to be fine once released, but the imbalance of their blood chemistry may kill them several days later.
When a fish is caught and released quickly, its blood chemistry will usually return to normal, and it will in all probability, live to fight another day.
So how about we all agree to save the really light tackle for perch, crappie and other diminutive species.
The catch and release program at Esnagami Wilderness Lodge just keeps rolling along.
They had another incredible year in 2013, with over 730 trophy Pike & Walleye caught and released !