Fly Fishing New Zealand

Catch and Release or Catch and Kill – By Dick Marquand

“A good game fish is too valuable to be caught only once.” Lee Wulff

Advice on Catch and Release to give your big trout the best chance of survival

The coolness of the approaching evening signalled the end of another glorious day in paradise. I had covered many kilometres of the Caples River, a blue ribbon winding through sunburnt river flats that in turn were surrounded by indigenous beech forest. Overshadowing mountains still displayed retreating patches of ice and snow beneath protruding peaks.

I had experienced an exciting day amidst wondrous surroundings. The climax had been a 3 kg rainbow jack that rose from the bowels of a deep blue pool to sip a size 12 Royal Wulff that I had cast under the branches of an overhanging beech tree. It was a short but spectacular fight, which concluded when I released the trout, apparently none the worse for the experience.

As I approached the Mid Caples Hut, I realised that I was not the only one appreciating my surroundings. Two brightly coloured packs on the front porch were an indication that some trampers were also planning to spend a night in the hut.

Gently cradle the trout in your hands facing upstream so that it can regain its strength and equilibrium.

“No worries, there’s plenty of room for all,” I thought to myself as I opened the door and walked in.

Two young ladies in their late twenties or early thirties were sitting at the table, having just completed the walk up the valley. After an introduction, I learned that they were from Auckland and they did not like anglers, or hunters, or farmers, or anyone else who exploited animals. The fact that I had released the trout I caught in the Caples River made me even worse in their eyes. To catch a trout to eat was wrong and cruel, but to release it was a perversion. I had no right in the first place to torture the trout, why didn’t I just leave it alone. I was a pervert.

That night, the atmosphere was tense and I must admit that I didn’t go out of my way to be friendly. The smell of cooking sausages and sizzling bacon was evidence of my presence. Brown bread and bean salad is not my idea of a sustaining meal. I was thankful there were two bunkrooms.

Since that day, I have met many others who have similar views to “catch and release.” If you’re not going to eat it, why bother catching it? Without a doubt, catch and release is a very contentious issue.

Rivers entering Lake Wakatipu, Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea such as the Caples, Greenstone, Von, Lochy, Wilkin, Young, Dingle and the Hunter, are all, what I consider, to be fragile fisheries resources and under the imminent threat of increasing fishing pressure. Over recent years, fisheries managers have become more and more concerned at this increase of fishing pressures and the corresponding loss of what are known as “wilderness values.”

In these rivers, there are only so many trout to go around and so what managers have done is impose restrictions on fishing methods, season length and daily bag limits. This tends to share the resource amongst as many users as possible. Those rivers entering Lake Wakatipu, apart from the Dart and Rees Rivers and their tributaries are restricted to fly fishing only.

The seasons for rivers entering Lakes Wakatipu, Wanaka and Hawea are closed for most of the winter and spring months which allows the brown and rainbow trout to spawn unmolested. Only a few years ago, an angler was entitled to a daily bag limit of six trout from these rivers. With a few exceptions, the daily bag limit is now one fish per day per angler.

The Otago Fish & Game Council have taken this a step further in the upper Lochy River and more recently in the Routeburn River by making both these waters “catch and release.” Trout taken by anglers in these waters, must on landing be immediately released unharmed. To do otherwise is in contravention of the District Anglers Notice that covers this area.

If the angler intends to release his or her trout to “fight another day,” all will be in vain if the fish is not fought, landed and handled with due care and consideration. The purpose of this article is to discuss catch and release techniques so as to assist anglers who practise or intend to practice this type of fishing.

Glen Eggleton releases a big Hollford River rainbow.

When an angler contemplates catch and release, the latter part of the operation is made a lot easier by the use of barbless hooks. These fly hooks can be purchased by the home fly tier from better sports shops and fishing supply stores. By using a pair of needle-nose pliers or surgical forceps, the angler can make a fly barbless by squeezing down on the barb.

If the angler intends to catch and release, he or she should use as heavy a breaking strength tippet as is possible. I usually opt for a 2.6kg or a 3 kg tippet. The reason for this is that when a trout becomes stressed through struggling on the end of an angler’s line, a build-up of lactic acid occurs in its muscle tissue. Generally speaking, the longer a fish fights, the higher the concentration of this acid becomes. This level can determine whether or not a trout lives or dies after being released. A strong tippet will usually allow the angler to have some control over the trout, enabling it to be landed quickly and effectively. If a light tippet is used, more stress will be placed on the trout and as a consequence, its chances of survival are lessened considerably.

If the angler uses a landing net, it should have a soft mesh so as not to damage fins or remove scales. Where possible, avoid handling the trout,
particularly with dry hands as this removes the mucous layer which protects the fish from bacterial and fungal attack.

When it comes to unhooking the trout, this is best done with the assistance of a pair of needle-nose pliers or surgical forceps. If possible, do not
remove the trout from the water during this operation. Be very careful not to squeeze the gill covers or the belly of the trout. Such action will almost certainly damage the internal organs of the fish rendering it unsuitable for release. A trout bleeding from the gills is better being killed as its chances of survival are very slim.

One of the biggest threats to a trout’s chances of survival on being released is the camera. Recently undertaken research has shown that a trout exposed to the air for even a short period of time can have an adverse effect on its survival. Obviously, the longer the period of air exposure the lesser its chances of survival. Time taken for that perfect photograph could very well have a bearing on whether the trout will live or die.

While attending a meeting of an angling club, I watched a video of fly fishing in the upper Lochy River, within the special area set aside for catch and release fishing.

Access to this area is usually by helicopter, although a set of strong legs and a pack full of camping gear is an option for those with more time on their
hands. Those who do make it into this magnificent wilderness fishery can expect fabulous nymph and dry fly fishing for mountain trout amidst breathtaking scenery.

It was an entertaining video which clearly showed the wilderness and fisheries values that have made the upper Lochy River such an exceptional fishery. The only black spot on the video was while a trout was being held by a successful angler prior to being released. Two or three times, the trout escaped the clutches of the angler and fell to the ground. On eventually being released, the trout swam away, I couldn’t help but wonder just how long that fish survived. I believed that it was the classic case of photography killing the fish.

Before being released, the trout should be cradled in the angler’s hands, facing upstream. In a short time, perhaps only seconds, the fish will regain its equilibrium and swim to freedom. The main points to remember if you intend to release your catch are as follows:
1. Use barbless hooks and a heavy tippet.
2. Do not play the fish to exhaustion.
3. Do not handle the trout with dry hands.
4. Avoid subjecting the trout to prolonged exposure to air.
5. Do not squeeze the gill covers or internal organs.
6. Hold the fish upright in the water allowing it to “get its breath back” and regain its equilibrium.

While I practice catch and release in many rivers, particularly in waters that I consider to be fragile fisheries, in other waters that contain good numbers of trout, I have no qualms about killing one or two trout for the table. For example, trout in the estuaries of South Westland are insufficient numbers to sustain a few for the table. My wife and I always count on one or two good feeds of trout when we visit the coast.

These two plump South Westland brownies are from a healthy trout fishery and are destined for the author’s table.

In the trout fishing fraternity, there is almost a cult-like following of catch and release anglers. Amongst these are a few that scorn and try to dissuade the trout angler who wants to kill a trout to take home for a feed, even when it comes from the water where trout abound. This “holier than thou” attitude does little to unite trout anglers who should together be fighting far more important issues such as those relating to access, sale of water rights, trout farming, and so on.

In all honesty, if a fishery is such that it can no longer sustain the angling pressure it is being subjected to, the various fish and game councils should amend those conditions of their District Anglers Notices that relate to season length and daily bag limits. If the fishery is so fragile that it is on the point of collapse, either a temporary closure or catch and release should be introduced. Anglers can also help in these situations by realising that their licence to fish is not necessarily a licence to kill.

This post was last modified on 13/03/2024 4:15 pm

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