Fact Checker: Is Catch and Release Always Best?

Fact Checker: Is Catch and Release Always Best?

Myths, lies and old wives’ tales loom large in the outdoor pursuits. Here at MeatEater, we’re dedicated to separating facts from bullsh*t, so we created this series to examine suspect yarns. If there’s a belief, rumor or long-held assumption you’d like us to fact check, drop us a note at factchecker@themeateater.com.

Catch and release fishing is always the best choice for maintaining a healthy fishery.

This claim is rooted in decades of successful fisheries conservation. Catch and release fishing has helped recover and maintain sensitive or depleted stocks of wild game fish. 

Historically, many species of popular fish, such as striped bass and steelhead, were overharvested. Others, such as native cutthroat and brook trout suffer from competition with non-native fish and habitat loss in addition to harvest.

Catch and release practices have helped many of our favorite game fish rebound. Catch and release, both voluntary and regulated, can protect overall numbers and large, sexually mature fish, sometimes referred to as “brood stock.” But, catch and release can also backfire, resulting in overpopulated fisheries and stunted growth.

The right mix of factors need to line up in order to support not only lots of fish, but lots of big fish. Geology, water chemistry, food supply, and other variables determine carrying capacity of a given body of water. Think of carrying capacity as the maximum total poundage of fish that a pond, lake or stream is capable of supporting.

But even a fishery at maximum carrying capacity can be out of balance. If you’ve ever fished a farm pond and only caught stunted, finger-length sunfish and bass, you’ve seen what an overpopulated fishery looks like. High numbers of small, sexually immature fish can be problematic. Increased competition for resources results in a stunted population. Without some form of predation such as angler harvest, few individual fish will ever manage to reach their size potential.

In this situation, harvesting fish can actually help create a balanced and healthy population that includes large specimens.

The Virginia Department of Inland Fisheries suggests, “Anglers can maintain balanced populations by removing 5-10 pounds of bass per acre per year and 4 to 5 pounds of bluegill for each pound of bass removed.”

This might seem contrary to the good intentions of many catch and release bass anglers, but it is rooted in science.

That science doesn’t only apply to bass and bluegills, either. The Frying Pan River is a world-famous trout fishery in Colorado. The small tailwater stream once regularly kicked out wild brown and rainbow trout well over ten pounds. In recent years, those large fish are becoming increasingly rare and undersized brown trout now make up the majority of the fish in the Frying Pan River. As a result, the agency removed catch and release regulations.

CPW states, “We encourage angler harvest of brown trout under 14 inches because harvest helps keep the trout population from becoming overpopulated and stunted.”

Unfortunately, not many anglers follow those recommendations. The catch and release ethic is deeply rooted in the fly fishing community that make up the majority of anglers that fish on the “Pan.”

Anglers who subscribe to a strict catch and release policy would do well to remember the old saying “Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.” From a fisheries conservation perspective, sometimes letting fish go is a mistake and keeping a limit of fish is actually the smart move. When in doubt, listen to your agencies and assume they know best.


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