MeatEater Opinion: The Ethics of Fishing for Spawners

MeatEater Opinion: The Ethics of Fishing for Spawners

Springtime is spawning season for a plethora of game fish species. From bass and bluegill to trout and steelhead, anglers all over the country are gearing up for some of the best fishing of the year. Whether your goal is just to bend a rod or to fill the stringer with a full limit, the spring spawn offers anglers the best chance to do both. But certain segments of the angling community question the ethics of targeting spawning fish.

For eons, hunters and anglers have known that annual breeding seasons provide the year’s best opportunities. The predictable location and behavior of breeding fish and game make them more vulnerable and accessible. That’s a good thing if you’re looking to kill a giant buck or land the fish of a lifetime, or if your goal is to put up a lot of food in a hurry. For most of us, however, fishing has shifted from pure subsistence to an activity that’s at least partially recreational.

That shift has opened up a new landscape of debate about how and why we pursue fish. Some anglers still take advantage of the unique opportunities presented during the spawn without guilt or worry, while others choose to forego targeting vulnerable fish because doing so diminishes their enjoyment or poses conservation questions.

Most hunters don’t face this dilemma. You’ll likely never hear an archery elk hunter say hunting during the rut is unsporting because all that bugling and breeding behavior makes it’s too easy to call a lusty bull into bow range. Likewise, hunters understand wild turkey populations aren’t endangered by spring gobbler seasons that take place during the breeding period.

In recent years, however, some fishermen have started choosing not to target spawning fish. Fair chase ethics, in part, revolve around personal ideologies which can become problematic when anglers try to force their beliefs on others. This is especially true considering the case against fishing for spawners seems to only apply to certain species, but even then there are often logical inconsistencies.

These shifting situational ethics among anglers of different mindsets and methodologies have led to increasingly heated debates over the morality of targeting certain species of game fish during their annual spawn. It’s a subject even a group of MeatEater Podcast regulars couldn’t agree on.

First, let’s acknowledge a bit of nuance. Many fish species are only accessible to anglers during their spawning runs, as they emerge from the ocean or large, deep waterbodies into streams and shallows. Hardly anyone takes issue with targeting fish as they travel or stage, but to harass a fish that is actively laying eggs or milt, or defending a redd, is much more contentious.

There are two common arguments anglers use against fishing for spawners. The first is that it’s unsporting because there’s no challenge involved in catching spawning fish. Spawning fish are often very visible in shallow water so finding and catching them can be pretty easy. Many species aggressively defend their eggs or young by eating any bait, lure or fly that invades their spawning area. Despite this, the idea of what is challenging, sporting or fun varies greatly from one angler to the next.

The second argument says that targeting spawning fish acts in bad faith to the resource, even if you’re a catch-and-release angler. In some cases, this can be true, but then it’s not so much an ethical conundrum as it is a question of sustainability. From a conservation standpoint, sometimes there are good reasons to avoid fishing for spawning fish.

If fishing for spawning game fish does endanger the resource, fisheries managers often implement temporary closures on specific waterways during spawning season. Consider a small, isolated population of genetically pure Colorado River cutthroat trout that are found in only one stream, or a recovering population of lake sturgeon that have been historically over-harvested.

In cases like these, every individual fish is important to the survival of the species and deserves the chance to breed. Fishing for spawners could disrupt their breeding cycle enough to have a negative impact on the fishery. If you’ve ever seen a female trout spew eggs all over your waders while you’re unhooking it, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Some anglers, however, apply the spirit of worthy conservation initiatives a bit too broadly. As a longtime trout fly fishing guide, I’m deeply familiar with murky situational ethics that often turn ugly when spawning season arrives. Compared to many other species, trout are a fragile fish. They’re also easy to catch on their beds, and thus the species most often considered off-limits during the spawn by some anglers. Out of all our game fish species, the origins of this debate are buried deepest in the spawning beds of trout.

On Wyoming’s Grey Reef section of the North Platte River, a non-native rainbow trout fishery that is sustained through large-scale stocking efforts, I’ve seen these situational ethics play out when float guides screamed at wading anglers who had the audacity to target vulnerable fish on redds in shallow riffles. More than once, I’ve also seen those same guides use their boats to push rainbow trout off their redds into deep, downstream holes to be caught and where, apparently, the same rules didn’t apply to their clients.

From the shallow flats on Colorado’s Frying Pan River to the extensive beds on Montana’s Bighorn River and wherever else trout are found, similar battles take place over the ethics of fishing for spawners.

But does fishing for spawning trout actually endanger the resource? In the case of rare or threatened native species like native steelhead, redband rainbow or bull trout, certainly, but with stocked and non-native populations, certainly not.

Mind the Redd, a group largely consisting of catch-and-release fly fishermen, advocates avoiding walking on the spawning beds of trout (good advice) but also they also suggest “that anglers leave actively spawning fish be. This will not only reduce stress and mortality rates on individual fish, but help to ensure the health of the fishery for generations yet unborn. Put simply, it’s about taking care of them while they take care of business.”

From Pennsylvania to Arkansas to Utah, however, stocked and introduced non-native populations of brook, brown and rainbow trout are in no danger of disappearing, so the conservation argument is clearly situational.

In fact, the National Wildlife Federation states, “Because they’ve been so widely introduced, rainbow trout are not at risk of extinction. They are even considered a pest species in some places where they aren’t native.”

Still, wherever populations of trout exist without regulations that mandate spawning closures, you’ll find anglers who believe the fish deserve the respect of being left to their business. You’ll also find some holier-than-thou anglers who aren’t afraid to confront, ridicule and berate others who are fishing for spawning trout.

While trout are at the center of the ethical debate that surrounds targeting spawning fish, plenty of other game fish species deserve mention—if only to serve as an important counterpoint to the many anglers who feel all spawning fish should be left alone.

Bass fishing is even more popular than trout fishing in America, and every largemouth and smallmouth bass angler knows the biggest, heaviest females are most easily targeted on their spawning nests. From weekend warriors to professional tournament anglers, the spring spawn is a time to target bass, not to leave them alone. These anglers don’t seem concerned over risks to the resource nor do they question the lack of sport. Fishing for spawning bass is perfectly acceptable for most anglers who target those species.

According to a study conducted on largemouth bass in Florida, catching spawning bass also doesn’t appear to negatively impact on their populations.

Mike Allen, a fisheries biologist from the University of Florida involved in the study, said, “We found that in most cases, spawning area closures won’t improve bass populations. If you lose some nests, the ones that are left have higher survival rates. This research shows that protecting fish just to let them spawn won’t improve sustainability.”

Differing attitudes and practices go well beyond America’s two most popular catch-and-release game fish species.

From crappie fishermen hauling in spring “slabs” to noodlers yanking catfish out of spawning nests, the list of fish that are targeted during spawning season is endless. An entire sport fishing economy is built around spawning Great Lakes steelhead while over on the West Coast, a true wild steelhead angler who is happy to take advantage of spawning runs wouldn’t be caught dead actually pulling fish off active spawning beds. Hell, I bowfish for giant spawning northern pike in Colorado. Clearly, this notion of unsporting and unethical behavior isn’t universal. One angler’s sacrilege is another’s idea of guilt-free bounty.

There are other issues with arguments against targeting spawning fish. Not fishing during the spawn would disenfranchise many anglers by preventing them from even accessing some species. Shore anglers only have access to anadromous fish like steelhead, salmon or shad during their spawning runs. Also, too many anglers have become too serious; for them, catching a fish is only worth doing if it’s difficult. These anglers have forgotten that fishing, first and foremost, should be fun, and that for many it’s still a food gathering technique. Anyone who just wants to enjoy catching a bunch of fish or fill the freezer with fillets would agree.

Whatever the species of game fish, it’s important to remember that not all anglers have the same idea of fun or sport. It’s also important to understand that fisheries managers craft regulations to protect game fish resources for sustainability. If there are no long-term impacts on the fishery and fishing during the spawn is legal, personal angling ethics should remain personal.

For those that truly believe it’s unacceptable to fish for for spawners, especially trout, even if it’s legal to target them, there’s a simple answer. Back up that position by not fishing at all during spawning season. Leaving visible, active spawners alone only to catch the fish just downstream that are just hours or days away from spawning themselves seems to fly in the face of limiting your impact on the resource.

Feature image via Bryan Gregson.

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