Catch-and-release fishing: cruel and unusual punishment?

PAXSON LAKE — I'm a fisherman. I've been chasing fish since I could first carry an old bait-casting rig. One of my first fishing memories is landing a silver salmon near the mouth of Peters Creek. I hooked him and just started backing up until that fish came flopping up the bank.

I'm not going to say I "played" that salmon; popular author John McPhee would come unglued to hear that word.

There is no "play" in catching a fish.

McPhee writes: "You are, at best, torturing and at worst killing a creature you may or may not eat. Playing at one end, dying at the other — if playing is what that is, it is sadism."

Fish to eat

We should fish to eat — not for fun, nor with the intent to catch and release. Catch and release is a confusing concept because it concerns only the intent of the fisherman. To be fishing for food and letting a 12-inch lake trout go because it is too small, or gently unhooking a 20-pound female so she can produce thousands of fry is not same as angling with no intent to keep the fish for food. Releasing a fish too small or too large is selective harvest.

Catch and release is defined by taking pleasure from the fish's frantic response to what it feels is a life-threatening situation. There is no intent to keep the fish. Fishing for fun is only fun if you're not the fish. Mandatory catch and release is not a tool that seems ethical to me. The claim that catch and release is to be done for conservation is a poor one.  Straight-up, it's about economics.


Catch and release allows maximum angler participation, thus many dollars for fishery management. Consider what happens at Lake Louise, Paxson and Summit lakes, near my home. In these lakes, anglers can keep one lake trout of any size. Anglers catch one fish and then keep on fishing, releasing any subsequent catches. King salmon fishing on the Gulkana River is done much the same way.

The line is quite finely drawn between selective fishing and fishing for fun. The only way to regulate a fishery, such as Paxson or the Gulkana, is to allow only a single fish to be landed, whether it's kept or not.

This concept will never be popular, yet it is standard in game management. Shoot something, and if you are unable to salvage it for any reason, tough; the animal still comprises your bag limit.

A fishing regulation that counted all landed fish against one's limit might not bring in lot of license dollars over the short run, but it would be beneficial to any given fishery over the long haul. The result would be larger fish in the future and more of them.

I would offer the Kenai River rainbow trout fishery as an example. In 2000, the Alaska Division of Sport Fish stated that 78,000 rainbows were caught and released on the upper Kenai.  The resident rainbow population at that time was estimated at 25,000 — meaning, essentially, that every rainbow was caught and let go three times. Studies have shown that the mortality rate for a released rainbow trout is about 5 percent.

So fishermen killed about 4,000 fish and never ate one.

Paxson Lake has not been studied with quite the same intensity, but anecdotally I see the same trend.

One result: Paxson has smaller fish and more damaged fish. In 2002, 5 percent of Kenai rainbows had only one eye and 85 percent had hook damage on their faces.  While I can't attest to the numbers of damaged fish in Paxson Lake, I do know the average size is noticeably smaller.

I like to fish, and since Paxson Lake lost its ice May 17, lake trout have been rolling on the surface. I caught a 20-inch trout on my first cast. He was hooked in the corner of his bottom jaw. I let him off  the hook and reluctantly put up my trout gear. I switched to a small bronze spinner that targeted lake whitefish and continued fishing. A 3-pound whitefish soon shook me from my trout depression.

Fish are food

I have no doubt that managing our fisheries ethically for consistent yield will pay dividends in the future.

Fishing should not be about how many fish one can catch. Fish are food; we need to maintain the resource by fishing in an ethical manner.

Though I know McPhee might think me a sadist — darn it — fishing is fun. It was a kick to "play" that lake trout, but fun has its limits.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson.  He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

Fish and Game honors catch-and-release anglers

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game offers catch-and-release honorary certificates for trophy fish of a certain length.  It instructs anglers:

"Do not remove your fish from the water. Hold it just at the water's surface while a photograph is quickly taken, then release it into the current."

Some minimum lengths, by species, to qualify for a certificate:


Rainbow trout: 32 inches

Lake trout: 36 inches

Grayling: 18 inches

Northern pike: 40 inches

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.