Hook and release: friend or foe?

Paul Smith
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The weather in Newfoundland is oh so tricky and mischievous. Yesterday, spring was in the air, folks were outside in their yards raking and cleaning up, gathering dry sticks and debris blown and broken from trees by the harsh storms of winter. My wife tried to convince me to take the deck furniture out of winter storage. I know better than that.

It’s mid-March on “The Rock” and winter ain’t done with us just yet. North Atlantic meteorology can be fickle, cunning and sometimes downright mean, deceiving us into the illusion that summer is just around the corner, and then dashing our hopes with snow and northeast wind.

The wind laughs out loud at our naivety. I awoke this morning with fishing on my mind only to be greeted by four inches of snow in the driveway. And as if that wasn’t quite enough of a changeup after a week of balmy plus side temperatures, tomorrow’s forecast speaks for 15 cm of the fluffy white. It’s a good thing my deck gear is in the garage and my plow still mounted on my quad.

Those of you who read my column regularly know that I like snow. Why is he complaining about a March snowstorm? Surely we can’t officially end winter without Sheila’s Brush.

Well, you see, I put away my snowshoes a week ago and got quite comfortable with my fly rod and waders. I caught a seatrout and looked forward to many more. You might say I was in spring fishing mode.

But it’s OK. My snowshoes aren’t difficult to reach. In fact they’re leaning against the barbecue in the garage. You can’t live on a rock in the North Atlantic and not adapt to Mother Nature’s whimsical moods.

Maybe tomorrow’s forecast is wrong and I’ll be tossing flies to breaching trout while the tide ebbs and flows tantalizingly, just right for biting fish.

Yesterday I fished all afternoon with a couple of my angling buddies. The trout weren’t very hungry, but we thoroughly enjoyed a few hours in the sunshine and not-so-freezing wind. One of the boys caught a beautiful trout, fat and silver, about 3 lbs, in prime condition and perfect for culinary purposes.

It was his first trout of the season. I expected he would kill it for the skillet.

“The first trout of the season swims free,” he said. He kissed it on the wet cold snout and set it free. Call it a ritual; a love of wild trout, an offering to the gods, whatever, but one thing is for certain: a trout or salmon sizzled golden brown on cast iron will never swirl around another feathered offering, will never reproduce, and will certainly not grow bigger.

I am an advocate of hook-and-release fishing. I’m not a purest or vegetarian. I like to eat fish and I have no problem with keeping the occasional trout for the pan. The same goes for salmon. I usually tag a few to eat in camp or grill by riverside on an open fire.

But there is no need to kill everything that bites our hooks. Hook and release is practised as a conservation tool all around the world, and it works. The proof is in the pudding. There are waters both here in Newfoundland and abroad that team with fish because hook and release is practised, and only a few fish are killed for an occasional fry — Igloo Lake in Labrador, Jurassic Lake in Argentina, Minnivalllækur in Iceland.

Even in the ocean, hook and release works its magic. Roosterfish in Mexico rebounded astronomically after hook and release was introduced. Florida used hook and release to recover its snook fishery after a massive winterkill occurred during an unseasonably cold snap.

For reasons that escape me, or that I don’t agree with, we have not been very open to hook and release as a conservation tool here in

Newfoundland. There’s a well-organized group, as well as individuals, who adamantly oppose hook and release for both salmon and trout.

In my view, at least some of them are twisting around facts, ignoring studies that oppose their purpose, and hearing only what suits them.

I just finished reading a document addressed to the federal minister of fisheries, Keith Ashfield, that states Switzerland, Scotland, Germany and Norway have banned hook-and-release fishing. I fished in Norway last summer and I know there is no ban on hook and release in that country. In fact, we were encouraged to release our catch.

So, I searched the Internet to see from where this information might be originating. The only reference I found in the context of sports fishing was on the Newfoundland and Labrador Wildlife Federation’s own website. There was another site that discussed Norway having banned the release of bycatch in commercial fisheries so as to encourage the use of selective type fishing nets and gear. I could find nothing else online and commercial fishing with nets has absolutely nothing to do with angling, or releasing salmon and trout hooked on a barbless fly hook.

Are people being deceived here? Please inform me if I’m wrong. When one fact is wrong, I question the rest.  

There’s a lot more in this same “Report on Hook and Release” document that I take issue with. It criticizes the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) as being an American owned organization that wants all the best salmon pools for rich people who can pay. In other words, they want us kept out.

Nothing could be more misleading. The ASF is grassroots, has its main office in Canada, and is headed by Bill Taylor, a New Brunswick native who is dedicated to salmon fishing and saving wild stocks. The ASF was instrumental in closing down the Greenland driftnet fishery that was killing large salmon from rivers on both sides of the Atlantic, including Newfoundland’s. The ASF promotes hook and release and, despite its good work on behalf of salmon, it is attacked and discredited.

There are also references to hook and release being the wedge to set us on the road to privatization of salmon rivers. This is absolutely ridiculous. I am for hook and release, but I would be the first to protest any kind of privatization. There are many more like me. If I thought the ASF was trying to keep us locals off our own rivers, I’d be on the frontlines fighting it. I think there is fear-mongering going on here.

This year, like every other, people will call in to our open-line shows to condemn hook and release. Many will have never hooked a salmon or waded a wild river.

Then there are those who see dozens, even hundreds of salmon floating down river, casualties of hook and release. This baffles me. I fish more than casually; I spend many days on salmon rivers each and every summer. I have found two dead salmon in 20 years.  

This is a controversial topic and I will give it more attention in coming articles. There is some truth to some things that the opponents of hook and release say. For instance, in warm water above 20 C, salmon are already stressed and might die after a battle with an angler.

Some people roughhouse salmon while releasing them and might cause fish mortally. Some anglers hook and release over the daily limit of four. But these are things we should be aware of and not do.

There is a correct and ethical method to fight, land and release a salmon. Hook and release is a good thing and we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater because of misinformation.


Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every

opportunity. He can be contacted at flyfishtherock@hotmail.com.

Organizations: Atlantic Salmon Federation, Newfoundland and Labrador Wildlife Federation

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Norway, North Atlantic Argentina Iceland Mexico Florida Switzerland Scotland Germany Canada New Brunswick

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Recent comments

  • O McMahon
    March 31, 2013 - 09:47

    Catch and release will always be open for debate and so it should be. I do support the idea and I can see why it has its detractors. The negative side of it has to lie with the people who go overboard and keep releasing fish all day long. There has to be some mortality there. The positive side is in cold water, a period spent reviving the salmon, a release should work. The Anglers Guide has this section that recommends removing the hook and not touching the salmon. This is not a release practice but an end of life sentence for the fish. Ask me, I did it. Dumb idea.

  • Brian
    March 24, 2013 - 12:22

    Shirley - get over it. If it were not for those few ardent anglers who spend as much time as they do on a river, there probably wouldn't be anything left. What with fishery enforcement almost as extinct as the dodo bird, without these anglers on the river there would be open season on poaching. If people the world over bought into only fishing for retention purposes, there would be nothing left to retain. Catch and release has very good survival rates for the fish. Catch and Kill - not so much. I, for one, will be out this summer practicing catch and release (although I admit I do retain a couple for the pot), as will my son, who has been fishing with me since he was 5, and would rather release a fish than kill it any day.

  • Petertwo
    March 24, 2013 - 07:50

    But for salmon anglers it is highly doubtful that there would be any wild salmon left. They were being heavily fished out at sea after the sea feeding areas were discovered,especially after World War 2. Live release is a proven and well documented conservation method, not only for trout and salmon but for many other species as well. Yellowstone Park in the USA was the early pioneer for live release and not only did the numbers of trout show a remarkable increase but the average size of fish was considerably increased as well. I do not think the majority of anglers or outfitters would tolerate live release if the negative propaganda against it were true at all.

  • MBC
    March 23, 2013 - 13:08

    Paul, is the trout fishing season open? I was told it opens may 24

    • Paul Smith
      March 26, 2013 - 19:30

      seatrout opens feb 1 and open until early oct -- but only in designated seatrout waters

  • Harold
    March 23, 2013 - 08:05

    not everyone in Newfoundland wants to kill everything that moves but there is a culture among certain people that will capture or shoot everything that moves or if it don't move, shoot at it to see why it don't move. i believe education of our young people is the best way to change this attitude.

  • Shirley
    March 23, 2013 - 07:20

    Salmon are by all accounts a severely depleted resource. In many rivers where we practice hook and release their numbers are almost to the point of collapse. Hook and release is basically having a fish bite into a peice of metal, driving it into ist flesh and then the human at the other end of the line "plays" with the fish for a while and exhausts it before taking it out of the water to take pictures of the "throphy" and then puts it back into the water. Some portion of those that are released will die from the excitment/stress. If a person did this to any other animal he/she would be charged with animal cruelty! Ban the practice now because it is nothing more than a cruel act perpertrated by money hungry outfitters and eople eager to part with their money by inflicting pain to a helpless creature.