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Fly Fishing is a Blood Sport

Many fly anglers have - or think they have - removed themselves from the blood part of the sport but make no mistake, fly fishing is a blood sport. Even under the best of conditions, whether you know it or not, there is some blood on your hands. Some of it is unavoidable, but sometimes we can do better. I post this now as it is a timely reminder that Wisconsin trout regular season opener will soon be upon us.

Hen Brown Trout
This female Brown Trout very likely survived the encounter - but there are no guarantees. She's still wet, the eyes are facing down because she was never out of the water for long - all the signs are good but there are no guarantees.

With reasonable water and air temperatures and fishes that are largely lip hooked, mortality is very low but generally not zero. The dedicated fly angler that fishes all season and releases nearly all or all the fishes they catch in a year has almost certainly killed as many trout than the guy that kept his limit opening day. Checking my math, I figure I fish around 80 days a year (I guarantee I am hitting the under this year) and a reasonable guesstimate of a season-wide average per day is dozen fish. That is nearly a thousand caught and released fish a year which at a 0.5% catch and release mortality rate, that is about 5 dead trout. That half a percent a reasonable estimate under good conditions. Double it to 1% or 2% when streams are warmer or if you are one of those folks that takes a lot more fish pictures than I do, and it becomes 10 or 20 dead fish.

Bucktails - my favorite fly tying material
Bucktail, probably my favorite all purpose fly tying material - the result of a dead deer. My Grandpa Freund used to butcher about a thousand of them a year at his processing shed.

It is not just what we harvest or what we catch and release that does not survive but our flies are not innocent either. Our most classic flies - the pheasant tail nymph requires a pheasant tail's, the gold-ribbed hares ear requires a hare's mask - its face, a Clouser minnow requires bucktail, the Adams requires dead chickens and muskrats, the classic Catstkill flies generally rely upon wood duck flank and dubbing - including from the urine stained area of a female fox - talk about a specialized product! Do you know what was required of a ram for you to tie some Tup's Indispensables?

Soft hackle feathers
These soft hackle feathers once belonged to chickens instead fo me.

I write none of this to be a "downer" but to be sure we understand that how we may try to remove the blood from the sport, we truly can not do so. Nor do I see why we should try to. While many believe catch and release to be an amazing management tool that allows us to continue to catch fish and allow them to grow, it is in some ways a rather selfish act. Hear me out...

Ben releasing a Brown Trout
My friend Ben releasing the very much average Brown Trout on a very popular Coulee Region trout stream.

I know I release fish for a number of rather selfish reasons. Probably more than anything, I want the fishing to remain good. If I kept my limit, I feel like I would have an impact on that. To be honest, I do not know that I would, particularly not if I were to harvest selectively and harvest more of the numerous 8 to 11 or 12 inch Driftless Brown Trout. I would catch and release those that are larger. I want the 14 inch trout that I caught to be able to grow into a 16 or 18 inch trout. It is not the most selfish of acts because I probably will not catch that fish again but I hope others do the same so I have a chance at a larger trout now and again. Is that selfish? Sort of.

I do not love dealing with keeping fish and preserving their quality - that too is a bit selfish, saving me time and hassle. To be honest, trout are not my favorite fish to eat and I would rather eat Bluegill, Yellow Perch, or Walleye. Of course, their over harvest is part of why panfish regulations seem likely to be revised and Walleye have been on the decline. Trout, at least over much of the Driftless are certainly not experiencing similar effects of harvest. They are most likely being more impacted in other parts of Wisconsin where the streams are less productive.

Trout caviar
Trout caviar, my experiment a few years ago. Glad I did it, not sure I will hunt it down again.

This is certainly not an anti-catch-and-release post but a reminder that we have some blood on our hands. There is nothing wrong with that either but I do think we should be conscious of it. We should do what we can to maximize the likelihood that the fish we release survive. And that we do not hook fish under poor conditions. If there are two things that raise my ire, it is photos of poorly handled fishes so people can brag on social media and seeing people fishing places where I know that the water is too warm. Both of these things are so easily avoided - if you care enough to avoid them. Failing to do so, I think, is a lot similar to wanton waste.

Summer caught Brown Trout
A catch and released Brown Trout, caught on a hopper pattern in July or August. I searched out a good, cold stream to fish.

Other things - like harvesting fishes are more personal choices. Yes, I wish people would be smarter about what fishes they choose to harvest. I would much prefer to see people keep some 8 to 12 inch brown trout - the ones that are quite plentiful many places and release the bigger ones to fight and spawn another day. But I have no control over this - maybe some day I will finish that fantasy piece on what I would do as "Trout Czar". Harvesting fish is a personal choice and so long as people are within the law, I may think them selfish but there is nothing I can do so I keep my mouth - or keyboard - shut. I, however, reserve the right to give you plenty of shit if in your next breath (or keystrokes), you complain about there being no big trout.

As a bit of a reminiscent diversion, I remember attending Wisconsin DNR / Conservation Congress "Spring Hearing" in Grant County (WI) when I was in college. I was there to hope to preserve the early trout season in the early/mid-1990's. As the discussion goes on, an old guy - at least 80 though back then, all old guys looked to be at least 80 - gets up and proclaims that he used to be able to go out and harvest of limit of trout, all over 18 inches and you just can't do that any more. I just chuckled at his lack of self-awareness.

5 Brown Trout on a Weber Kettle being smoked
Smoked trout dip is probably my favorite way to eat trout.

Don't feel to bad about keeping a couple of smaller trout. There is not much better than putting them in a brine and smoking them up. I then pick the meat off the bone and mixing it into a cream cheese and sour cream mixture. If I want to go "full gourmet", I add in some roasted garlic which is really easy to make during the time trout are on the smoker and cooling down afterwards. Adding a little apple and/or apple cider gives the dip a bit of brightness and sweetness. Goes great with crackers. I just make it up as a I go, every time it is a little different. I may try it again soon...

My next favorite way to make trout would be dredging them in cornmeal, putting a little lemon in the cavity, and putting them - head and all - into a cast iron pan. This method brings back good memories of catching my first trout with my great uncle George Close and bringing them back to the cabin and learning things like the supremacy of cheek meat.

I don't know that I have any greater point with this post. I figured that before the "frying pan" opener as a friend refers to it, a little perspective on fishing as a blood sport might be interesting (for me at least...). Have a favorite recipe or a story to share, do so below.

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Henry K
Henry K


The best study on C&R mortality is this 1997 study by Schill And Scarpella who summarized the past results of hooking mortality studies. The average mortality rate rate was between 4% - 5% sa noted below.

"For flies and lures combined, mean hooking mortality was 4.5% for barbed hooks and 4.2% for barbless hooks. Combination"

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