It's widely agreed that catch and release is a good thing, but the less audible argument made by fisheries biologists is that underharvesting can be just as detrimental as overharvesting.
Chris Horton, director of BASS Conservation, says that catch and release has contributed greatly to the sustainability of fisheries over the last thirty years, but he also admits that on certain waters there needs to be more harvest.
The effects of underharvesting
Gene Gilliland, Central Region supervisor for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, relates the story of Lake Konawa, a power plant lake in east-central Oklahoma.
"Lake Konawa used to be a fantastic fishery. It had lots of 8- to 10-pound fish. Then a trophy slot of 16- to 22-inches was put into place to thin out the smaller fish population and keep the bigger fish, but no one was taking anything. In a very short time it became overcrowded from lack of harvest. Now Konawa routinely has the highest catch rate in our shock surveys, and most of the fish are emaciated."
This story is becoming more and more common around the country because catch and release fever has come to a boil. It is rare to see a bass fisherman with a full stringer slung over his shoulder, but if fisheries biologists had their way, this would happen more often.
"The catch and release pendulum has swung too far," says Gilliland. "It used to be people kept every fish they caught, which was also a problem, but we now need to find a balance between the two."
Gilliland says that when people do not harvest fish, it is taking away one of biologists' most important tools in maintaining and improving fisheries, and without that level of control, the quality of fish in a lake can quickly deteriorate.
"In a lake here (in Oklahoma), three years ago spotted bass were about five percent of the fish we shocked. Two years ago, they were twenty percent. Just last year, half the fish we shocked were spotted bass. They are all so skinny you can read a newspaper through them.
"We thought we'd raise the creel limit from 6 fish to 15, but that did nothing. So starting January 1, 2009, you will be able to keep as many spotted bass as you want of any size. The only way it will turn around is if people start keeping fish."
Reasons for harvesting
A slot limit is a predetermined window of length that demands the angler release a fish if it falls within that range. Fish above or below the slot may be harvested within set creel limits. They've been largely successful, but they're use has declined in recent years. The reason for this is the low level of harvest on most lakes.
"When we created slots, it factored in a 20 to 30 percent harvest rate," Gilliland says. "The most recent creel surveys indicate about five to ten percent harvesting, which makes slot limits useless and managing fisheries a lot harder."
Nick Jamison, Georgia fisheries biologist for Region Two, which lies in the northeastern part of the state, says that all limits are created with harvest in mind.
"Generally speaking, every regulation is created with the assumption that people will be taking fish. Limits and slot sizes are created to maximize yield from a specific body of water."
A lake is maximized and the management of it is considered successful if all levels of fishermen are satisfied, says Jamison. What he means is that there will be small fish under the slot that are easily targeted by beginners and larger fish over the limit that tournament anglers need, both of which can be kept. This maintains a good balance in the lake, while allowing recruitment of more trophy bass by protecting mid-size fish. Fisheries biologists have all the tools necessary to keep fish and lakes healthy, but it is a moot point if anglers do not do their part.
"We've got software that allows us to see what different slots will do on different lakes," says Jamison. "Without harvest, anything we do will be futile. We can't control the fish population."
What can I do?
"We need to tell people that eating bass is not a sin," says Gilliland. "Catch and release is so ingrained in anglers today that we can't even get tournament guys on Konawa to keep fish, even though they know that underharvest is the problem."
The best course of action is to get in touch with your state fishery department, let them know where you'll be fishing and ask what you can do to help out the fishery regarding harvest. There's a good chance that they will be very receptive to your request. Get your bass club involved, too. This way you'll also know how many guests to invite to your fish fry.
Chris Horton says that if you do choose to harvest fish, it is better for the lake if you take ones that are under the slot.
"By keeping fish under the slot, you're improving the quality of fish in the lake," he says. "However, if you get a mountable fish, that is a personal choice whether you keep it or get a replica mount so it can be caught another day. Either way, you're not crossing any moral or legal lines."
Keeping a few fish should never have become as demonized as it is today. It is a necessary part of our sport. Teaching new anglers to keep a fish or two within the legal limit will go a long way toward preserving the quality of our fisheries. As Gene Gilliland puts it, "We need more catch and grease."