Should We Enforce Better Catch-and-Release Practices?

I've said many times that if you're going to be a catch-and-release angler, you should do it the right way.

You know the drill: Don't keep the fish out of water too long. Wet your hands before you handle any fish. Don't hold them high out of the water, especially where they can fall on the rocky shoreline if they flop out of your hands. Use a rubberized mesh net if you use a net. And for goodness' sake, keep the gripping and grinning to a minimum.

When done the right way, catch-and-release can indeed be the catalyst for sustaining the resources, and sharing, according to the Lee Wulff mantra, creatures so beautiful, they should be experienced by more than one person. If you like to keep fish, that's fine with me too, so long as you do it the right way and follow the regulations. If you think that C&R is unethical, which some people do, well, that's an issue where we'll just have to agree to disagree.

My biggest beef is with people who think they're conservation minded, but really only pay lip service to doing things the right way. Let's face it. Most of us know the basic guidelines. But have you honestly followed them every time? I'm not sure I have. Probably not as well as I could have. So what do we have to do to make this more of a top-of-mind concern, and less of an afterthought?

Is it time to actually have regulations in place? I realize wildlife officers have enough to worry about already. But if we're going to declare a stretch of water "blue ribbon" or "gold medal," and put catch-and-release restrictions on that water, shouldn't we enforce some policies that ensure it's done the right way? I've seen plenty of people hold trout out of the water for minutes, then let the fish wash and tumble its way downstream as they high-five each other and check the digital camera. They should be held accountable for those actions.

Should you get "ticketed" if a wildlife officer sees you blatantly mishandle fish? Maybe catches you on video with a fish in the air for more than a minute? Should we mandate the use of certain types of nets, and write up the people who blow that rule off? Fifty bucks… five bucks… I don't think the amount really matters. What matters is putting some teeth into the notion that C&R should be done properly. Otherwise, we're wasting our time and resources. I see these mistakes happening more often, not less.

Do I really think we need the "catch-and-release police" monitoring our actions? Probably not. But we have to do something more than the clearer signage at boat ramps or more detailed instructions in regulation books that we have now.

Maybe the real answer is for anglers to be more proactive in monitoring ourselves. When you see a blatant foul, maybe you should politely make the point that there's a better way of handling fish. I don't do that now. I usually just drop my head, turn the other way, walk off, stew about it for a while, and then eventually spout off in a blog post.