Catch-and-Release vs. Catch-and-Eat Bass Fishing
Our hunting editor thinks you should eat bass and our engagement editor wouldn't dream of doing something like that. Who's right?
Editor’s Note: Below, F&S engagement editor and competitive fisherman Derek Horner defends catch-and-release bass fishing against F&S hunting editor and bass eater Will Brantley.
The Case for Letting Bass Go
So you’re telling me that people out there actually want to eat bass? Whether it’s a largemouth or smallmouth, I’ve always been surprised to hear fishing folks talk about eating bass. In my mind, micropterus salmoides are not food. However, after learning that I just might be in the minority in the fight for eating bass versus not eating bass, I see I need to explain myself—and let you know why I think you shouldn’t eat bass either.
As a competitive bass angler for over a decade now, I’ve spent more hours on the water learning about the little green fish than I’ve spent doing dang near anything else—and I’ve grown to appreciate them for something different than the way they taste. I’ve spent a lot of time nursing gut-hooked bass back to health just to watch them swim away and have always been a proponent of catch-and-release fishing. Maybe I was indoctrinated by other tournament anglers, or maybe my love for these fish changed my way of thinking. Either way, you’d never catch me eating a bass.
With so much invested, it simply feels counterintuitive for me to eat a fish that could help me win next weekend’s tournament along with a couple hundred bucks. On top of that, I flat-out love catching big bass. Whether it’s skipping docks with a jig or fishing a deep ledge with a dropshot, each bite is more exhilarating when there could be a 4-pounder on the other end of my line. If we’re being honest, I don’t want folks eating bass because the ones they take home to cook don’t get to grow. Plus, there are plenty of other fish in the lake, river, or pond.
Panfish like crappie, bluegill, sunfish, and perch are abundant, so why eat a less flavorful bass? Also, have you heard of walleye? They’re delicious. With truly good-eating freshwater fish around every laydown or underwater boulder, why would an angler want to eat a slimy bass?
Now, as a conservationist, I have to admit I’ve killed my fair share of bass to help improve a pond or two. Too many bass and not enough bait or room to grow means stunted growth and an unsustainable population. So I understand management is necessary. But in my mind, I can’t understand why you’d want to target and eat bass for any reason other than that.
As a final note, each angler who buys their fishing license is obviously allowed to take their fair share of the daily catch. If you choose to go that route, all the power to you. Just know that I’ll be letting mine go, so maybe a young kid can catch their first fish of a lifetime, or maybe I’ll be able to catch them again. Either way, catch-and-release fishing for bass is a practice more folks need to employ. If you’re looking for a fresh-caught meal, break out the mealworms and bobber and bag a sack of crappie, leave the bass out of it. —Derek Horner
The Case for Eating Bass
To me, bass come in two basic sizes: Small enough to fry or big enough to grill. The daily limit is six per person where I live, and I love eating fish. I usually release those over 4 pounds, but a 12-inch largemouth is tasty. In fact, about the only difference I can tell in the fillet from a little bass versus a big bluegill is that the bass fillet is larger and easier to clean.
But maybe you really don’t care for the taste of bass. That’s OK. I don’t like IPA beer, but some of my friends do. Flavor has nothing to do with the debate over eating bass. Some anglers, mostly “competitive anglers,” don’t want you, me, or anyone else enjoying a fried bass dinner because they believe their motivations for catching them are superior. Let me explain how stupid this is.
I was first exposed to the “eating bass is evil” sentiment at my first job out of college, where I was associate editor of a tournament fishing magazine. When I interviewed for the gig, I told the bosses that I simply loved bass fishing; I’d been doing it all my life, and my dad had taught me how to fry them up good and crisp in an iron skillet. They grimaced at that, as if I’d also suggested that a mature bald eagle is at his best when slow-roasted with potatoes, or that a wood duck box is a good place to gather eggs for an omelet.
“We don’t talk about eating bass here,” one of them told me. And indeed, mentions of bass eating were prohibited in our magazine. The obvious answer to why is that the professional anglers paying thousands of dollars worth of entry fees to fish the organization’s tournaments needed bass to catch, and bass don’t bite at all when they’re sizzling in Lake Crisco.
But there was a less-obvious reason, too. Bass tournaments are big money, and the organization conducted hundreds of them—sometimes with hundreds of boats—on bass lakes all across the country. Some local anglers don’t particularly care for out-of-towners in fancy boats pulling daily limits of fish from their home waters, hauling them around in live wells, and then hoisting them on stage for photos and a chance to win money. But more important to tournament organizers is that corporate sponsors don’t want to be seen supporting events that pillaged fisheries for the sake of a good show.
So, the organization proudly touted a 98-percent live-release rate in the boilerplate of its every communication. Each bass brought to the scale was assessed by an official to be sure it could swim upright. Competitors lost critical ounces off their catch weight if they weighed in a dead fish. Following a weigh-in, all the bass were put into a pontoon boat with a large live well, taken back out into the lake, and released.
Most of them swam away and lived just fine. But not all of them. Sometimes, the office where I worked would go into a quiet panic over calls from locals who’d found a pile of dead bass washed against a shoreline following a summer tournament. The thing about a bass is, it might swim away and seem OK, but delayed mortality of fish happens more often than catch-and-release advocates would like to admit, especially when fish are stressed, like after a bass tournament. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
You might read all of that as an indictment of fishing tournaments and my first job. But that’s not it at all. That gig was a lot of fun, and to this day, I’d rather watch a fishing tournament than a golf tournament. And to be fair, the best tournament formats of today have done away with live wells and weigh-ins, and bass are instead immediately weighed and released after being caught. I commend that.
But that job in the tournament fishing world also strengthened my resolve. When a competition angler gives me grief over eating a bass, I like to remind them that I’ve never left a dead one to waste on the bank. And just in case they’ve never eaten a bass, I’ll invite them to my next fish fry. —Will Brantley