Cutthroat trout

A beautiful native cutthroat trout recovers underwater, just before it is released.

A couple of years ago I received a call from a friend. He said that he had wanted to take his young kids fishing and a friend had given him advice.

He had gone to Town Lake in BV (also known as the Buena Vista Kid’s Pond) as it had recently been stocked. He had put a hook and a bobber on their little Zebco reel, and got some salmon eggs.

The salmon eggs certainly caught fish. They wanted to keep a couple for dinner and release the rest of the fish that they caught.

All had gone well until they went to release a fish. The trout had been hooked deep in the throat, the gills were bleeding, and the trout turned belly-up when they had placed it back into the water. The dying trout had soured the experience for the family, and he wondered if this was a common occurrence.

The truth is, I told him, that it was a common occurrence if you fish with bait. Salmon eggs are food to the trout, and when they grab one, they will swallow it, often resulting in being hooked deep and suffering serious, and sometimes fatal injury.

Even if they seem okay and swim away upon release, they might later die due to various fungal infections, damaged gills or pure exhaustion.

What he should do, I told him, was to get a clear plastic bubble for the Zebco, put about 4 feet of leader behind the bubble and place a fly at the end of the leader.

By casting out and slowly cranking the fly back, they would catch plenty of fish, and it would be a rare occurrence to release a fish that was injured.

I was out on Town Lake once last year with my 6-year-old grandson. We were casting just such a set up. He was landing so many trout that all of the other little kids that were bait fishing on the pond were coming over to watch and ask us what we were doing to catch so many fish.

The reason that fish rarely get injured on a fly or artificial lure while they can get seriously injured on bait is really logical.

When it comes to food, trout are like you and I. If you took a bite of food off of your plate and found that it wasn’t food at all, but instead it is a mass of fur and feathers, you would be spitting it out.

Trout spit it out too, at least they try, but they often get hooked while they are spitting out their error in judgment.

The result is one of my favorite aspects of fly fishing.

The fish almost always is hooked on the outer edge of the mouth, an area that has few nerves, and the hook can easily be removed and the fish released unharmed.

If you are a lure fisherman, I’d suggest cutting the treble hooks down to a single hook as well to preserve the fish.

Releasing a fish back into the water and not taking it home to eat is a confusing thing for many people.

Like hunting, many people view fishing as a terminal activity for the target species. For instance, here is a recent discussion that I saw on social media.

There had been a picture in one of our local papers of an older man with a large rainbow trout that had been caught in a local lake.

It was quite a trophy, and he was proudly displaying the fish. The photo showed up on Facebook and people began commenting.

Let me say, this man had caught this trout by perfectly legal means. He was entitled to keep the fish. He had done absolutely nothing wrong.

An early comment was something like, “Wow! What a great catch, man, what a meal he had. I wish that I could have shared that dinner!”

Soon, another comment was made. It said something to the effect that it could not have been a great meal.

Parks and Wildlife had made a fall stocking of their typical 10-inch rainbows in that lake, and also must have retired some of their older brood fish from the hatchery so that people could have the opportunity to catch a real trophy trout.

Older rainbows, particularly brood fish, have a tendency to have flesh that is mushy and they have higher oil content, making them a bit fishy tasting.

I simply followed that comment saying that I would have much rather seen that trout go back into the water so that some little kid could have an opportunity to catch it and get a thrill of their life. But the guy had wanted to keep it, and really, that was okay.

Perhaps he had wanted to have the fish mounted as a trophy, to hang on the wall. That, again, is perfectly okay.

However, many people don’t realize that the taxidermist really doesn’t need the fish in order to make a mount.

Most mounts today are plastic forms that have been skillfully airbrushed by the taxidermist.

They can make an exact replica of the fish from pictures and good measurements.

They can use the fish and skin it to make the mount, but the fish instead can be released and the angler can still hang his trophy.

In my case, I probably have caught and released a couple of thousand trout since I last kept one to eat.

Part of that is due to the fact that while I love catching trout on the fly, I really don’t like eating it.

I did go to Alaska with friends a couple of years ago and brought home a lot of salmon to eat. But even then, I released most of what I caught.

As early as 1938, world famous fisherman Lee Wulff said, “A good game fish is too valuable to be caught only once. The fish that you release today is your gift to another angler tomorrow.”

We all know that the world is getting crowded. If everyone kept their limit each time they fished, we’d have far fewer fish. I like to catch big fish.

Additionally, my career depends on the people that I guide to have a great outdoor experience, and catch trout, especially wild trout.

Big wild trout are an added bonus. The fish we catch are all released.

Here is how things should work in my mind. When someone comes to me, and tells me that they want to catch trout for the table, I can give them a few suggestions.

First, go to any of 10 lakes in this valley and catch your limit of stocked rainbows. BV Town Lake is one of those lakes that we all consider to be “put and take” water. The state regularly stocks them with an average of 10” rainbow trout. Why do they stock that size? Because that is a size that they can efficiently grow in a hatchery, and it is a great size to eat.

What if someone wants to keep a trout from the river? 90% of the trout in the Arkansas are wild brown trout. Wild fish are a special resource. Even so, our fishery biologists would tell us that the brown trout in the Arkansas are so abundant that a little thinning out would be fine. But remember, those 10-12” fish are the best eating. Let’s put those big guys back for someone else to catch.

What about the rainbows in our river? In most of the river, that too is fine, but there are some special regulations that need to be understood. From the Stockyard Bridge to Badger Creek, all rainbows are to be released immediately. That is because the management plan for them is to grow big, and hopefully spawn and become self-sustaining.

In the Hayden Meadows, only one fish under 12 inches can be kept, and only flies and artificial lures can be used.

It should now make sense, keep them alive by not using bait, and trout around 10-12 inches are the best eating size, and by leaving most fish in the river, they can grow bigger.

Two lakes in the area, Wright’s Lake along Chalk Creek and Crystal Lake in Hayden Meadow have a flies and artificials only restriction, no bait can be used. Again, that way at least some of the fish get released unharmed, and can get a chance to grow bigger.

Crystal Lake is a lake with a great natural insect food supply, allowing a good chance for trout to live several years and experience good growth rates. Wright’s Lake is a public easement on private land.

The owners had a lot to say about the regulations on the lake as well. One of the owner’s requests was in particular for no bait.

There often is some confusion about the commercially produced bait called Powerbait. That is after all an artificial bait. But, as an odor is added by the manufacturer, it is considered bait, and cannot be used in flies- and artificials-only waters.

The best option for a trout to eat may be to head up to a small stream and catch a bunch of little brook trout to eat. They may be the best tasting of all.

Most of all, I’d like to see the big, native cutthroat trout of our alpine lakes to be released. Some of those fish might be as much as 20 years old, and they are unique.

Hopefully, catch and release and some of the special fishing regulations in the valley make a bit more sense.

Catch and release allows them grow larger and keeps plenty of fish in the water for you to catch.

Special regulations are in place to meet management objectives, not to exclude people from the water.

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