COLUMN: Release big fish to be caught again

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Are you ready to catch a big fish? A more important question is what are you going to do with a really big fish when it is at the boat and ready to land? Are you going to keep the fish for a treasured wall mount, eat the fish or release the fish to swim away?

Those questions should be answered before you go fishing.

Northwest Montana has an amazing number of fish species that can grow to trophy size. Always read the fishing regulations for the lake and fish you intend to pursue. Check to see if there are any size limits or slot limits for the fish species or body of water you are fishing. For instance, on several local lakes there are restrictions on the number of 10-inch or larger yellow perch that can be kept.

FLATHEAD LAKE has a slot limit for lake trout. To preserve trophy-size lake trout, anglers can catch and keep only one lake trout over 36 inches in length per day. Keeping a copy of the fishing regulations in your boat or tackle box is a must.

Another aspect of keeping a big fish is that larger fish are older and have stored more contaminants such as mercury in their meat than younger fish. Health officials suggest eating more younger or smaller fish rather than larger fish.

A major reason for releasing larger fish and many mid-sized fish is recognizing that Northwest Montana waters are very clean and clear, but have almost sterile water. Therefore many of our lakes and streams are not overly productive for growing fish.

FISH WILL grow old and large, but it takes many years to grow a trophy-size fish. A large 5- 6-pound rainbow trout may be eight to 15 years old. A 5-pound bass can be 10 to 12 years old. A trophy lake trout in Flathead Lake can be over 25 years old. So consider having the fun of catching a large fish, but returning that fish to its home water to continue to grow older and larger.

That released fish will also be available to provide the opportunity and fun of catching it again.

When I fish many of our lakes with a mix of rainbow and kokanee salmon, I generally release all rainbows and keep all kokanee. The rainbows released will continue to grow and will be the trophy rainbow of the future. Kokanee only live three to four years, then spawn and die. So kokanee are my eating fish of choice.

Releasing a large fish can be painful at times. I recall fishing with my granddaughter several years ago. She caught a dandy 5- to 6-pound rainbow. After taking her picture with the fish, I had it mounted. She is very proud of that fish. A couple of weeks later we were fishing again and she caught another large rainbow. I took her picture with it and then suggested we release it. She said no, she wanted to keep it.

Then, while she was busy with something else, I released the fish. When she asked where her fish was, I told her I released it to continue to live, grow and be available to catch next year. Those were not good reasons for her and the tears flowed. Boy, did grandpa feel bad!

I was recently fishing in Minnesota, where trophy muskies can be kept only if they are 54 inches or longer. Can you imagine catching a 50-inch long muskie — the trophy of a lifetime — and having to release it?

If you plan to release big fish, make sure you have a large landing net available so you can keep the fish in the water as you separate the lure from the fish. Fish need to have their gills underwater to continue breathing. Long-nose pliers are very handy to help unhook fish with toothy mouths. If you want to take a photo, have your camera ready.

For photo purposes, do not hold the fish by the gills in a vertical manner. Instead support the fish with one hand under the head area and the other hand under the mid-belly of the fish. Keep the fish out of the water no longer than 15 to 30 seconds. Also, reel in the fish quickly. Do not play a large fish to exhaustion. An improperly handled fish may swim away, but will likely die later. If you are going to release a large fish, give it a good chance to survive.

So have fun fishing, but consider releasing big fish to catch again.

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