In West Virginia’s catch-and-release waters, it ain’t easy being a fish.
Not only do you run the risk of being caught several times a year, there’s a very real chance you’ll die because some careless angler suffocated you, squashed you or rendered you unable to ward off disease.
Nowhere is the problem worse than on the upper Elk River, arguably the state’s best, most popular and most heavily fished trout stream.
“On Memorial Day weekends, I wouldn’t be surprised if we lose 100 fish or more [in the 2-mile catch-and-release section],” said Joe Lewis, a fishing guide at Elk Springs Resort. “That’s when the sulfur [mayfly] hatch is on, and it’s not unusual to have 60 or 70 people fishing at once.”
Most of those anglers are fly fishermen who, if the stereotype is to be believed, are supposed to be somewhat enlightened in the practice of catching fish and releasing them to fight another day.
Lewis said he sees far too many unenlightened ones.
“I think we have a new generation of fly fishermen coming up through the ranks who just don’t know how to properly release a fish,” he explained. “I see a lot of kids, in their 30s and under, who are just picking up [fly fishing], and they seem to think nothing of lifting a trout by the lip or putting a finger through its gills.”
Lewis said he and the other Elk Springs guides, who spend literally thousands of hours a year watching people fish, witness what could best be described as a tragedy of errors.
“I’ve seen a guy net a fish, reach into the net and grab the fish, hold it against his body, drop it on the ground, watch it flop and bang around on the rocks, put it back into the water, nudge it with his foot and watch it float away, belly-up.”
Many anglers, Lewis said, “squeeze trout so hard their eyeballs almost bug out.”
Many more, eager to document their catches for posterity, kill fish by posing for photo after photo after photo.
“I’m convinced that digital cameras kill more trout than anything else,” Lewis said. “Here’s how a typical streamside photo session goes:
“Lift the fish out of the net. Take a shot. Look at the shot. Oh, gee, it’s not very good; do it again. Oh, gosh, the fish moved; take another one. Whoops, the framing is wrong; try again. Before long, the guy ends up taking six or seven shots, and the fish spends several minutes out of the water. If that fish isn’t properly revived, it’s going to die.”
Lewis said he’s seen fishermen lay trout on dry streamside rocks and spend several minutes artfully arranging leaves and other props around them “to make a prettier picture.”
“I’ve also seen people get fish up onto the bank and put a foot on them while they fumble around for their cameras,” he added. “I honestly don’t think these people realize the damage they’re doing to the fish.”
Though he’s seen many offenders, Lewis said a fisherman who fished the Elk last year took the cake for careless trout handling.
“You could find him by the carcasses,” Lewis recalled. “Every 15 minutes, a 12- to 15-inch rainbow would come floating down. Finally, [another Elk Springs guide] went over and told him that if he killed one more fish, we would make him take a bucket up to the hatchery and replace the fish he’d killed.”
Lewis believes anglers would kill many fewer fish if they just took the following easy steps:
“First, I’d recommend that everyone carry a net,” he said. “The net should be large enough to handle a good-sized fish, and it should have a rubber net bag so it doesn’t damage the protective slime on the fish’s skin.
“A net allows you to land fish quicker and put less stress on them. The shorter the fight, the less lactic acid builds up in the fishes’ muscles.”
It’s one thing to own the right net and another to use it correctly. Lewis said too many anglers use their nets wrong.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people try to net their fish tail-first,” he added. “As soon as the net touches the fish’s tail, the fish takes off again. It’s much better to lead the fish into the net head-first. If you use a net with meshes made of clear plastic, the fish will never know it is being netted until you’ve lifted it from the water.”
Once the fish is in the net, Lewis lowers the net bag back into the water so the fish can continue to breathe.
“The net acts as a corral that keeps the fish under control while I unhook it,” he said. “I use forceps to remove the hook so I don’t have to put my hands on the fish. If I do need to handle it, I wet my hands first so I don’t damage the fish’s protective slime.”
When Lewis wants to take a photo, he usually leaves the fish in the net. If he’s fishing with a buddy, he hands the camera to the buddy, waits with the fish in the net until he knows the camera is set properly and the shot is framed, cradles the fish gently in his hands and lifts it a few inches out of the water for the photo.
“Holding the fish only a few inches above the net is a safety precaution,” Lewis explained. “If the fish squirms out of my hands, it drops a short distance back into the water and it’s still inside the net.”
When the photo is made, Lewis lowers the fish back into the net and holds it there until he’s sure it is has recovered its equilibrium, is breathing well and can swim strongly. When he’s satisfied the fish is OK, he lowers the net’s rim into the water and lets the fish swim away.
As spring turns to summer, proper fish handling becomes more important than ever. Water temperatures rise, and when they do the water holds less oxygen.
“When water oxygen levels are low, it’s vital to get the fish landed and released as quickly as possible,” Lewis said. “Lactic acid builds up in the fish’s muscles more quickly. If you don’t land them fast, it can build to fatal levels.”
Lewis said that under such conditions, he tries to land even large fish within three to five minutes. If he sees he can’t land them, he breaks them off.
“I look at it this way: I was going to release them anyway,” he said. “It isn’t worth wasting a fish just to be able to say I got it all the way into my net. I’d rather have that fish in the stream, where I or someone else can continue to fish for it.”
Reach John McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1231.