Selective Harvest

Ever heard this one, "I had so many fish, I couldn't even GIVE "em all away!" This is the kind of impact on the resource that we absolutely must put an end to. The days of long stringers of dead fish, "freezers full," and worst of all - fish killed but not used - need to come to an end to protect our fisheries.

I recall an uncomfortable situation. One friend said, "Oh, I always keep as many as I can, because I know John (another friend) loves fish, so I always like to bring him some. I've already got all I can eat." My friend John, not long after, confided in me, "Bill's always bringing me fish, and they just go bad in my freezer, but I hate to hurt his feelings."

Don't let yourself be either of these guys. Catch as many fish as you like, but bring home only what YOU will legitimately use. If somebody's offering you fish, thank them for their generosity, but kindly suggest that they let ‘em swim next time.

"Limit Your Catch – Don’t Catch Your Limit!"
It’s a "catch phrase" that’s "catching on."

A simple look at Selective Harvest is just this: harvesting only the fish you intend to use for food and releasing the rest of your catch unharmed. It implies that you understand your role in the environment not just as a predator, but also as a steward of the environment.

That's a fine, simplistic explanation, but for those willing to delve deeper into their role as steward, consider this more advanced approach:

Selective harvest isn't just a matter of taking only the fish you personally plan to use/eat. Rather, it is the knowledgeable taking of fish when removal will improve a fishery and releasing them when releasing will improve or sustain a fishery.

Many bass fisheries have too many small bass, particularly those with slot limits. If the state has properly applied a slot limit, it means that anglers should harvest every under-the-slot bass they catch. This means take them all home and give them to friends as long as the friends actually eat them all. It does not mean kill them and waste them.

A fine point occurs when a small or moderate-size bass is caught with obvious injury, such as deep and bleeding hook damage with the hook down into the heart and liver area. As the fish has a greater than 50% chance of dying after release, such fish could be retained if legal to do so.

As a general rule there are never too many lunker-size bass and all are rare in fisheries. All lunkers should be released regardless of injury, even when it is legal to keep them. A trophy wall-hanging is never an excuse to kill a bass, as a good taxidermist can duplicate the catch in a fiberglass or plastic reproduction.

How do you identify population dynamic problems that could benefit from harvesting some fish? The condition or body shape of the fish is the easy determinant. When most or all of a fish size-class are underweight and skinny, this indicates there is insufficient food of suitable size for that class. If the condition is not temporary these fish should be thinned-out by anglers. Even if a limit seems to encourage harvest, if the bass are all fatter than average, it means the fish have more than an ample supply of prey and that all of the size-class are contributing to the fishery and should be released.

Therefore, in certain bodies of water, it may be good for the resource to harvest some fish. A call to the state department of natural resources could help identify which bodies of water have an abundance - or over-abundance - of a certain species. In some bodies of water, non-native or invasive fish have been introduced, and fisheries managers actually encourage you to catch and keep these fish to protect other more desirable species. Targeting those fish and keeping some for the table will provide not only good eating, but more larger fish in the future.

In general, species that reproduce quickly are good choices for selective harvest. The panfish species can be good choices, and their light, sweet meat is delicious. In many areas, catfish are a good selective harvest option. Consider keeping a few "pan sized" cats and releasing the larger, muddy tasting fish that will lay far more eggs next spawning season. In many places, temperate bass like yellow bass or white perch have been introduced (often illegally) and should be kept. Any member of the carp family is a good choice for selective harvest (with the exception of sterile grass carp used for weed control), and all bighead or asian carp should be removed immediately, all of the time.

When practicing selective harvest of desirable sport fish, keeping mid-sized fish is the best option. Small fish generally aren't worth harvesting and are often protected by size limits. Large fish should be released because of the number of eggs that they will return to the ecosystem and the quality fishing they provide. Large fish often don't taste as good either, mid-sized fish are generally the best tasting.

You can improve the taste and freshness of your catch by following a few simple steps:

Consider your own health first

Fish can make a healthy meal, but unfortunately due to pollution, primarily biotoxins and heavy metals, many of our waters have health advisories connected to the consumption of fish within them. Check for any advisories on the body of water that you are fishing first. In some areas, good fishing is available in waters where a health advisory was placed on eating the fish in that water! Fish the water, but let ‘em swim.

Quickly land and kill those fish you will keep

Extended fighting adversely affects the flavor of the meat. The longer a fish is played, the more lactic acid builds up in the muscle tissue. This adversely affects the ability of the fish to survive if it is released, or its taste and quality if frozen or preserved.

Don't let your catch flop around on rocks or in the bottom of your boat

Stun your catch with a sharp blow to the back of the head. Physical damage can occur to the muscle tissue while landing your catch, "bruising" the meat. Fish have weaker connective tissue than other animals. Never handle a fish by the tail. Don't drop or toss your fish. Use a landing net whenever possible.

Bleed your catch immediately

Bleeding your catch protects the flavor and increases storage life. Bleeding eliminates waste products, removes oxygen that leads to spoilage, and decreases the number of bacteria in the flesh. Breaking or cutting a gill arch (the heart continues to pump after you have stunned the fish) will remove much of the blood from the flesh.

Remove the gills and all blood and viscera from the body cavity

The internal organs contain millions of bacteria and numerous enzymes. Cleaning should be done immediately after killing and bleeding. Use a spoon or the back of your thumb to remove the kidney from along the spine. Use your thumb to gently push blood from between the ribs toward the spine.

Ice your catch

Icing preserves the quality of the meat by delaying deterioration. Pack ice inside the body cavity to lower the core temperature quickly. Pack your catch in ice until you can get it into long-term storage. Freezing inhibits the growth of bacteria. By glazing your fish with ice and using vacuum packing when freezing, your catch can still be very palatable after several months in the freezer.

Avoid un-intended by-catch

Use tackle and lures that minimize the chance of injury to fish if you intend to release your catch. Avoid using bait if you are deeply hooking fish, and intend to release your catch. Don't forget to use circle hooks when fishing with bait. If you near the number of fish you intend to harvest and you want to keep fishing, switch to flies or lures. Consider switching tactics if you are catching and harming fish that are "by-catch" to the type of fish that you are fishing for.

Finally, think ahead.

If fishing is slow and you don't think you're going to have enough fish to make a meal, and you won't feel like cleaning fish when your day is done, let ‘em swim and enjoy the day on the water. If you have a long hike after you are done fishing, consider the condition your fish will be in when you return to your vehicle, or when you return home. Trout hiked out of alpine lakes, for example, are generally in an oatmeal-like state by the time they reach the bottom trailhead.

Once you've caught as many fish as you will reasonably eat before it goes bad in your freezer (probably before you "get your limit,") start letting them go.

But most of all, overcome the mentality that you must bring home fish in order to have a 'successful' day on the water.

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