Over My Waders

The Origins of Catch and Release


By Reed F. Curry


Americans began to enjoy more prosperity in the days following World War II, as cars, gasoline, and fishing tackle became readily available. With this came the impetus to wander from Eastern cities into the surrounding counties in pursuit of trout. Eisenhower's new Interstate Highway system, and the improvement of other secondary roads, gave easy access to previously inaccessible streams. Soon, the 15-25 fish creel limit that the mountain streams had once managed to sustain proved far greater than the fishery could support under the added take of the "sports" from afar. Rather than reduce the creel limit, most Eastern states increased the hatchery coverage. The fisheries management practice of "Put and Take" was now in vogue.

However, some anglers were not content to catch the "pale, liver-fed hatchery trout". In an attempt to get more hold-over fish, and perhaps return to natural propagation on some streams, the Anglers Club of New York was one of the first to propose "Limit your Catch, Don't Catch your Limit". Others followed suit, and gradually many of the New England State Fisheries departments reduced the daily bag limit to five trout per day. Conscientious anglers might leave the stream short of even this new limit, having taken only those two or three fish they would eat that day.

In the early sixties, one of the Eastern States conducted an experiment, declaring "Fish-For-Fun" sections on one heavily fished trout stream… all fish caught must be released. This attracted the attention of commercial interests; guides and fishing camp owners who saw monetary gain in recycling the same fish past numerous fishermen. The foremost of these was a former Madison Avenue commercial artist, turned Newfoundland fishing camp owner, named Lee Wulff. Knowing the ad trade, he marketed the phrase, and its variants, "A fish is too valuable to be caught only once". The sport fishing industry rallied to his banner, for they recognized two important side effects of this campaign:

1/ If a fish could be "Caught and released without harm", then persons who might not wish to kill fish could now become, without shame, genteel fisherpersons, swelling the ranks of potential customers.

2/ The avaricious and competitive nature of man could be sated by unlimited fishing. No more would a person have to stop at some state-mandated limit, but could go on to "100 fish days". [One fishing writer, Arnold Gingrich, encouraged the use of golf score-counters, to record the days catch.]

Commercial interests, principally guiding services, fly shops, and Chambers-of-Commerce, began pressuring their State governments to set aside some of the best streams as "Catch and Release"; and then, since the fish were "being released unharmed", to keep the streams open year-round. Thus we have the "management policy" of Catch and Release. This leaves us with the question: What, or rather who, has been managed?

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All content copyright Reed Curry © 2006.
Cartoon by Walter Young © 1961, used by permission.