By Larry Tullis
(Published in Utah Fishing & Outdoors, January, 1992)
I recall numerous times, when speaking to old timers, that they would say something like, “I remember the good old days when there were lots of fish, We used to bring home gunny sacks full." Or, “the Fish and Game Department just isn’t doing a good job any more — fishing has gotten worse and fishing license costs have gone up.” Or, “me, Uncle Haber and Billy Joe used to catch several limits at Strawberry and bring them back to the camper where granny would can em’ right on the spot.” These and countless other statements are really declarations of a way of life that Utah‘s fishery simply can’t support any longer.
This kind of thinking was largely shaped by our pioneer heritage where man battled nature and the elements to subdue and profit from the land through blood and sweat. To feed his family a man harvested whatever wildlife was available as quickly and efficiently as possible. It was public land and wildlife was placed there by God for man to harvest and use as he saw fit.
Unfortunately this kind of thinking quickly caused a dramatic decline in Utah‘s wildlife resources. For example: Settlers entered Utah in 1847 and by 1870 (only 23 years) most of the State’s fisheries were on the decline. This was due to intensive commercial fishing (and over fishing), stream diversions and habitat destruction.
The first fish hatchery was built in 1856 to begin to replace the dwindling supply of wild fish in Utah's waters. The state has had an extensive hatchery system ever since.
Now we have hit a critical crossroads. Never before have we, as individuals, been in a situation where we can, with little trouble, destroy the natural world. With modern vehicles, boats, fishing gear and sonar we can catch fish, move fish and plant fish more easily than ever before. We can access more waters, more quickly and in greater numbers than at any time in the past. We can travel into the most primitive and wild areas with little effort. We can harvest fish until there simply aren’t any more fish to harvest.
Preserving our resources, on the other hand, is a complicated process, with much debate over who gets to use public lands and waters and how they get to use them. It would be unfair to blame our resource problems on the pioneers. Utah's fishery saved many pioneer lives during an extended drought and crop failure just a few years after the settlers entered Salt Lake Valley.
However, today few, if any, of us rely on Utah's fishery for our sustenance. Yes, we take fish home to eat and some of us smoke, freeze or bottle fish for consumption at a future date but if we didn’t have these fish, our families would not go hungry. If the truth be told, many mothers and wives out there wish their sons or husbands would quit bringing home all of those fish! Consequently, many fish make the trip from the stream to the freezer to the garbage can and are completely wasted.
Still, there are those who oppose any sort. of control over how we exploit and abuse our fishing resource It seems that nothing can be done to convince them that the future must be protected from the present. Many people seem to believe that immediate personal and economical benefits out weigh considerations for the future.
Today more anglers are enjoying the outdoors than ever before but not to put food on the table for our families. For most of us fishing has become a Sport, a diversion — or simply put, entertainment. And, as far as entertainment values go, a fishing license is one of the cheapest. The cost of a one day ski resort pass can pay for two, yearlong, fishing licenses.
The people that complain about the cost of a fishing license don’t realize how little they cost! In many parts of Europe, you might have to pay ten times the cost of a license just to fish a piece of water for one day. In Europe there is almost no public fishing water that is worth fishing and private waters cater to the wealthy.
Utah is blessed with lots of public fishing water and some of it provides world class fishing. Still, management costs are getting higher and higher. Your $18 fishing license pays for one or two limits of hatchery reared trout and that’s about it. If you add law enforcement, education, scientific studies and equipment costs then that $18 doesn‘t go very far.
The future of our fisheries will be determined by how each water is managed. And fewer and fewer of our waters will be managed as “put and take” waters. This is because large fish stocking projects are extremely expensive and are detrimental to wild fish populations, The cost of raising “ready to catch" trout keeps going up and yet more and more trout need to be raised each year to keep up with the demand. This puts a tremendous strain on the fishery dollar and on the hatchery system.
The reason we need hatcheries at all is two fold. First, too many fish are harvested to provide sport anglers with fish for their creels (as more and more fish are harvested, more and more fish have to be planted to sustain the fishery). And, second, many of our streams and reservoirs have been degraded to the point that natural reproduction is not possible. Millions of dollars are now being spent on many of Utah's waters to restore and improve riparian zones to make natural recruitment of trout possible.
A compromise between those that want to harvest fish and those that want all fish protected seems to be the best way to manage our fisheries. And the best compromise of all seems to be slot limits. Slot limits allow a couple of small fish and maybe one trophy fish to be harvested. All other fish must be immediately released unharmed into the water.
Reduced limits and/or slot limits cut down on the number of fish harvested, allow more fish to grow to trophy size and make it so fewer fish (or no fish) need to be planted in a water, Given the choice, most anglers would rather catch one trophy-sized fish than a limit of small, recently planted, fish anyway.
Slot limits and reduced limits have been extremely successful on the Green River where a decimated fishery was restored to a world class fishery simply by adjusting the regulations to suit the water, the amount of pressure the water could support and the number of fish that could be supported by the fishery. Now fewer fish are planted yet the number, size and growth rate of the fish is on par with the best trout streams in the nation. In just one or two years the Green River became a world class fishery, just by changing the management scheme to suit the fishery.
No fishery in Utah can support a large harvest without a noticeable reduction in the size and number of fish in the water. Consequently, as fishing pressure continues to increase, more and more waters will need some sort of special regulations to protect the fish and preserve the fishery. The fisheries that remain stock, catch and keep waters will be heavily planted and the fish will be mostly small hatchery fish that will be planted in the spring and harvested by fall.
There is a battle ragin between anglers that want to harvest lots of fish and anglers that practice catch and release. The state fish and game managers are caught in the middle of this fight. On the one hand, they want to provide fish for everyone and on the other hand they want to manage each water based on that waters ability to naturally produce and sustain fish. But lets face it, there are too many anglers for each to keep a limit of fish each time they go fishing. Fishing must be considered a sport and not a means of gathering food. This means that each angler should adopt a conservationist attitude and make it a practice to release most of their fish.
Catch and release fishing is just as fun (or even more fun) than harvesting fish and has little negative effect on the fish if they are handled properly. The exception is bait fishing where many times the fish swallow the hook and are mortally wounded. That is why most waters with slot limits also have an artificial lures and flies only designation.
Fish on the Green River, for example, are often caught and released several times in a week, sometimes more than once a day. The released fish become a renewable resource as they are “recycled"back into the river. The late angling writer, Lee Wolff, said it best, "A trout is too valuable as resource to be caught just once."
The winds of change are blowing here in Utah and the catch em‘ and can em’ attitude is slowly being replaced by a sport fishing conservationist ethic. Waters like the Green and Provo rivers have shown anglers that a full creel isn't always the best way to practice the sport. Just to drive the point home, if everyone that fished the Green River this past year kept just one fish, there would not be a fish left in the river now. That’s something to think about!
I would never suggest that all waters go to catch and release only designations. There should always be family fisheries where folks can go to get some fish to eat and where children can learn to fish with a reasonable chance of catching something. But, Utah’s better quality fisheries will have to be managed more for the fish and the sport fisherman than they have been or increasing pressure will destroy these waters.
Each angler can do their part by limiting their keep rather than keeping their limit. But more is needed. The fish and game people need to know that you want to see the fisheries improve and that you would support special regulations that fit the water and that would improve fishing as a sport. Alone you have a small chance to change regulations. However, if you join an organization or club your voice can be heard. Groups and clubs that want to see the fishing improve have organized and have done much good in securing a future for fishing. Yet these organizations need your help. The more names on their roles and the more active the organization, the more political clout they have.
Also, most organizations are involved in conservation projects that every member can get involved in. Watersheds need protection, legislators need to be convinced of the benefits of selective harvest, damaged streams need to be restored and water laws need to be changed.
Do your part and teach others about how we can make the future a brighter place. Our children and their children are counting on us to insure that they have bright horizons ahead too.