Isn’t it time for us all to be more realistic and less emotional about catch and release?

Malcolm Dutchman – Smith

I always enjoy reading Andrew Douglas – Hume’s weekly editorials on “Tweedbeats” ( as they are interesting, informative, objective, and contain a lot of common sense.

Last week he dealt with the issue of the consequences to the angler who, perfectly legitimately, in accordance with the law in general and the rules of the beat in particular, killed a large fresh cock fish and proudly displayed a picture on social media. The thrust of his advice to anybody doing so was take the picture down and do not publicise at all what you have done as otherwise you are likely to be subject to virulent criticism from those for whom “catch and release” is an article of faith and who would be utterly indifferent to the fact that actually you had done nothing wrong legally and arguably nothing wrong morally as well.

I agree with his assessment but it has caused me to ponder whether in fact it is all getting out of hand and, like a number of other contentious issues, in wholly different fields, we are allowing those who strongly support something to try to further their objectives in a manner that shows a complete lack of regard for the fact that there is an alternative viewpoint that others genuinely and honestly hold on the matter. As they firmly believe that they are in the  right then they feel it justifiable, on occasions, not only to criticise those who do not adhere strictly to their principles but to insult and abuse them in an inappropriate discourteous and unnecessary manner. Some of the correspondence columns of the angling press testify to this quite clearly as do some of the comments on social media in relation to photographs proud anglers have displayed. It has even got to the stage where on occasions anglers on the riverbank are subjected to angry face-to-face abuse for perfectly legitimately killing a fish they have caught. In fairness some of them are reactions to the belief (sometimes bluntly and misguidedly expressed by a few ignorant anglers) that those of us who to an extent oppose them want to return to the bad old days when everything caught was killed regardless of condition. Alternatively they are justifiably annoyed when they see an example of a fish having been killed in circumstances in which it was clearly not appropriate or which suggest that the rules have been stretched to their maximum limit.

I am very conscious of the fact that simply making these statements leaves me open to being treated in a similar manner as these “over-the-top” inappropriate reactions evidence clearly how many who want 100% catch and release to apply feel that they possess the moral high ground. I want to suggest, calmly and respectfully, that in that regard they apply a great deal of self-deception and that angling for salmon is much more morally justifiable if in fact the catch is humanely dispatched and consumed enjoyably as food. Catch and release salmon fishing involves deceiving a fish that is not interested in eating but intent on procreation to take a fly or lure in its mouth which contains a metal hook attached to which it is exhausted, brought to the bank but then returned to the water where it may survive but which undoubtedly will have suffered trauma, possible physical injury, and in some cases followed by a slow lingering death. This is done purely and simply for the amusement of the angler. Taken at face value (and of course that is often a very dangerous and simplistic thing to do) this provides a much more cogent argument for the anti-blood sports lobby than it ever does for the proponents of catch and release.

In the alternative they argue that it is in the interests of conservation that salmon caught should be returned and let me immediately concede that, to an extent, that argument is cogent, persuasive and carries considerable force. Nevertheless I still maintain that it is not a valid argument for 100% return of all salmon caught on all rivers throughout the season. Overall salmon stocks are in serious decline particularly, at the present time, the spring runs on most rivers and there is real concern that if those that are caught are killed then the numbers of spring fish spawning will be insufficient to maintain and hopefully increase the stock of juvenile spring running fish. This is recognised not merely by science but also by statutory law now in force both in Scotland (where no salmon can be killed before 1 April) and in England and Wales (where this prohibition applies up until the middle of June) which is also a date that is frequently applied by individual rivers or fisheries as part of the rules applicable to them that have to be observed if you want to fish them. The later date seems to be far more sensible than the earlier one.

Statutory law in both countries prohibits the taking of gravid fish (that is to say fish that are spawning or imminently likely to) and individual fishery rules, fishing etiquette and common sense require that coloured fish should be returned to the river as a matter of course as unsuitable for eating and only a modest number of fresh run silver fish retained. The days when it was acceptable to the angling community to retain large numbers of fish many of which were coloured are thankfully now in the past and there can be few anglers who resort to such behaviour in the present day. Although it is a worrying fact that younger generations are not producing the number of anglers needed to replace the demise of the elderly it seems to me to be a fact that the majority of the new generation have been brought up on catch and release and accept it. It does not seem to interfere with their enjoyment for every salmon they catch to be returned and they are quite entitled to do just that. It may be that as the years go by anglers of the old school for whom fishing is based on historical hunting and for whom keeping the odd fish for the table is an important and integral part of the enjoyment will cease to exist but conservation will not be furthered or achieved by imposing a blanket ban on them doing so at the present time.

It is absolutely necessary for scientific, political and public relations reasons that anglers should make a significant contribution to salmon conservation, but it is equally important that this contribution should be real and effective, not merely illusory, and must be directed towards the specific needs of individual rivers and fisheries, not on the basis of an overall blanket policy. The commonly held view at the present time is that every salmon that is returned to the river will spawn, increase the juvenile progeny for future generations and that returning hen fish, particularly large ones, is essential due to the fact that larger fish produce more eggs. On some rivers with very low salmon stocks this has validity, but it ignores the fact that on quite a number of rivers the reality is that the existing spawning run creates more than enough juvenile stock, not merely to replenish, but also to enhance the potential number of returning salmon provided, of course, and this is in reality the major problem, the smolts that are created and go out to sea return in sufficient numbers as grilse or salmon.

A river system can only produce a finite number of juvenile salmon and raise them to smolting level and again on quite a number of rivers this is happening already. For example electro-fishing on the River Thurso in Caithness over a number of years has established that there is produced a very healthy stock of juveniles, more than sufficient to re-stock the river and that in certain areas they are at the maximum level that can be sustained (see Electro Fishing Reports –  It will serve no useful purpose whatsoever to increase the level of hatching juveniles beyond the maximum that the river can sustain as overall the level of smolts will not increase beyond that number. On these rivers, apart from preventing predation of the spring run (which is already being achieved as indicated above), failing to return the modest number of summer and autumn run fish that are presently killed by anglers even assuming they were larger  hen fish makes no significant difference whatsoever to the level of juvenile stock produced. Whilst dealing with the case of larger fish, on most rivers that allow a modest number of summer/autumn run fish to be retained, the policy is to restrict this to small grilse, sometimes but not always cock fish only. For the reasons I have already given I would suggest that there is no logic to this other than the imposition of limiting retention to a very modest number of fresh fish. It is worth mentioning the interesting and persuasive views expressed by Dr Ronald Campbell of the Tweed Foundation (please watch the video below), concerning possible changes in the cycle of autumn dominated runs and the proportion of grilse and salmon which contain tentative predictions, which if they turn out to be correct then ironically the fish that will be likely to be in most short supply will be grilse and not salmon. However it is uncertain whether the cycle of a return to a preponderance of salmon over grilse will create a return to the halcyon days of a large spring run as opposed to more salmon than grilse running in the summer or autumn.

Allowing larger fish to feature in the modest retention allowance provides the opportunity to retain the one-off “fish of a lifetime” (how can we presently establish with any certainty whether the long-standing salmon record is broken?), albeit that this is perhaps a problem somewhat unlikely to arise, allowing the retention of the odd larger fish would mean that anglers can again enjoy smoked wild salmon as it hardly seems worthwhile trying to smoke a grilse of less than 5 or 6 pounds which is the limit on many rivers.

Of course not all rivers are in this happy position and are at varying levels below the optimum. These rivers do need a more severe regime which might in appropriate cases include 100% catch and release, indeed in certain other jurisdictions, this includes closing rivers altogether to angling which I doubt very much would find favour in the United Kingdom  mainland, even amongst hardened proponents of total catch and release. What protection is needed should be established on a case-by-case basis, and indeed in Scotland an effort is made to do so under the categorisation system of The Conservation of Salmon (Scotland) Regulations 2016. It is arguable whether the criteria being used is adequate and fair, but this could be addressed and logically there is no reason why a similar system could not be implemented in England and Wales, some efforts being made already to impose catch and release in individual areas.

Rivers which have for many years now imposed 100% catch and release do not appear to have benefited to any significant degree better by so doing than others who do not and this emphasises the need, in the main, to concentrate our efforts to supporting salmon conservation by endeavouring to address issues such as improved habitat in the river systems, limiting predation of juvenile stocks in the river, global warming  and what is by far the most serious issue, trying to solve the problem of the pathetic ratio between smolts going down the river to sea and those actually returning to run our rivers to spawn. Catch and release to a limited extent can help but is nothing like as important as dealing with these other issues.

What should be the modest limit in relation to fish retained? Obviously this depends on whether it is for the season, the week or the day and may well quite justifiably vary between different rivers. In my view it would not be appropriate to permit an angler fishing for a week to retain more than two fresh fish but as these will not be springers I see no reason to limit the size or sex of them. The practice of requiring fish that have been retained to be immediately tagged is not compulsory or common on the mainland, but in my view would be a sensible requirement to introduce in an effort to prevent abuse.

In these circumstances can we not all calm down and, on both sides of the argument, try to see the other point of view and reach a sensible compromise? I have no objection whatsoever to anglers returning all of the salmon that they catch if that is what they want to do and strongly object to anglers retaining more than the odd fish or two for personal consumption. It may well be the case that in the not-too-distant future, by consent not regulation, 100% catch and release will come to be the norm but at present there is still a sizeable number of anglers, including myself, who still adhere to the principle that salmon fishing is justified as a form of hunting in which an integral part of the enjoyment is retaining and eating a modest proportion of our catch, providing they are in a suitable condition for this to be done. Where and when this is legally permitted we should be entitled to do so without vilification from those who take a different view.

Malcolm Dutchman-Smith is the author of A History of Salmon Fishing on the River Thurso

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