by Dan Quinn
The perfect cast is made, a huge Bluegill has taken the bobber down, and the behemoth is now in the net. This is the fish of a lifetime, and after a few photos, what might be the next thing most anglers want to do with it? Put it on the stringer and fillet it for dinner of course! It isn’t worth the time and effort to fillet a bunch of small fish, so why not keep the big ones? After all, it’s just a panfish, and it is perfectly legal to keep on nearly every lake in the Midwest, right? Yes it is, but is it a wise decision for the fishery? The answer to that is no, unless the fish’s final destination is the taxidermist.
Regardless of the species, large fish need to be returned to the water. They have genetics worthy of passing on to future generations, and need to stay in the lake to continue spawning. In addition, large fish have accumulated significantly more contaminants than small fish, and the fillets aren’t as tasty. Selective harvest has nearly become a religion to most serious anglers, but most anglers have very few opportunities to fish, let alone educate themselves about fisheries management practices. Therefore, they don’t know any better, and without being informed, aren’t likely to change their ways.
For example, trophy class bluegills over 9 inches, or so, are nearly all males. Large male Bluegills defend nests from predators and also claim the ideal nesting areas, preventing smaller Bluegills from spawning as prevalently. This ensures the best genes are passed on to future generations and the all too common problem of stunting doesn’t occur. This principle applies to Northern Pike as well, but in a different sense. In addition to large Northern Pike passing on their genes to future generations, they are extremely cannibalistic, keeping the numbers of small Northern Pike in check. When most large Northern Pike are removed from a body of water, the numbers of small fish increases exponentially, and this is nearly irreversible, even with stocking efforts.
More times than I can remember I’ve heard fellow fisherman tell me about incredible fishing trips on a particular body of water, and how they brought home limits of giant fish throughout the season. They then sadly state that for some unknown reason the fishing now is mediocre at best. My standard reply goes along the lines of, “I wonder if keeping all those giant fish had anything to do with that?” This is typically a scenario from a relatively small lake, where a few “fish hawgs” can quickly have a very detrimental effect on the overall size of fish in a lake. Whether the lake is 100 acres or 10,000 acres, the same principles apply due to increased pressure on larger lakes. Of course there are a variety of factors that impact a population of large fish on any given lake, such as forage, quality of previous spawns, angling pressure, and numerous others. Many of these are out of an angler’s hands; therefore selective harvest is, without question, the most beneficial approach to improving a fishery and continuing to improve it.
Selective harvest may be an unfamiliar concept to many, including avid anglers. Simply put, selective harvest involves releasing most fish, especially the big ones, and keeping a reasonable amount of small to medium sized fish for a meal or two. This concept originated about twenty years ago from the In-Fisherman staff and is a scientifically proven method for keeping fish that increases the average and maximum size of any given species. This occurs because the most abundant size fish are always going to be smaller, and the least abundant will be the largest. In order for a fish to reach a trophy size it must overcome numerous challenges and the conditions must be ideal. A very small percentage of fish reach trophy size, which is why they are just that, trophies.
This doesn’t mean that an angler must throw back a fish they want to mount; keeping one trophy fish is perfectly fine. However, there is an alternative to skin mounts, which is a graphite replica. Replicas look better, last longer, and enable you to release the fish. For a beautiful and accurate replica to be made, a taxidermist only needs a photo and length/girth measurements. Releasing large fish is my favorite part of fishing, and I highly recommend giving it a chance with your next lunker!