by Jeremy Chavez
The topic seems to rise annually as the doldrums of a harsh winter, by Texan standards, begin to set in and anglers’ recollections are of warmer times and better fishing. Every winter the great debate is regurgitated in some form or fashioned by those, myself included, whose hope is to catch that fish of a lifetime. THE FISH that every avid saltwater angler here on the Texas coast hopes to one day encounter the fang-toothed, yellow-mouth, speckled beauty of our inshore waters. The seemingly attainable yet ever elusive holy grail: the 30” Spotted Seatrout.
Retain or release? Exhibit the beautiful specimen of creation on a wall or desk, or release it back into the wild unscathed. Well, virtually unharmed, other than a puncture wound, a little fatigue, and the recollection of another near death experience.
Why can’t you have your cake and eat it too?
I have pondered this theoretical question on many occasions when I first became obsessed with targeting big trout. The debate, at its core, boils down to whether you consider a big trout a prized possession. This argument holds no substance for those that believe the contrary; people that see a big trout as nothing more than two generous filets on a frying pan. But this argument is not for them, the outsiders. There’s no point in trying to sell ice to an Eskimo.
I am and will always be a redfish-junky at heart, but big trout, especially pot-belly leviathans, carry with them an aurora that is irrefutable and not easily forgotten. If you’ve ever hung into a gator you know what I mean. If you have not had the pleasure, bear with me as a try, i.e. fail, to explain the experience.
There’s no mistaking the brute power or bend in your rod as it’s doubled over when a big trout is trying to emancipate itself from the end of your line. Each violent head shake translated directly into the palm of your hands. Every surface thrashing creates excitement and anxiety simultaneously. Your heart rate escalated; each beat feeling like it might burst through your chest as you try to subdue the formidable adversary.
After the battle has commenced, and you finally grasp your paws around the broad shoulders of a mature female trout you don’t spoil in triumph. You envision things many people overlook. You don’t just see fins and scales. You see genuine beauty. You see an animal that has endured and beat improbable odds. You see a story told through size, old age and wisdom. You are humbled, and accept success, while honoring the opposition with respect and due care.
There is just no feeling quite like it. It’s impossible to explain, yet extremely addictive. The experience will leave you with an insatiable appetite for more.
You’ll spend hours scouring over reports, maps, satellite images, tide charts, and solunar tables trying to increase your odds at an encore; most of the time it’s a fruitless effort. Year after year you are outsmarted by a creature with brain capacity nowhere near the level of your own.
Contrary to popular belief, the struggle is not always as discouraging as it may seem. More often than not it’s your motivation to brave the elements. It provokes you to do things you would not do otherwise, such as fishing during sub-freezing temperatures with no feeling in your extremities while knee deep in mud or fishing all day marathons from crack of dawn to well after the sun has dipped below the horizon. There are countless days when you question your sanity while convincing yourself to keep grinding because any cast might be the fish you have been longing for.
Why the debate?
Keeping trophy sized fish doesn’t make any sense to ME for a number of reasons, but if someone decides to do so it’s their prerogative, and hopefully, a well thought out and informed decision. With the progression of technology, both fish mounts and cameras, there’s no real basis to keep trophy fish anymore other than egotistical motives or certain death of a landed fish.
All the justification tossed around for keeping big fish is just that, rationalization as to why to retain trophy fish. All this talk about survival rates, spawning cycles, and genetics are moot points.
I don’t want to get into numerical stats because that is not what this is about. There’s no disputing fact, but there’s also no disputing common sense. A released fish will always have a greater chance at survival over one that has been retained. Therefore, a released fish will always been given the opportunity, if just once, to reproduce again. But these are only minor reasons for releasing big fish in the grand scheme of things.
Fish mounts have come a long way from their archaic past. Photos and measurements, both length and girth, are all that is needed to produce a high quality fiberglass replica that will outlast a traditional skin mount. Quality point and shoot digital cameras, even waterproof models, are very affordable and easy to use. Most cell phones today have higher quality cameras than what was available on the market not too long ago.
Anybody recall the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words”?
Buy a camera that fits your budget and learn how to operate it and always keep it at your disposal. There’s no better way to recollect the memory of that once in a lifetime catch than an old-fashioned still shot. The grin on your face will tell the story.
Nobody cares for those who like to brag. It’s a natural predisposition to want to show off a grand accomplishment, but there’s a fine line between doing so humbly or arrogantly. Those who fish for egotistic reasons have a skewed perspective, as do those who keep big fish as a means to boast. If bragging rights is your motive for fishing then you have the wrong pastime.
Fishing is a means to relax and have a good time in the outdoors with or without the company of others. As a human being, we not only experience nature we are a part of it. As a result, we are responsible for the consequences on how our footprint affects others.
There are also many people who keep trophy fish simply because they don’t realize what they have in their possession. They don’t know the story behind, i.e. the close encounters with death, every inch it took that trout get to reach its elderly years. We, as anglers who care about and enjoy the resource, can’t fault these people. We can only hope to educate them.
Digest this discourse with a grain of salt because, as I stated before, I have not caught a trout over 30”, but I have been close. About an inch shy to be exact, but who’s counting? My personal philosophy is to release every trout over 25” mainly due to aforementioned reasons plus trout usually don’t start to get fun until they reach 5lbs. I don’t believe I have ever kept a trout over 23″ either.
I don’t wish or expect others to do the same because it’s a personal decision. I release mature trout because I appreciate the life story told by their size. I enjoy the pursuit much more than I enjoy their taste or petrified appearance. I get all warm and fuzzy inside when I see such a majestic beast swim away full of vigor.
I have never regretted releasing a big fish. If I am not the last person to catch that fish then it was more than worth the effort. Maybe someone else will understand the magnitude of what they caught and gain perspective as a result. Maybe that fish and I will cross paths later in our existence, hopefully with a fatter gut and lankier physique. Maybe she’ll win the next battle and be “the one that got away.” The fish that leaves me heart-broken and even more determined than ever before. Maybe I’m just getting sappy at my old age.
Just my II sense…