Monday, January 7, 2013

Why you should always let the big ones go

Bob Edwards, 2012
Bow Narrows angler Bob Edwards caught this monster northern pike in Red Lake last summer. Like almost everybody these days, he let it go. Why did he do that?
Bob has been coming to Bow Narrows Camp since the 1970s! If he is like most of us, his sense of conservation has probably evolved over that period.
Big fish is released
Forty years ago just about everyone would have kept this beauty, to eat or to mount. Those were the days when the success of a fishing trip was gauged by how full the cooler was at the end of the week. But then we all began noticing how there were fewer and fewer lakes where you still could catch fish like this. We didn't want that to happen here. So, we just stopped keeping those lunkers, even before it was the cool thing to do, even before biologists and fishing laws started encouraging the public to release big fish.
We began regarding these exemplary fish as wonders to behold, not just big pieces of meat.
Eventually, the game laws caught up to us, more or less. Now there are some protections for big gamefish. For instance, in Northwestern Ontario you cannot keep any northern pike between 27.5 and 35.4 inches and can only keep one longer than 35.4 inches. You can only keep one walleye over 18 inches. The province instituted this rule for an obvious reason: small fish don't spawn, big ones do. If you let the big ones go and eat the smaller ones, there will always be lots of fish in the lake. Hardly anyone has a problem with this except the nervous law-makers who still need convincing that the majority of anglers and hunters are not fish and game hogs. When they finally get the message the law will change to release ALL big fish.
There is another clear reason not to eat big fish; they are unhealthy food choices. We've known for several decades now that fish accumulate heavy metals and, in populated areas, toxins, in their tissues. A lake doesn't need to be polluted for this to happen, it occurs everywhere: in lakes, rivers, oceans, the pond in your backyard, in the U.S., Canada,  the Arctic -- all over the world. Here's how it happens.
There are tiny bits of natural but harmful elements like lead and mercury that have weathered from rocks lying all through the soil. When it rains, these particles are carried downhill by the runoff until they eventually end up in the lowest place around. That would be the water body. There they are absorbed by the tiniest aquatic life which is eaten by slightly bigger creatures and so on and so forth until you get near the top of the food chain. That would be the big predator fish, like walleye and northern pike and lake trout, in the case of Red Lake. The older these big fish are, the more time they have had to accumulate these substances. Young fish have almost none.
A 44-inch northern pike or a 28-inch walleye can be 20 years old!
What else do you eat that is 20 years old? Beef cattle are slaughtered at two years; pork at six months, chicken at six weeks.
What about vegetables? Have you eaten any 20-year-old carrots lately?
Fish under the slot size in the case of northern pike and under the 18-inch mark for walleye are young fish, just a few years old. They are delicious, cook perfectly and are a healthy, nutritious food choice. Those are the ones we are meant to eat.

What about trophies? Is it OK to keep big fish for mounting? Well, you aren't going to keep probably more than one or two in your life for this, so in that respect it doesn't cause too much harm. However, a far better choice today is to get a replica of the fish made by a taxidermist and let the real fish go. The replica is more realistic and lasts longer.
 Actually, the very best way to commemorate the occasion is a photograph or a video that shows you and/or your partner, your boat and equipment, the lake and the weather, and the release of the big fish. It puts the fish and the moment in context. Buy a good digital camera that you always have with you or better yet, get and learn to use one of the new GoPro cameras. It can be mounted on the bow or stern of the boat and record all the action in HD, hands-free.
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