Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Incidental Catches

One of the greatest feelings in fishing is that moment when you set the hook and get that first sensation of a fish at the end of your line. In that moment, we begin to mentally assess many things...most notably the size and the species. In areas with a rich diversity of fish species, we may never figure out just what we have on until we manage to bring it to the surface. This unknown is one allure of fishing...we just don't know what may be down there, and what we might catch.

Around my homewaters, however, there just really isn't a rich diversity of species. If I go out fly fishing on the Gallatin River, I can pretty much be assured of catching a brown trout, a rainbow trout, and a mountain whitefish. On rare occasions, I might pick up an errant cutthroat or brook trout. I feel that I can differentiate between the three major species just by the feel on the line. A rainbow gives a frantic, jerky fight and frequently jumps, a brown gives a more determined battle frequently with long runs. A whitefish, well they tend to be spastic and irregular...but they all have this twitching problem.

The other day, I was nymphing a run on the lower Gallatin that I have fished many, many times before. The evening was already going well, and I had landed several nice trout. As I watched, my indicator dipped and I set the hook into a large, heavy fish. I noticed right of the bat that this fight felt really different. The fish was very strong, but it made slow and determined pulls trying to stay put on the bottom. The fish only showed me a couple of flashes, but instead of silver there was a strange bluish hue that seemed almost luminescent. I landed the fish and it turned out to be a longnose sucker...my first on a fly rod, and the first I have ever seen or heard of being caught in the Gallatin River.

Catching something new in my homewaters was a thrill for me, as I love catching a variety of species. For many, however, incidental catches such as this are viewed with disgust. Who wants to catch a sucker? (Besides me) Suckers and whitefish have both been historically labeled as trash fish, and this legacy persists today. As my friend pointed out, "That sucker is sure lucky that you were the one who caught it." He was right, as another fisherman probably would have ignorantly thrown this native fish up on the bank to die. Incidental catches will always happen...whether it is a bull trout out of the Blackfoot, or a sucker out of the Gallatin. It is just part of fishing, and I believe that it is our responsibility as anglers to correctly identify and safely release native species. This simple, ethical act goes a long ways towards conservation.

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