Who made you king?: On keeping big trout

By: Jim Matthews

It happens every time there are photos of a big, dead brown trout posted anywhere on the Internet. It happens if someone keeps a largemouth bass of any size. Increasingly, it happens when ever a dead fish of any species is caught by an angler.

There is a huge hue and cry from the “enlightened” fishing masses on social media the fish should have been released and the angler who didn’t release the fish is some sort of cretin.

The reasons for the hue and cry are all the same: so the fish could spawn, so someone else could catch-and-release it, so you don’t damage the fishery, blah, blah and more blah. The extremists don’t want you to hurt the fish at all.

Most recently, Tony Frater of Lake Wildwood caught an 11-plus pound brown trout while fishing at Lower Twin Lake near Bridgeport in the Eastern Sierra. Photos of the fish bounced around the Internet with the speed and spins of a ping-pong ball in an international tournament. Frater was excoriated because he kept the biggest brown trout he’d ever caught in his fishing career.

The two most annoying comments were that he was helping destroy the brown trout fishery by eliminating that fish from spawning in the future or that Frater somehow didn’t have the right to keep the fish at all, only to take a photo. Let me say I’m primarily a fly-angler who has practiced catch-and-release fishing 99 percent of the time for more than 50 years, including the biggest brown trout of my fishing career, but I get really weary of this wrong and wrong-headed commentary on keeping fish.

First, the whole idea this brown trout was essential to the fishery in Twin Lakes is ludicrous. A brown this size is probably a bigger detriment to the fishery than a benefit. It has contributed to the fishery with its spawn for five to eight seasons, and it’s large enough it eats mostly smaller fish – lots and lots of other trout that might otherwise grow bigger. Robinson Creek is a small stream and the natural production in this water is tiny, especially when compared to the harvest of pan-sized trout caught by the thousands of anglers who fish this lake each year. You don’t hear the whiners complaining about thousands of eight- to 12-inch browns, rainbows and brookies caught an eaten by anglers, both wild and hatchery fish. But when someone catches a huge brown, he’s ridiculed. It’s just nonsense. There are a number of nearby catch-and-release waters, if that’s what you want to do, but don’t get all self-righteous about someone else keeping the fish of a lifetime.

Second, Lower Twin Lake – like most roadside trout waters in the state – has a five-trout daily limit with no size restrictions. It gets planted nearly every week by the Department of Fish and Wildlife with rainbow trout so anglers can catch and keep and eat those fish. Those trout also feed the much-harder-to-catch browns that live there and get them big. They become a bonus catch. Keeping any of these fish is not a crime. Who made you king to say otherwise?

Third, the odds are also very good that Frater’s brown was not a wild fish, but rather one of the fish reared and planted by former Twin Lakes Resort owner Steve Marti. Marti and his volunteers started raising browns when the DFW stopped planting the Twin Lakes with browns each year. When DFW plants stopped, the brown trout fishery all but disappeared (sort of proving the idea that wild fish spawned in Robinson Creek could handle the task). The resurgence of big browns in the catch is a result of those private plants. Those browns weren’t planted as broodstock fish to grow a wild population. They were planted so anglers could catch them.

Fourth, a good biological argument could be made that all the browns, rainbows, and kokanees should be eliminated from the lake because none of them are native to the watershed. They were all planted there at various times by DFW back when it was their job to make fishing better for the public. The reality is DFW gets enough money and has the capability to plant enough browns and rainbows to sustain both the catchable fishery and the trophy fishery with the current limits, but politics have gutted the recreational aspect of the trout hatchery system. If you want to direct your anger somewhere, direct it at DFW, not Frater. Guys like Frater are part of the congregation; they don’t need your preaching.

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