Recently, I wrote up a rather long post about how I was going to limit the number of smaller fish I was going to catch this year. In that post, I was talking about how limiting the number of small fish I caught was what was best for the fishery; I also argued that at some point, banging away at small fish is both rather dull and also teaches us nothing about fishing. We don’t learn anything, and don’t progress or evolve as anglers.
However, while I received entirely praise for that post, I also want to state that there is nothing wrong with catching schoolies- and perhaps I was being a bit judgmental myself.
Recently I had an online conversation with an angler who has been fishing for more than a few years. This angler was telling me they appreciated me pushing night time fishing, liked my videos, but they really preferred to fish during the day and had very little interest fishing at night- even if they had shots at 50lbers, and would never catch a 30lber during the day (I’m paraphrasing), they just didn’t care. They told me, with some abashed apologizing (always strange over direct messaging), that they just “liked catching schoolies” and cared relatively little to put in the amount of work it takes to catch bigger fish. They said that they almost felt ashamed to admit it, particularly in this online culture where everyone is judged and compared, but again…they just liked catching schoolies.
This message really pissed me off.
Not at the author, not at all, but at some others in the angling community. It made me feel for the guy. Here he was, clearly passionate and excited about fishing and learning in his own way, yet he was feeling guilty about what he liked to do- and almost who he was in some strange way! He told me he (obviously) only does catch and release, and tries hard to do only in-water releases. He is trying inline hooks this year, and prefers single-hook lures anyways (jig head/plastic and single hook spook). So he’s doing very little harm, and yet feeling bad about it.
So here’s the point of this post: If you do it the right way catching schoolies can be fun, relaxing, exciting, or even challenging- and it can be OK for the fishery, too. Now, do I love catching schoolies? No, personally I do not. Do I like it? Depends on the situation; sometimes it can be pretty satisfying- context is the important point. The fly rod certainly helps, but even then it can get old pretty quickly. But, if there are 25” fish sipping sand eels on a sand flat in late November? Hell yeah that is fun and oh-so-sweet catching those late late fish (now that the run is only a fraction of the size/time it used to be).
Here is the real message I am trying to convey: I know there are guys out there- some of them rather “famous” and very experienced- who LOVE catching schoolies. They prefer to bang away at dozens of fish, than spend even a modest amount of time hunting large fish. They love dawn, and despise the night. They won’t, or can’t, throw giant expensive lures. AND THAT IS OK! That’s the beauty of fishing, and the Striped Bass in general. They can be caught in so many different ways and come in all different sizes. If you like catching “small” fish, then who cares what anyone else thinks!
With one huge caveat: if you do it the right way. I really do believe that you can catch a dozen fish every night, and kill 1% or less of them. Some research suggests release mortality is roughly 9%- but that is across a variety of angler skill, sub-optimal conditions (salt pond), and the studies cited for this number have other rather large holes in their design and data analysis (I have reviewed them, and I have reviewed hundreds of articles as part of both my Doctoral education and my research position with the Army- I am confident in my ability to do this). Look, release mortality is like condom use. Yes, there are some women who get pregnant even with when the dude uses a condom- but that is almost NEVER, EVER due to the condom. Instead, it’s due to user error; and even then, it’s not like 100% of women still get pregnant even with idiotic use of birth control. In this analogy, fishing is the condom, you are the user, fish death is pregnancy: if used the right way, every time, there is virtually 0% risk of pregnancy, and 0% risk of fish death. Do it the right way, and the fish will swim away alive and well, every time.
I think above all, the release is the important part. You cannot throw, toss, kick, drop, or bounce fish back into the water. You SHOULD NOT lay them in soft sand and turn them into a powered donut. You also cannot drag them or bounce them along jetty rocks. If you can’t safely land and release the fish, you shouldn’t be fishing in that spot, no matter how good it is. Period. It just makes you look like a fool to those of us who respect the fishery, and our fellow fisherman (if you don’t take care of the fish, you don’t care about anyone but yourself). Yes, this is where public judgment is deserved in my opinion.
However, the other thing to consider is that you CANNOT leave them out of the water for 30 seconds, or longer, after landing. In fact, I try to limit my fish out of the water to 10 seconds. Conveniently, my camera has a 10-second timer. My fish are never out of the water longer than that, and since there is a blinking light that starts really going crazy at 3 seconds, I usually don’t take them out of the water longer than that. If it takes you more than 15 seconds to unhook a fish, you are doing something wrong. Yes, I do things wrong sometimes too- I catch a small fish on a big treble, or it gets hooked “wrong” or something like that, and every once in a while I have to get the pliers out and go to town. But this should be the exception, not the rule. And even then, there are ways to prevent the fish from dying. Hold it in the water for intervals between unhooking attempts, for example.
Also, if you want to take a photo, you should be all set-up ahead of time and the fish should be revived FIRST, before you take the photo. Be cognizant when you’re reviving the fish that you are holding the entire head and mouth underwater- if the water isn’t going into the mouth, the fish isn’t getting adequate water (and oxygen) over its gills and it is dying. End of story.
Crimping barbs, using single hooks, not squeezing or yanking on the fish, and fighting fish quickly (cut it out with the wimpy rods PLEASE) is also important, but these factors are not as important (or directly correlated) as the above larger factors. Yes, I still don’t think it’s a great idea for the fish, or fisherman if I’m honest, to just hammer away catching 50 schoolies on a 3oz pencil popper. But, if you like catching a dozen (or maybe even two dozen) schoolies on a lead head/soft plastic combo, you are likely doing very, very little damage to the fishery- provided you follow the above advice about the fight, handing, and release.
So, if you like catching schoolies- GOOD! Go have a ball. If you have no interest in spending hours and hours hunting single large fish, or a couple fish, that’s totally fine! There are no rules. So while there are a lot of haters on the internet that will question your “hardcoreness”- as there are so many people that will question anything about you on the internet- who the hell cares? You do you. Just don’t be selfish: treat the fish with respect, treat access with respect, and treat other anglers with respect.
If you do that, in the eyes of this writer, you are doing absolutely nothing wrong.
Check out https://saltwaterguidesassociation.com/ for more information on Striped Bass conservation