Most of you reading this, including myself, have taken a few hero shots with trout over the years. Since the dawn of the smartphone, it has increasingly become part of the routine in fishing culture to get that grip n' grin photo for social media. Our sport is growing rapidly, and I'd venture a guess that most of those new folks to fly fishing are coming equipped with a smart phone and an Instagram account who would love an opportunity to have a big brown trout be the star of their next hashtag show. Even most new waders are designed with cell phones in mind. They've all got those easily accessible phone compartments that are waterproof. Fly fishing apps are being created with technology allowing anglers to get measurements on fish using their phones.
A quick glance at Instagram and you'll see an almost hourly barrage of new fish pics from across the globe. We’ve all contributed. And boy, we've come a long way in our style too. No more pictures holding fish by the gills. The guys over at Huge Fly Fisherman did an epic parody on the rise in popularity of stylish fish holding photos (the "tea kettle pose" gaze towards fish, fish head down, tail up, index finger delicately wrapped around caudal fin...so majestic). Check out the hilarious video HERE. Trophy shots have become so pervasive in social media, biologists have begun to notice.
I recently came across a relatively new study investigating the potential post-release mortality of "memorable sized" (average length 24") bull trout after simulating prolonged handling with the purpose of getting a few photographs. HERE is the article. They, like us all, noticed the intensely rising popularity of fish photos on places like Instagram, and asked the question, does this process affect big sensitive fish, like bull trout? So, they went to a remote Albertan lake and studied it.
What they found was pretty stunning. Handling time and air exposure of large bull trout subjected to photography and measurement was long (112s) and associated post-release mortality was high (10 dead/30 fish; 33% after 24h observation). Immediate release mortality was also high (3 dead/20 fish; 15%).
That's a lot of dead fish. Bull trout, which were once common throughout the pacific northwest, are now officially listed as a "threatened species" at moderate risk of extinction in 65 percent of their Montana range and at high risk of extinction in 33 percent of their overall range. They're sensitive critters. Maybe more than we thought it appears.
According to this study, even the mere act of catch and release (C&R) of a bull trout can lead to 15% mortality of those caught. Add in a photo or two and measuring time and suddenly 33% of those caught perished. These levels of mortality could potentially lead to population-scale declines in C&R fisheries for bull trout. While I'm not so sure that every angler takes a tape measure out with them anymore, and the lengthy handling time was probably exaggerated, the point is well taken. I hope fisheries managers will consider this sensitivity in management decisions for bull trout.
For example, perhaps Montana should follow the lead of Washington State when it comes to bull trout which made it “…unlawful to totally remove salmon, steelhead, or dolly varden/bull trout from the water if it is unlawful to retain those fish, or if the angler subsequently releases the salmon, steelhead, dolly varden / bull trout." Seems reasonable, considering the effects otherwise.
A disproportional amount of time is spent handling these fish, gawking, and getting photos because, well, it's a unique, giant ass fish and it's only natural to want to look at it a little longer. I get it.
This study really puts into perspective the case of the two Missoula film makers of "Montana Wild" back in 2016. After posting videos of intentionally fishing for bull trout in restricted waters on their website, an ensuing investigation found over 2,200 videos (!) in their possession of angling bull trout. Video evidence showed bull trout caught during the commercial filming were also over-handled, some for up to 12 MINUTES or longer after being netted!
In one case, according to FWP, a bull trout was caught, netted, handled, and released with the hook and line still attached so the filmmakers could video the fish under water and being reeled in, netted, handled and released again.
That one bull trout, more than likely, did not live if the authors of this study found such high mortality after "only" 112 seconds. Who knows how many others they killed, unnecessarily. It goes without saying, those dudes paid for that.
It all sort of makes me think twice of going up and checking off bull trout from my list of fish.
But the larger question for me, in general, is with our social priorities and motivations in C&R fishing. Even though we don't have particularly sensitive bull trout here on the upper Madison, I’ve seen extended handling times here as well. Mainly with those "memorable sized" fish. Just like most other places, I'd suspect. Hell, I've handled larger fish longer than was absolutely necessary before to get a photo, if I'm being honest. Definitely not 12 minutes, but did I really need that picture for the sake of a few likes? I guess my point is, has every "memorable sized" trout I've ever caught got the same treatment that the dinks got? A quick return to the water? The answer, admittedly, is no. But perhaps they should have.
We've all read and discussed the topic of air exposure and handling fish before, so the subject isn't totally novel and we all likely treat trout carefully, even if we get photos. We're well meaning, but we really don't know what happens once those fish dissapear into the ether. And, something about a specific research study on the implications of phones, photos, and big fish sensitivities, makes me pause.
When you stop and think about it, when was the last time you saw a proud Instagram photo of a tiny dink fish? Actually, I did find this one. But that's the only one I could find on my phone. And I don't see many on Instagram. It’s not as though outfitters like me want to advertise super tiny fish with captions like “Come fish with us, you’ll catch SMALL fish! Will be fun!” Not exactly the most inviting idea.
Anyhow, this picture was taken for basically the same reason as if it were a monster. It was "memorable sized." I don't know if I've ever had anyone catch a fish THAT small in my boat before or since. So, a picture was definitely in order. But, handling that tiny thing was super easy. It's smaller than a candy bar. And when we tossed it back in the drink, it darted right off as if the whole event didn't even phase it. I have no doubt that fish survived. Big fish, on the other hand, are definitely more sensitive. Research across the spectrum of fish species has borne this out. A bit more durable, those dinks.
Most of the time those dinks are back in the water pronto. We've got bigger fish to fry. For example, a 20" brown trout caught on a Salmonfly dry? Yeah, that's going to require some gram worthy pics, amiright? So maybe it gets netted, and after the anglers get their sh*t straight they finally grab some decent pictures, but not before significantly more time goes by than with small fish.
As a result, some of these big trout have difficulty righting themselves and undoubtedly are more vulnerable to post release mortality. Is this additional mortality risk necessary? Imagine this same scenario happening more frequently as we continue to see rising popularity in fishing and fishing pressure on the upper Madison.
And here's why treating "memorable sized" trout with care really matters...
Large fish, or as these authors describe them as "memorable fish," are potentially photographed and measured at higher rates than more common sized fish. According to the literature, these large-sized, memorable, fish have a disproportionately larger value to the fish population (e.g., higher gonadal production, improved survival of offspring, prolonged spawning) not to mention the social value to anglers perception of the quality of the fishery. We need big fish not just because they're fun to catch, but because the population depends on them. That's why rates of mortality on these "memorable sized" trout needs to be estimated to understand the effects of C&R. And, turns out, Montana Fish, Wildlife, & Parks is currently examining fish otoliths from the upper Madison to garner age specific mortality rates. We're about to learn some valuable information about our trout on the upper Madison. And that's a positive development.
This information will help answer questions like, does what these authors found in sensitive bull trout translate to big fish on the upper Madison? Are more older/larger trout experiencing higher mortality rates? If so, why?
More and more, clients HAVE to get a picture. I've seriously had clients actually tell me that all they want is an Instagram picture with a fish and their day is complete. #weird The link between Instagram and killing big trout is a stretch, for sure, but the concept of extended handling of big fish for selfish desires is not.
So while Instagram may not actually be killing big trout per se, it's not a big leap to see how big fish could be susceptible to a depensatory cycle, slowly being culled from the system given a few assumptions: 1) big fish experience higher mortality rates due to stress and 2) more big fish than small fish are subjected to excessive handling time 3) more anglers are catching more fish. And, interestingly, you might recall, in last year's Madison River fisheries report, biologists noted the estimated abundances of large brown and rainbow trout (>11”) have declined since 2014 at a couple long term survey sites on the upper Madison (Pine Butte and Varney). Is it a coincidence? I don't know. But it got me thinking.
Just how sensitive are "memorable sized" trout on the upper Madison anyway? Bull trout and brown trout, for example, are on opposite ends of the sensitivity range, but that doesn't mean brown trout are immune to extended handling. It may turn out that declines in large trout (rainbow and brown) abundance on the upper Madison is cause specific to something completely different than C&R stress. But, would it really hurt to improve our C&R best practices standards?
The #keepemwet movement has improved awareness to C&R best practices, but clearly if folks are handling sensitive species like bull trout for up to 12 minutes, like those chumps from Montana Wild, there's still some work to be done. Despite those clowns, how does the desire and ability to photograph and share pictures of trophy fish by well-meaning anglers ultimately influence C&R handling practices, air exposure and subsequent mortality of big fish? Someone way smarter and better at catching huge fish than me should look into that.
Contrasting this study on bull trout (among other studies showing elevated mortality rates due to stress from handling), was some research worth noting in Idaho in 2019 on Yellowstone cutthroat in Fall Creek. Researchers there made the point that many of these studies showing high mortality rates after fighting fish and air exposure, used exaggerated or unrealistic playing times and water temps as treatments in controlled experiments. They argued that the conditions of these studies do not mimic a typical C&R fishery and the results may overestimate the mortality due to air exposure. For example, they referenced another study in 2018 on the South Fork Snake River, where researchers discretely observed anglers and measured fight times and air exposure. They found average fight time was 40s, and average air exposure was 20s (interestingly, both fight times and exposure were lower when anglers employed guides...). Both of which, individually or combined are lower than the 112s in the bull trout study. So, the researchers on Fall Creek used more realistic air exposure time slots of 0, 30, and 60 seconds. They found that air exposure up to 60s did not affect cutthroat survival despite water temperatures exceeding the thermal optimum of the subspecies.
What this tells me is that response to C&R (e.g., fighting time, handling time, stress) is definitely species specific, and likely regional or river specific on top of that. When one considers the results of the Fall Creek study, it highlights the need for data on each individual stream and species. Large trout on the upper Madison may not be as sensitive as bull trout in Alberta, but where on the spectrum are they? A one size fits all approach clearly doesn't work when evaluating stress on various trout species in various waters. For example, what we see on stress response to fish in the upper Madison may be completely different than say the Ruby or Beaverhead. We have reason to explore this, as large trout abundance has been declining on the upper Madison since 2014.
I feel like there's a balance to be struck here. Landing and releasing a fish as quickly as possible should be everyone's goal. Have these authors convinced me that taking pictures is bad? Not always. But, it does highlight the need for some self reflection and a possible re-calibration needed for our social driven motivations and the need for better or at least more widely accepted practices of getting that picture. I'll be the first to admit, having a great photo of a fish has been important for me as a young outfitting business. But should it be? Are we just feeding a detrimental cycle?
Should we as a fly fishing community place more value in our C&R best practices? Should there be some sort of code of conduct widely accepted? A test to get a fishing license like you need to bear hunt? What would that look like? Maybe it starts with guides? Right now I feel like there are certainly professionally accepted norms at least among us guides locally, but it functions more like the unwritten rules of baseball. Everyone generally understands them, but they're not written down anywhere and so interpretation varies. The most common way of finding out you violated one of these norms is when you get yelled at by an OG guide. The system works. I can attest. But I've not seen anyone get shamed for mishandling a trout. Should they?
Anyway, this article is a good reminder to prioritize fish health and that just because we're catching and releasing trout instead of keeping them, doesn't mean we're having no impact. Again, I'm not here to pontificate on anyone. I have room to improve here too. I've got grip n' grins on my own business Instagram. However, this article has made me re-evaluate how I have handled the pressure of clients wanting a photo in the past and how that might need adjustment in the future.