How to Keep a Fish in the Catch and Release World

A few months ago I hooked a striped bass. The fish was clearly a migrating fish, and I knew that because of its color. There were pronounced black lines, vibrant colors of green and purple, and it was covered in sea lice. Resident fish adopt nature’s camouflage and turn a paler brown and white, and because I caught this fish on the flats and it still had those distinctive colors I knew it was passing through. That bass was legal by my state’s criteria, so I took it home for dinner.

I passed a number of anglers while I headed to my truck. The unanimous response was either “nice fish” or “way to go” or something along those lines. But one angler approached me as I was placing the fish in my truck and he said “a good gamefish is too valuable to be caught just once.” That was a comment that the venerable Lee Wulff made in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and it was one that launched the catch-and-release ethic.

Releasing a trout in river

If the angler was trying to make me feel guilty for keeping a fish it didn’t work. In a given year I’ll release over 95% of the fish I catch. Sometimes it’s because they’re short and don’t meet my state’s regulations. Other times it’s a big, heavy female loaded with eggs, and I feel better about releasing her to spawn. And still other times I just don’t feel like keeping a fish. I believe in releasing far more fish than I catch, but when I want to keep one for the table I don’t have a problem with it at all.

One reason I think we have low numbers of fish in certain areas may have to do with our advances on storing our catches. Think about it: prior to the ice box, folks harvested what they could eat. Long term solutions included pickling, smoking, salting, among other methods. Have you ever eaten salt cod? The fresh version is far superior. Nowadays, fish can be frozen for greater length of time. Perhaps, if we all moved to a moderate level of harvesting we’d have enough fish in the waters as well as in our bellies.

Dad and boy holding large fish

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Tom Keer

Tom Keer

Tom Keer is an award-winning writer who lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  He is a columnist for the Upland Almanac, a Contributing Writer for Covey Rise magazine, a Contributing Editor for both Fly Rod and Reel and Fly Fish America, and a blogger for the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation’s Take Me Fishing program.  Keer writes regularly for over a dozen outdoor magazines on topics related to fishing, hunting, boating, and other outdoor pursuits.  When they are not fishing, Keer and his family hunt upland birds over their three English setters.  His first book, a Fly Fishers Guide to the New England Coast was released in January 2011.  Visit him at or at