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Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

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Boundary Waters

Catch and Release by Roger Hahn

''Well, fishin' ain't what is used to be! We used to take 'em outta' here by the boatload.'' I know you've heard it said. Maybe even said it yourself at one time.

I don't think I'm letting out some big secret that there is a distinct correlation between the two themes of that sentence. And, luckily, we've learned that we can no longer take stringers of fish out of any body of water and have the fishing remain what it used to be.

But what are the realities of our new catch and release mentality? What does it actually mean to you on your next canoe trip or visit to one of the BWCA's fine fishing resort locations?

I think it's important to understand spawning cycles first of all. Because there is little doubt that the fish are the most vulnerable during that time. In the BWCA those cycles are as follows:

  • Northern Pike: They spawn in early, early spring. Even under the ice some years. And while many fishing seasons are closed at that time you can still harm the pike by casting into their spawning areas. And that, of course, means the shallows where the warmest water is. So if you find yourself shouting ''hey, there are fish all over this bay'' that should be a large clue that you're in spawning grounds. The pike are quite fragile, as you might guess, so it's best to leave them alone. And, if you happen to hook one, it's vital to the fish's survival that you not tire it out and that you release it quickly and gently. More on that later.
  • Walleyes: Walleyes are the next to spawn. Generally well over by Memorial Weekend. But they need a lot warmer water than the pike. They will be found in the shallows, of course, as well as moving water areas. Most fishing seasons are scheduled so that you won't interrupt the spawning process but, if there is a late spring, this process can be delayed by weeks and weeks. So be aware of what's happening with the water temperatures. Special care should, again, be taken if you happen to hook a fish that appears unusually fat. Fish don't get fat, like us humans, so it's likely the fish you hooked is a pregnant female. One with thousands and thousands of eggs to drop in the spawning area.
  • Smallmouth Bass: The smallies need water in the 60's to drop their eggs. So this tends to happen in June in the BWCA region. You can actually see the bass fanning the gravel in the shallows to make a bed for their eggs. Needless to say, it's best to leave them alone at this time. And release them with care should you hook one. Those smaller fish that keep smacking your lure, without getting hooked, are the males. They are protecting the nest from predation. So let 'em be.
  • Lake Trout: Lakers, unlike the other species, spawn in the fall and that is why the season for them generally closes at the end of September. So, again, if you're doing a late fall trip be on the lookout for these beautiful fish gathered in the shallows. Bear in mind that one healthy female carries thousands and thousands of eggs. Future fish!

So, Catch and Release rule number one is to know your seasons. There is good reason for them. If you want your kids and grandkids to catch fish like you do then you've got to respect these cycles. It's the way nature works.

Number Two: Try to take a look at your fishing habits and traditions. If your canoe trip, or resort visit, is all about filling the cooler with filets then you are somewhat behind the times and need to catch up with the rest of the sporting world.

Number Three: Use line strong enough to get a fish to the boat, or canoe, quickly so that you don't overtax their strength. Reel 'em in and let 'em go! The sooner the better!

Number Four: Have the darn camera ready! If you have to dig for it the fish is likely a goner! Buy a disposable, waterproof model, like I do, and keep it in your life jacket pocket! It'll do the job quite nicely.

Number Five: Have your pliers, or leatherman, ready, too! You want to minimize the amount of time you handle the fish before they are released. So be prepared.

Number Six: Think ahead! How big of a fish will you eat? How big of a fish will you mount? How much money will you spend to mount a fish! Will your spouse allow it in the house? Be prepared. If your party can't eat all the fish you keep then you're just hurting the population unnecessarily. Don't be a pig when it comes to fish.

Number Seven: Wet your hands! Before handling any fish. Otherwise you can really mess 'em up by rubbing off their protective layers.

Number Eight: If possible, use one of the new rubber landing nets. While not practical for canoe trips I have one in my fishing boat and really like. The fish do not get tangled up in them and you can remove your hook and get them back in the water.

Number Nine: Sometimes that lure, or jig, has just gotta' go. If the fish is really hooked badly, or they've swallowed it deeply, then it's time to cut your line and let them go. I know this can be tough with a Rapala worth several dollars but it's best for the fish. The hooks will rust and the lure will fall out in a reasonably short time. The fish may not live, to be truthful, but there is no way they will live if you rip our their gills, their throat, or their mouth! And if they begin to bleed from the gills they are in big trouble.

Number Ten: Consider barbless hooks. You don't have to use them all the time. Or even buy them. Just take your pliers and bend them down. You'll catch plenty of fish, if the hooks are sharp, and they'll be super easy to release!

Number Eleven: Take the picture IMMEDIATELY and put that fish in the water! One camera, one picture. Period. Do NOT put them on a stringer or in a ''live well'' if they will be relased. Do NOT take them to shore for a ''photo opp'' with the whole camp. If the camera is in another canoe or boat or on shore then all you have is a terrific memory! Don't kid yourself. Ain't no way that fish will live if you drag it around! It might look like it swims off but it will be belly up shortly after you're gone from that spot.

Number Twelve: Treat them gently. Do not hold any fish by its eyes! Ever! That went out years ago. Cup them under the belly if you can. Or hold them gently, from above, near the gill openings. But don't overdo it. Keep them in the water if possible while removing the hook. Work with your fishing partner to minimize the damage. And please don't toss them back into the water. Make their transition back into their world as comfortable as it can be.

Imagine how long you'd last underwater. That's all the longer you can expect a fish to live out of water. Tops. Hold your breath and time it. Then factor in the difference between your lung capacity and the fish's capacity to breathe out of water. And get 'em back in the water next time just a tad quicker.

Now, to ward off lots of email, I want to say that I love to fish. I even mounted my trophy ten-and-a-half pound walleye a few years ago. And I love to eat fish. So, yes, I do kill some small to medium fish now and then. Especially on a canoe trip where they are fresh and delicious. However, I am proud to say that in more recent years I have not killed any fish by my carelessness or by my eyes being larger than my stomach.

Personally, I've had some unbelievable fishing experiences, in the past 15-20 years in our region. Experiences that I know will be next to impossible to top in both numbers and world-class sized fish. So I know many of you are catching on. Spread the word. Teach your family that it's not about filling the cooler. Let 'em go to be caught again and to reproduce. Oh, and, Good For You!

--article courtesy of

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