The Great Salmon Fishing Debate: Should Angling Be 100% Catch And Release?

A River Wye silver salmon

A silver fresh run salmon. Image: Tim Hughes

Wild salmon are precious creatures these days. Indeed, new legislation in Wales and much of England is set to make catch and release compulsory. But is it still ok to take them where rules permit? And when releasing salmon, how can we do so correctly to ensure each fish the best chance of full recovery? This month, the Fishtec team takes a look at the ins and outs of the current salmon debate.

An emotive debate…

It used to be the most normal thing in the world for the successful game angler to take a salmon home. Indeed, as crazy as it sounds, these fish were once so plentiful they were staple food for the poor. How times change!

Whether you lay the blame on climate change, environmental mismanagement, commercial salmon farming or a toxic mixture of these and other factors, salmon numbers are well down. But is it fair to ask anglers to release every fish, as new rules could dictate in Wales and most of England? And regardless of our reason for releasing salmon, how can we give each fish the best chance of survival?

Regarded by many as the king of freshwater fish for many anglers, it’s not surprising that salmon conservation is an emotive subject. Indeed, you will seldom find anyone indifferent to this iconic species.

Whilst we all have strong and differing opinions, we’re likely to agree on one thing: more needs to be done to ensure that our children and grandchildren still have salmon to fish for in the future. So will new laws help? Are they fair? Or could they cause more harm than good?

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An Atlantic salmon jumping over a weir on the River Severn in Shropshire.
Image source: Kevin Wells Photography

Can I keep salmon?

Firstly, we should point out that there are no consistent rules that apply to all of England and Wales at the present time (late May 2018). The list of regional byelaws on the Environment Agency site is the first place to check if you’re in any doubt about your local fishing. With stocks continuing to decline, many fishing clubs and areas already insist on catch and release fishing. Never assume you can keep salmon and do always check before you fish.

New rules proposed by the Environment Agency for 2019 could well take the decision out of anglers’ hands entirely. As of next year, it could potentially become a crime to take a salmon from any Welsh river and many of those in England.

Indeed, while anglers have welcomed new restrictions on commercial practices such as drift netting, many are angry that their traditional right to keep fish will be taken away. To put it mildly, this is a complex debate.

Different opinions within the angling community

The whole catch and release debate has polarised the angling community. Different regions and generations of anglers have very different opinions. The Angling Trust’s response to the proposed regulations was highly critical of the Welsh proposals, following a major survey that revealed 83% of respondents were against a complete ban on catch and keep angling.

In particular, it was felt that the new laws could represent a dangerous breakdown in trust between authorities and the anglers who are so often the “eyes and ears” of the waterways concerning illegal fishing.

The knock-on effects for the sport, and rural businesses in general, could also be stark. Plenty of life-long anglers feel it is their right to take a salmon or two every season. Many of these regulars could easily hang up their rods if we’re not careful; a scenario that could reduce precious resources even further. After all, anglers’ money goes towards costs such as habitat improvement, fisheries enforcement and other vital work.

However, anglers who already practise catch and release regardless of the law point out that we now live in a different era. Their argument is that salmon only enter freshwater to spawn and are too precious to kill. While it’s easy to say “just one or two” won’t matter, the removal of even one large female salmon from a threatened river could mean a lot fewer juvenile fish further down the line.

Sense and sustainability

Surely, whatever our personal views, the watchword for all salmon fishing needs to be sustainability. In this respect, it’s very difficult to dictate laws that could apply to all waters. After all, a smaller river with a steep decline in population is a very different prospect to a major waterway with prolific fish stocks.

So is it too much to ask that anglers make a decision using their own discretion? It should be pointed out that most anglers do this anyway. Even where catch and kill is allowed, statistics show that the majority of fish are released. The days of “keep everything” are long gone.

Perhaps the best system would be one of compromise and sensitivity that takes into account the nature of each individual river. Some clubs across Britain have already adopted such an approach. For example, some clubs allow season ticket anglers to keep one or two salmon, where runs are still healthy.

How to help salmon survive capture

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It’s sensible to keep salmon in the water as much as possible to reduce stress.
Image: Fishtec

How to release salmon is a separate question that requires care and thought. The good news is that virtually all salmon will survive capture and go on to spawn; provided the angler takes care and uses the best catch and release practice!

Here are just some of the things you can do to make sure every salmon you catch swims off and spawns successfully in the future:

  • Use strong tackle to help play and land fish quickly. A fish played to complete exhaustion is less likely to survive.
  • Always crush barbs on your hooks to reduce damage on removal. A “bumped” hook is an ideal compromise, in other words a hook where the profile of the barb has been reduced.
  • Use single hooks only to further reduce damage. Lures can easily be converted by swapping the trebles.
  • Avoid bait fishing. Statistics show that survival rates are much lower for bait fishing, as worms and other offerings are often swallowed. If you must use bait, try a circle hook.
  • Be prepared and have all your tools, camera and essentials to hand. Faffing about looking for these things means extra stress for fish.
  • Keep your fish wet. You don’t need to take salmon onto the bank. Keeping the fish in the water and handling with wet hands reduces stress. In fact, even short periods out of the water are proven to reduce survival rates, so if you need to retain the fish for a short period, do so by keeping it submerged in a generous-sized landing net.
  • Avoid crude nets. Talking of nets, stringy, harsh models have no place in angling these days. Modern, soft mesh is much kinder.
  • Measure, don’t weigh. The best way to record that special fish is to measure. This can be done while the fish is still in the water. There are various length to weight charts if you want to estimate the poundage.
  • Be quick and handle with care if you want a picture. If you want a snap, do so quickly and hold the fish in the water. Support it with wet hands and cradle, don’t squeeze!
  • Assist recovery by keeping the fish upright, facing into the flow. If it has fought hard, it may need a few moments to get its breath back. You’ll know it’s ready when you feel it try to swim away.

Another great resource is “The Gift”, a YouTube video made by the Atlantic Salmon Trust to illustrate correct tackle and good practice.

Think of the bigger picture

Last but not least, in any discussion of the battle to save salmon, we should also mention those working hard for the future of the species. Organisations like the Angling Trust and Salmon and Trout Conservation fight tirelessly to protect rivers, prevent illegal fishing and force key decision makers to protect salmon. Joining either of these groups is inexpensive and a great way to offer your support.