Back when Jack Wingate still owned and ran Lunker Lodge on Lake Seminole, a sign on the entrance road said, "You should have been here yesterday." On one memorable trip, some friends and I were there "yesterday," a sunny, early spring day when big pre-spawn bass began migrating into the shallows.
We caught and released dozens of 4- to 7-pound bass, mostly on soft plastics. Back at the lodge, we saw that others had enjoyed similar success.
Only they hadn't released their fish. They were cleaning them. Everyone in our group was upset by this, but one was so enraged that we had to physically restrain him from confronting and possibly provoking a fight.
The meat fishermen at Lunker Lodge had broken no laws. They simply kept their limits and were taking them home to eat. But in doing so, they had raised the ire of other anglers, who practiced catch-and-release with an almost religious fervor.
That same passion remains with millions today. They would never think of keeping a bass for the table, especially a big pre-spawn female. It's sacrilegious, and they have little regard for those who do.
Much the same disdain is directed toward those who use live bait instead of artificials.
Up at Minnesota's Mille Lacs right now, catch-and-release bass fishermen are agitated because the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) has prohibited harvest of walleyes, as it attempts to revive that sagging fishery. As a consequence, the agency has redirected meat fishermen, often equipped with live bait, toward the lake's world-class smallmouth bass fishery.
I share the distress of anglers upset by this. While I do keep smaller largemouth and spotted bass for the table, I would never keep a smallie. Plus, up north, they're slow-growing, the spawning season short, and year-class success less a certainty than in more temperature areas. In other words, the quality of that bass fishery is more tenuous, not just at Mille Lacs but throughout the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes area.
Coincidentally, quite a few northern anglers use live bait to catch and keep bass, as well as walleye. It's a long-standing traditional way to fish and goes hand-in-hand with opposition to catch-and-release fishing, especially as it relates to tournaments. And they get just as mad at the "opposition" as my friend did at Lake Seminole.
Here's what one of them told me in a comment at my Activist Angler website: "Sport fishing to catch and release should be outlawed! We are working to keep fish for real fishermen who enjoy the taste and food. We need to keep these so called sport fishermen out of Minnesota lakes . . . I am not alone, and I vote!"
My point in all of this? As anglers, we are divided, when we must be united if sport fishing is to survive. That's because it's under siege as never before by the ever-growing and aggressive animal rights movement, which garners much of its support from well meaning people who care about animal welfare, but have no connection to and no interest in fishing and hunting. In parts of western Europe, catch-and-release is outlawed because it's "cruel." Only fishing for food is acceptable.
Now, let's look at the science. Exploitation of the smallmouth bass population at Mille Lacs is only 5 percent, according to MDNR. "That's horrible for die-hards, but really not that big a deal," said Gene Gilliland, B.A.S.S. national conservation director.
"Limits are set in accordance with good science, to sustain fisheries," he added.
Most bass anglers today, he said, "are indoctrinated into a bass culture in which catch-and-release is the only way to go. But many states have other customers , along with other fish, and they have to listen to them too. If they don't, license sales go down and all species suffer."
Additionally, too much catch-and-release actually can be detrimental. When first popularized during the 1970s, when harvest was high, it did, indeed, help sustain many fisheries. Now, though, the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that limits are almost irrelevant for fisheries management. Often, slot limits don't work because people won't keep small bass. Selective harvest would be much better for some fisheries than 90 to 95 percent catch-and-release.
So . . . let's calm down and remember that we're all in this together. Whether that guy in the other boat is using live bait and keeping fish for the table or competing in a tournament, as long as he's obeying the law, you should respect his right to be there, just as he should respect yours.
(This article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)