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Last week, when I was fishing on one of the Mad River's tributaries, I hooked and landed a beautiful seven-inch brook trout on a small dry fly. It was late, and the light fading as I turned on my small headlight and followed the line down to find the fly in the trout's upper lip. But wait! There was a piece of thick monofilament coming out of the fish's throat with a loop in the end of it. With my forceps I slipped the fly out of its lip and figured that it was not going to be very long before this brookie was going to die from starvation, an assumption that was confirmed later by a state fish biologist.
I quickly killed it and proceeded to get at what was on the other end
from the loop sticking out of its mouth. It was a huge size-8 hook deep
in its stomach with not just a barb on the tip of the hook, but with a
couple on the shaft for good measure! How did this fish get away from
the person who hooked it? I want to believe that it was because of a
poor knot, a broken swivel or just dropped back in accidentally. I
don't want to think that someone would release a little fish with a
large hook in its gut and a couple of inches of mono sticking out of
its mouth on purpose.
I think an incident like this is fairly rare but illustrates one of the problems of big, barbed hooks.
The person that lost this fish used a large #8 size hook (the curve would be about the size of the curve of a woman's little fingernail) attached to #15 test monofilament (that's strong enough to land a 30-pound Atlantic salmon) and attached a fat worm. Anyone can dangle such a setup into almost any pool or bubbling white water on any of the tributaries that feed the Mad River from our surrounding mountains. They will hook trout. But they will also kill trout, usually because of injuries undersized fish sustain when handled during hook extraction. More often than not the fish will not be the six- to eight-inch fish that fit so well into a medium-size frying pan but much smaller fish. Trying to release a delicate three- or four-inch trout from the vicious barb of a large hook is almost impossible to do without holding and damaging the fish to the point that, although it might swim away when released, it will not survive. It will not grow into the six- to eight-inch fish you would prefer to catch. If one can make every conceivable effort to release an undersized fish without harming it, it will stand a chance to grow larger. It's a no brainer.
Fly fishing or spinning with barbless hooks will cause minimal damage as the fish will invariably get hooked in the lip, where, by holding the shaft of the hook with a pair of forceps, it is very easy to slip the hook free without even touching the fish.
So I have some suggestions for those of you out there that like to take home a wild, tributary-raised brook trout or two for dinner every once in a while, would prefer harvesting mature fish and don't want to inadvertently kill immature ones.
- Use flies or small spinners with the barb(s) pinched down. If you are going to worm fish, do the following. Pinch down the barb on the point and any barbs on the shank. Apart from minimizing possible injury, this also gives the trout a sporting chance.
- Carry a pair of forceps or a pair of small needle-nose pliers. Bring the fish into the shallows, grasp the hook shank with the pliers, give a twist and set that three-inch brookie free, unharmed, to grow into an eight-inch brookie.
- Tie proper knots, ones that are designed for monofilament. Make sure snap swivels are closed so that an incident such as I experienced can't happen.
- And remember: "Conserve, preserve, and enjoy within reason." If you regularly fish one particular brook, and go by the state's allowed daily limit of 12 fish per person, you will catch all the fish in it in next to no time and the stream will be fishless.
- Consider "catch and release" fishing. Once you catch and keep a fish the river has one less trout, and the amount of fishing on that stream is reduced. That is a real problem on a stream that doesn't hold that many sizeable fish to begin with. But if you release the fish it means that you bettered it, that it will have a chance to grow bigger, to spawn and give you a chance to catch it again next year. By all means catch and kill the hatchery-raised rainbows that are stocked by the state on the bigger rivers. They won't breed and probably won't survive the winter anyway. But the tributary brook trout are wild, native fish.
For their size our native brook trout are one of the brightest and feistiest of freshwater fish, but they are not as plentiful as we would like, in part because of the high 12 fish per day limit set by the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. The tributaries of the Mad River are not stocked with hatchery fish in the spring; they are wild fisheries. Let's not abuse them. "Conserve, preserve, and enjoy within reason."
Michael Ware lives in Waitsfield.