The flip side --- of big browns....

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The flip side --- of big browns....

Post by Eperous » Wed Aug 28, 2013 2:50 pm

My early trout fishing thoughts were fashioned by such fine video's as TU's movie, The Way of a Trout... maybe many board members might not have ever seen it... but the essence of the film is a flyfisher releasing a large rainbow trout he just caught, so it could spawn, perpetuating the wild trout population...

For a number of years, when I taught middle school, and had a Trout in the Classroom tank with the 7th grade science teacher, we conducted a week of onstream studies coupled with the release of our TIC trout... somewhere during that week, we would show The Way of a Trout....

It's still a good message, but what about the flip side???

What if one catches a large, 20"+ brown, in a small headwater stream or trib, should he/she release that fish? I do and have, cause of that basic instinct within me... BUT, am I doing more harm than good?

I recently got into such a discussion with a few TU members, solid stream conservationists--- dedicated to the cause through their actions, not just their words... There wasn't any clear agreement on this matter... and then I happen to swap emails with a retired NYS DEC Regional Fisheries Manager/biologist... some interesting comments there also... here's something he shared in one of his emails to me...

"... the largest river Brown Trout we ever sampled in the Ashokan watershed was a huge brown of about seven pounds and 27 inches total length. He was way up at the top of the watershed in xxx Creek in late summer and had pretty much decimated the resident trout population of much smaller headwater fish. That fish was clearly up there to escape the warm water of the main stem."

So what do you think.... in small headwater streams and tribs, not West Branch Delaware type conditions, should we release BIG trout that clearly feed on the native trout population or not?

This is not about hanging a dead trout on a wall to brag, but rather protecting the native trout population...


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Re: The flip side --- of big browns....

Post by ewpeper » Wed Aug 28, 2013 4:59 pm

Ed, from my perspective, it depends upon time of year. If there is a big brown in a headwaters brook in the fall, my reaction would be to let it spawn. If the same fish is there in, say, June, I'd whack it on the head.

This is much the same argument that ensued when Bob Jacklin caught and dispatched the 10# brown in the Madison. The C&R faithful all screamed it should have been released. My immediate reaction when I read about it was that Bob had probably spared the lives of 500 14" browns. Had it been during the fall run of big Quake Lake fish into that stretch of river, I suspect Bob would have released the fish. I know I would have.

Last edited by ewpeper on Thu Aug 29, 2013 8:56 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: The flip side --- of big browns....

Post by ted patlen » Wed Aug 28, 2013 6:28 pm

damned if you do and damed if you don't. if you do and have an excellent reason why you did then you can feel satisfied that you did the correct thing even when attacked by those who just wouldn't comprehend as to why you killed the fish.

what i remember from that film was when the fishermen had to tie a dry at streamside because he didn't have the desired fly. But wasn't it a big rainbow that was allowed to spawn? whatever the facts, your question is outstanding.


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Re: The flip side --- of big browns....

Post by catskilljohn » Wed Aug 28, 2013 6:43 pm

I know if Tom Mason see this he will respond, as he told me of a friend of his that does this very thing. Like you mentioned Ed, these really big fish consume a lot of everything, trout included.

As for me, I couldn't bring myself to kill one. If he got that big living in that stream year around, God bless him. CJ
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Re: The flip side --- of big browns....

Post by BrownBear » Wed Aug 28, 2013 8:59 pm

We have a number of small lakes up here that are not connected to the ocean and are historically devoid of fish other than sticklebacks. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game stocks them once each spring with 2,500-5,000 fingerling rainbow trout, usually resulting in up to 5 age classes of fish about as wild as wild can get, in contrast to typical "catchable" stocking programs.

Only problem is, the older age classes really appreciate the annual bonanza of tasty fry. You can tell when it's happening because over a span of two or three years you simply stop catching fish smaller than about 18" and darned few over. Bring a minimum 6-WT rod and better an 8-WT and huck streamers or big olive buggers (lotsa leeches in the lakes) early in the morning, and use stout leaders for fish regularly topping 6 pounds. Only a few in each lake and they're likely the only trout surviving, but they'll stand up beside steelhead for fight when you connect.

We played the C&R game with them, then decided to "thin" the population of monster trout to make room for more year classes. The good news is that over successive summers a more "normal" population structure was restored. The bad news is that it's really painful to sacrifice such huge fish. Two days after a fry plant last year I killed a 29.5" monster weighing 11# and a handful of ounces. It's belly yielded 26 rainbow fry and 11 sticklebacks. Even with the heavy level of predation, I don't think I could bring myself to do it with wild fish.

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Re: The flip side --- of big browns....

Post by Allan » Wed Aug 28, 2013 9:04 pm


"For a number of years, when I taught middle school, and had a Trout in the Classroom tank with the 7th grade science teacher..."

Wow! How'd you get both of them to fit? Okay, LOL.

Back to your question - I have absolutely no idea which phiolosophy is correct. I am pretty sure that I'd release the fish simply because it had gotten that big and old through its own 'smarts'. I also wouldn't want to kill it and simply toss it into the foilage or carry it away. Release it to die on its own or give someone else an immense thrill.


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Re: The flip side --- of big browns....

Post by SgtMajUSMC » Thu Aug 29, 2013 6:27 am


Tough moral/ethical question...

I believe our streams have cycles, based on many factors. If there are some big trout around, they didn't get that way by being foolish. Trout populations will rise and fall, streams will flood and get alarmingly warm and low. The personality of a stream changes from year to year...

I'd feel a stream was much poorer if I kept a large trout that I was ever fortunate enough to land. All things considered, I'd prefer to take a quick picture and let them go...and let nature sort herself out, just like always. We do enough to "help", that at the end of the day probably doesn't do much good.

Great question-with lots of opinions!



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Re: The flip side --- of big browns....

Post by Fishman1 » Thu Aug 29, 2013 11:41 am

Hi Ed, good question,

Larger spawning trout of virtually all species typically go upstream into the tributary system to reproduce, or to avoid stressful conditions. Thus, from a system-wide perspective, they "belong" wherever they are found. The human perspective is often to manage the natural system to better suit our desires (the Kodiak experience is an interesting example). That's fine too, as long as our desires are within the system's capabilities.

So I guess I would conclude that taking a big fish out of a small stream boils back down to the individual angler and
his/her point of view about killing some of what they catch. If it stays in the tributary, it will unquestionably eat some small fish, including trout. If it successfully spawns in the tributary, it will put trout back into the system.
Either way, you did "the right thing".


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Re: The flip side --- of big browns....

Post by quashnet » Thu Aug 29, 2013 3:57 pm

Varying weather and environmental conditions may favor one size class of a fish species over another, year by year. For example, in tundra rivers on the North Slope of Alaska, flood years favor adult Arctic grayling survival while drought years favor young-of-the-year grayling survival. Thus, in a very challenging environment, a year class of grayling always gets through relatively unscathed.

This is entirely speculation, but what if the presence of a huge brown trout far upstream in a tributary signals that environmentally it is a tough year for the wild young-of-the-year and juvenile year classes? My theory here would be that many of these smaller fish might die anyway, so the system compensates by sending big fish upstream, insuring that biomass and energy remains invested in the trout population. Thus the big trout cannot "decimate" a population that was largely doomed anyway. NOTE that I am not saying this is true; it is just an idea I am throwing out.

Here's another idea - again, I have no data, but let's consider a question: What does it take to build a seven-pound, 27-inch trout? Let's remember that this impressive fish was once just a tiny young-of-the-year fish among many thousands of others in its year class. Over time it became a seven-inch fish, a seventeen-inch fish (already quite impressive!), and eventually a twenty-seven inch fish. Wow! How did THAT happen?

Well, a combination of genetic factors, learned behaviors, and luck probably all played a role in building this big fish. But let's speculate - maybe that big fish used to be a tiny fish living far upstream in its tributary in late summer, and it was a challenging year for survival of smaller trout, and to make matters worse here comes a big fish eating all the little fish it can catch (and of course there are otters and other predators eating those little fish too. We can't entirely blame the big cannibal browns). So our little fish that is someday going to be a 27-incher manages to survive and elude predation while so many of its fellows get eaten. My question is: in order to build a big trout in a natural, unstocked system, what if it is a REQUIREMENT that this fish learn how to escape large predators? It is going to need skills to grow big, and it is going to need a 100% success rate of eluding predators in order to grow into a seven-pound, 27" fish. So maybe - and again this is just speculation - maybe it is essential for there to be a few big trout active in the system, threatening smaller trout with predation, in order for there to be more big trout in the next generation. Maybe natural selection, represented by the "decimation" of a lot of small fish by a few big fish, is actually a positive and necessary step to growing more big, healthy trout, generation after generation when seen in the big picture of population dynamics.

Again, this is entirely speculation, meant only to introduce the idea that good fisheries management might sometimes require us to think counterintuitively.
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Re: The flip side --- of big browns....

Post by redietz » Thu Aug 29, 2013 8:23 pm

My home stream is overwhelmed with 9-12" wild browns. They seldom get much bigger because they use all the available food, and are essentially stunted. (A bit more complex than that, but that's a good first approximation.) If there were a few big cannibal browns, the stream could support them, but at the cost of the smaller fish. There are times when I think I might prefer to catch an occasional fish over 15", rather than catching 15 per outing. I guess it's all a question of which you'd rather catch - a few big trout or lot of little ones.

Since the fish you caught apparently wasn't starving, there must an adequate supply of little ones to support his appetite. I'm not sure that removing it would improve fishing conditions all that much, other than having one less large fish to catch.

And what would do with the fish if you culled it? Trout that size aren't all that tasty to my liking, and I personally couldn't just throw it up on the bank.

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