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  • Writer's pictureNorth Dakota Wildlife Federation

C&R and Selective Harvest

The principles of catch-and-release angling and selective harvest have been part of the

public fishing consciousness for several decades, with the idea that through proper

landing, handling and treatment of caught fish, productive fisheries can be sustained

and maintained through the actions of anglers.  While a noble pursuit and one

practiced by many, simply releasing a caught walleye, bass or muskie doesn’t

guarantee that it will survive to be caught again, spawn next spring or make the

fishing any better – or is even necessary to ensure continued success on certain waters

in North Dakota. Through the various forms of angling and species fished for, the

implementation of these ideals also diverges, and each code is not a one-size-fits-all

option in the Roughrider State, subject to situational factors.


A 16-inch walleye is added to the live well on a fishing trip. Whether it's selective harvest or catch-and-release, both mantras require some understanding of fishing conditions and a dash of common sense

C&R and Selective Harvest

In order to understand both principles and their impact on angling in this region and

across the United States, a history lesson is in order.  The earliest catch-and-release

practices occurred at the start of the twentieth century in Europe, where many anglers

noticed a decrease in the population of the fish they pursued in heavily utilized waters

and began releasing some of the fish they caught recreationally.  The practice spread

to the U.S. in the mid-1950s, where Michigan first employed it in certain flows to help

populations recover and preserve areas of good angling.  C&R advanced to other

states throughout the late 1900s, through efforts of species-specific conservation

groups like the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS) and Muskies, Inc.


Selective harvest falls somewhere between fishing for food, and catch-and-release,

and either involves a personal slot limit of a certain size, such as keeping only 14-to-

18-inch walleyes on a trip, or is mandated through set slot limits by a managing

agency.  With very few such limits in North Dakota, excluding a handful of minimum

length requirements for certain species on select fisheries, the decision of keeping

only fish of a specific size falls to the angler, with the idea that small fish aren’t as

desirable for consumption due to their lack of meat, and larger fish and trophy-sized

specimens are the result of luck, significant time, and many other factors which make

them too valuable to harvest, including their ability to produce more eggs.  As a result,

fish over these personal limits are selectively released, while those falling within are

harvested for the table, or more prevalent species such as bluegills, perch and crappies

are harvested instead.


“We get questioned a lot from the public with some of our population estimates on the

big fisheries, when fishing is good we get ‘we’re overharvesting fish’ … but the

reality is we just are not seeing a lot of impact on our fish populations, especially the

sustainable large fisheries,” said Greg Power, North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) Fisheries Division Chief adding, “some of these prairie lakes succumb, but they’re dictated by weather patterns, so long term we don’t push catch-and-release for something like that, they’re there to be taken, so have at it…our lakes are so unlike Minnesota or Wisconsin, they’re highly productive and when they’re good, they’re really good, and when they’re bad, they’re really bad and it can go south real quick.”


A Time & Place

Catch-and-release angling also has a time and a place, and its successful practice is

often a matter of exposure for the fish. Due to deep hooking in the gills, stomach, eyes

or other vital areas, or perhaps a rough landing where a fish is dropped in the boat or

otherwise stunned or possibly killed, it should be kept if allowed and possible. 

Additionally, particularly in summer and through the ice, fish can suffer barotrauma,

where their bodies cannot adjust to the rapid change in pressure of being reeled up

quickly through the depths and then released, to ultimately die because they cannot

swim due to damage to their swim bladders that results from the shift.  Here Power

offers a word of caution to those bent on maintaining a strict code of C&R or selective harvest.


“Some of these people push catch-and-release and then they’re fishing Deepwater Bay

in 30 feet in August, and catching 100 walleye, then there’s a fair amount of angler-

delayed mortality; they go home with no fish, when in reality they just took out ten,”

Power explained, “we’re telling people if you’re going to fish 25 or 30 feet or deeper

to keep what you catch,” he concluded.


In addition to tracking depth, monitoring water temperature and limiting other factors,

such as over handling and time out of water, which lead to delayed mortality, there are

tools which can help.  Rubberized nets prevent damage to scales and skin and limit

hook entanglement which can slow release.  Needle nose pliers and hook snippers can

get hooks out faster and spur a quicker turn-back to the water for caught fish.


Species Specifics

The catch-and-release mantra runs strong in species-specific angling circles which

have typically driven the conservation ideas behind the process.  As competitive

angling, especially for bass, took off in the 1970s and 80s, so too did the idea of

releasing caught fish to be angled for again in the following year’s event and in the

future.  While the mortality of fish caught, tagged, transported and weighed at a

tournament is often higher than in the normal course of angling, groups like BASS set

a solid example on the conservation front, and the idea took hold among casual



In some instances, the practice of catch-and-release has driven the creation of mandatory minimums which establish trophy sizes.  No other group of fishermen

serves as a better example of public practice influencing such rule making as that

embodied by muskie anglers over the past three decades.  A truly large muskie was

once thought of as 40 inches or bigger, then 48 inches, and now in some states, 52

inches is the benchmark that agencies set to allow an angler to keep the fish of a

lifetime; though those measurements rarely cause devoted muskie anglers to keep a

fish that has taken more than two decades and a lot of the right conditions coming

together in order to grow to that size.  In addition to muskies, catfish east of Highway

1 in North Dakota, predominantly those on the Red River, have a “one over” rule,

where only one fish in a limit can be greater than 24 inches, but that according to

Power is a rare regulation in the state, which similar to the muskie minimum, comes

from angler demand in places like Pembina and Drayton where the pursuit of channel

cats is most popular.


“We historically have not gone toward trophy management – muskie might be a new

kid on the block there, but I would say with the bass, by and large, it comes with the

constituency, they’re out there for the fun of fishing, whatever harvest is going on in

New Johns Lake is not a big factor,” Power stated in relation to management practices

for the species, “what’s unique about muskie though is that there’s a real cost

involved for those fish, to stock one on one day at about $12 a fish, and it’s harvested

the next day – that’s not much of a return,” he explained, detailing that in addition to

angler consensus, there is a management reason for North Dakota’s 48-inch minimum

on the fish of 10,000 casts.


Catch-and-release and the process of selective harvest work well when things are done

right.  It isn’t uncommon to return to a piece of structure to pull the same smallmouth

bass off a certain rock or bridge piling time and again throughout the season, or from

season-to-season due to catch-and-release sportfishing.  Tempering these principles

with common sense, conditional factors, and with an eye toward monitoring fish

health during the landing process is key to making sure they are effective and that

unwanted waste of released fish does not occur and enjoyment of the resource

continues for all anglers.

By: Nick Simonson


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