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There is one thing about the culture of fishing that I wish I could change. The question about whether a fish is big enough to keep is wrong.

Catch and release is a part of modern sportfishing. It is guaranteed that anglers will be releasing at least a portion of their catch due to regulations or voluntarily releasing fish. At the same time, harvesting some of the fish we catch is an important sportfishing tradition that we should continue.

You can find extremists on both sides of the catch-and-release versus catch-all-you-can spectrum. Somewhere in the middle lies a selective harvest philosophy: Do not fill the freezer, but on occasion harvest some for a meal of fresh fish. When making the decision to harvest, selectively harvest those species and sizes of fish that are most abundant and can withstand some harvest.

Panfish species almost always are more abundant than larger predator fish and, therefore, better candidates for harvest.

So, the question should not be “Is it big enough to keep?” but instead, “Is it small enough to keep?”

Try breaking that entrenched thinking.

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The size at which it is socially acceptable for many species of fish to be harvested is that size where they are big enough to fillet. However, I often listen to folks who are upset about someone keeping fish that are too small when they should be more upset about the guy who whacks a bunch of big fish.

I have heard it argued that anglers must harvest fish to keep populations from becoming unbalanced or stunted. If that was true, why is the fishing in virgin fisheries, those that have never been fished, so spectacular? This belief comes from a mistaken idea that panfish populations need to be harvested or they will overpopulate and stunt. There are two problems with this. First, anglers harvest the biggest panfish first and work their way down to smaller fish. As a result, the best genetic stock are removed from a population first. The second problem, especially with panfish species, is that they become sexually mature at sizes much smaller than anglers prefer to harvest and clean. If panfish need to be thinned, that must occur at a size much smaller than anglers will harvest. Predator fish fill that role.

It may be desirable at times to increase harvest pressure on some sizes of fish. If some fish need to be thinned, that is a fisheries management challenge that is easy to address compared to one where overharvest has removed the biggest, fastest-growing fish. Selective harvest is often the best approach.

Others will argue that length and bag limits have been set and right up to those limits they are entitled to harvest all the fish they can. Yes, within the rules that may be true, but at what point does the resource suffer? At what point should our outdoor ethics supersede the regulations?

I am always going to stand on the side of the resource.

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Daryl Bauer is the fisheries outreach program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Contact him at daryl.bauer@nebraska.gov. Read his blog, Barbs and Backlashes, at OutdoorNebraska.org.

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