Blood and Bait
Commentary by Mark Hume with Photography by Nick Didlick
There are those who would have you believe that fishing with bait is a good and noble thing; that it is an angling method as morally defensible as any and that it doesn’t put trout or salmon stocks at risk.
On the Thompson River in southwest British Columbia, those who support bait fishing have used this argument for years to resist a change to fly only regulations. There, although a once great wild steelhead fishery has been driven down to a remnant stock, anglers can still be found lining the banks, tossing bait while pretending to be catch-and-release conservationists.
Bait fishermen say their sport is no more lethal than any other kind of fishing, and they draw on their personal experiences to tell you how often they have safely released fish.
“There’s no more blood on our hands than on yours,” they say to fly fishermen.
But they are wrong.
Fisheries research papers dating back to at least the 1950’s show clearly that bait fishing is far more lethal than fly fishing, simply because it hooks fish more deeply, more often, inflicting fatal gill and throat wounds. Here are some of the studies that make that point:
1) “The results of 18 studies of hooking mortality of nonanadromous trout were integrated with meta-analysis. Studies were coded for all variables suspected of having a relationship to rates of hooking mortality. The analysis showed that trout caught on bait died at higher rates than trout caught on artificial flies or lures. . . and that wild trout died at higher rates than hatchery-reared trout.” – North American Journal of Fisheries Management, Volume 12, Issue 4, 1992.
2) “Mortality of rainbow trout Oncorhynchus mykiss caught and released by anglers using number 8 worm-baited hooks was investigated during 1990–1991 at the Hagerman (Idaho) State Fish Hatchery and within a 2-km segment of Badger Creek, Idaho . . . 17 percent of 281 wild rainbow trout on Badger Creek were hooked in the gills or esophagus. Overall, hooking mortality was estimated to be 16% for wild rainbow trout.” – North American Journal of Fisheries Management, Volume 16, Issue 2, 1996.
3) “The most thorough of . . . hooking mortality tests was conducted in Michigan by Shetter and Allison (1955). They concluded that ‘hooking mortality from worm fishing is significantly higher than the hooking mortality resulting from the use of artificial flies. Approximately 42 percent of all the trout caught on worms died soon after their release, but only 3 percent of those caught on artificial flies died after being hooked and released.’” – The Progressive Fish-Culturist, Volume 29, Issue 2, 1967.
4) “The postrelease mortality of rainbow trout Oncorhynchus mykiss caught on scented artificial baits was compared with postrelease mortalities of rainbow trout caught on traditional artificial flies. In all, 457 fish were captured on flies, 505 on artificial baits fished actively (ABA), and 511 on artificial baits fished passively (ABP). . . Overall mortalities were 3.9% for fly-caught fish, 21.6% for fish caught on ABA, and 32.1 % for fish caught on ABP.” – North American Journal of Fisheries Management. Volume 16, Issue 3, 1996.
5) “A summary of selected literature shows that hooking mortality of trout is variable depending on hooking location, hooking duration, fish size, and water temperature. Mortalities can vary from zero to 32%. Certain points are clear however: Trout caught on bait die at higher rates (up to 32%) than those caught on artificial flies or lures.” – NSW Fisheries Research Report Series: 9, January 2004.
6) “Analysis showed that trout caught on bait died at higher rates (31.4%) than trout caught on artificial flies (4.9%) or lures (3.8%).” – Taylor & White (1992).
7) “Comparing the use of flies and bait fishing the study found that fishing with flies caused 3.9% mortality, artificial baits fished actively caused 21.6% mortality and artificial baits fished passively caused 32.1% mortality for rainbow trout.” – Schisler & Bergersen (1996):
This is just a small sampling of the published research on the mortality rate of bait fishing, versus other methods.
The data shows that bait fishing kills about 30 to 40 per cent of the fish that are hooked. Fly fishing 3 to 4 per cent. Other studies have shown fly fishing mortalities as low as 1 per cent.
That doesn’t let fly fishermen off the hook. We all know fish can take a fly deep, cutting gills or puncturing an eye. But fish swallow bait more often than they do artificial flies, and that simple fact means a higher percentage of fish will die after release. Bait fishing is more lethal than any other method by far – except for maybe spear fishing – and it should be seen for what it is. It’s a kill fishery.
With the Thompson River steelhead at risk, one has to wonder why anyone would be allowed to use bait for these magnificent, wild fish. With a mortality rate as high as 40 per cent, why is bait fishing allowed anywhere that catch-and-release fishing is being encouraged?
There should be places for bait fishing. Just downstream from hatcheries, or in put-and-take waters where there are liberal limits, for example.
But bait fishing should not be allowed anywhere we are trying to restore wild stocks.
There should be a bait ban on the Thompson River. And that should just be the starting point for a broader movement against bait. There is too much blood in the water, and we know why it’s there.