15 years ago, when I was a teen and really started going out on the rivers alone, it was a different world than it is now. You rarely ever saw a kayak. I don’t think that I had ever seen one on the water at all. Only in stores. Everyone, including myself, used an old canoe or jon boat. Thankfully, kayak fishing has blown up. But, even 5 or 6 years ago, it wasn’t that prevalent. There are so many positives to this and don’t get me wrong, I am very happy that it has. I think that we are overlooking one very important aspect of this, though. The ecosystem that our very presence has affected.
When I was a kid, I would keep every single fish that I caught. It didn’t matter if it was legal limit or not. If I knew that my dad wasn’t looking, I’d sneak my under sized fish into the cooler or live well and he wouldn’t realize it until we got home. Eventually I would learn that this is wrong and after getting in trouble for it several time, I stopped. I never really gave a second thought to keeping fish and what effects it might have on the area. In a large lake, like Table Rock lake that I frequent, it might not have any effect at all. Please, don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that there is something wrong with keeping fish. I still do it at times. There is something very gratifying about cooking and eating something that you caught yourself. I am just saying that with the influx of people on small creeks and rivers lately, we might want to give this a second thought.
Why now? One day while waiting for a shuttle on a river bank, I was approached by a conservation agent. He did the usual “can I see your license” and I showed him my info. After he had finished up he began to tell me how the Missouri Conservation Department had a few Jackson kayaks that they use for patrolling local creeks and rivers. He had a few questions about gear and about my Liska and overall it was a great conversation. Out of curiosity, I asked what he thought about the growth of the sport in our area. His reply was spot on. “It is bittersweet” he said. He then began to tell me about how hard it is to track “real” statistics but that the number of kayakers that they see while on patrol had grown by at least 100% each year for the past 5 years. Then he said something that really made me think, he said “I am not sure that these small creeks can handle this kind of pressure”. After 5 years of booming growth, I think he might be right.
What does this effect? Let’s start with game fish. The smallmouth bass, which is my favorite fish to chase. These fish fight a sometimes losing battle just to stay alive. They forage and fight for every mean, which is what makes them so aggressive and also makes them fun to catch. That also means that the big ones are a rare treasure. It is not out of the realm of possibility for a 17-20 inch smallmouth creek bass to be 16+ years old. That is quite a long life for a fish to live in small water. I get it though. I understand the though; what’s keeping a couple of fish going to hurt? If we were talking pan fish like rock bass or sun fish, I don’t think it would hurt at all. They can survive eating just about anything. They also grow very fast and repopulate quickly. However, when we are talking smallmouth, I think this could eventually be a huge issue. It has already become an issue in some of the stretches where I normally can find good fish. If you take a 6 mile stretch of river and 3 or 4 guys keep a limit of fish every day, that is a lot of fish but it probably isn’t that big of a deal. The problem we have now is that in peak season, we will have 20-40 guys keeping a limit of fish off of a 6 mile stretch of river. That is enough to hurt the ecosystem and really hurt the population of these target species.
What can we do? I am not saying that we should never keep fish. Even if I did, it is currently well within your legal right to keep them. I would implore you, at least when it comes to game fish in a small eco system such as a creek or river, to give a second though to keeping a fish. Consider the waterway. Consider the pressure. Does it get a lot of floater traffic? Do you rarely catch large fish from this area? These are all questions that you need to ask yourself and if the answer is yes to any of these questions, it might be a good idea to consider releasing the fish. We want to make sure that we have these fish, in high populations, for a very long time. Let’s all do our part to make sure that the explosion of the sport we love doesn’t have a negative effect on the future of fishing in our streams.