Catch and Release Fishing: Throw the Big Ones Back

To protect its big fish population, Nueltin Lake in Manitoba has instituted a maximum-size restriction requiring anglers to release trophy-sized lake trout back into the water.

| May/June 1990

After 10 minutes with the big lake trout on my line, it seems as likely that I will soon go overboard to join it in its dark, watery world as it does that it will finally consent to join George Merasty, Nueltin Lake guide, and me in our bobbing aluminum outboard boat.

But suddenly, as my hands are beginning to cramp, the fish concedes, sliding slowly upward through 70 feet of black water to the surface, still fixed to the single, barbless hook of my giant red-and-yellow lure.

"This one's worth measuring," Merasty announces, excitement in his soft Cree voice. This time, instead of jiggling the hook to free the fish at boatside, as he's done with each of the half-dozen 10- to 14-pounders caught earlier in the day, he gently nets it aboard. Working quickly, he lays the fish on the stem seat, runs a cloth measuring tape from nose to tail (37 inches) and around its middle (20 inches), then consults a length-girth chart taped below the gunwale and, without ever weighing it, declares this trout to be an 18-1/2-pounder, just one and one-half pounds shy of the 20 pounds that would rate it a "trophy" and earn me a Manitoba Master Angler award.

To me, this lovely, glistening, hook-jawed creature looks half as big as our boat. Hunter-devourer at heart, my first instinct is to leap and pin it down. But there is no possibility of that, not according to the unusual, trendsetting catch-and-release fishing laws on this lake in central Canada. Nor am I even allowed to seize my prize by the gills and hoist it aloft in the traditional manly pose. Instead, Merasty cradles the fish almost tenderly—one hand around the base of the tail, a forearm supporting its midsection—holds it for maybe 90 seconds of picture-taking, then kneels and carefully releases it into the water. The big trout pauses only an instant, apparently unharmed by its time on the line and in our air. Then, with a sweep of its massive tail, it is gone, back to the depths.

Only later, once my lure is trolling again, do I begin to grumble: I would like to have kept that fish, I lament, partly to Merasty but mostly to the atmosphere. Its thick orange fillets would have fed a dozen friends back home in New York City, would have held them captive while I described every bend in the rod in my triumph over this great fighting animal. Mounted on my wall, the stuffed beast would have served as a constant reminder of this once-in-a-lifetime fishing trip. But, due to the avant-garde policies here at Nueltin Lake, which compel the release of every large trout, northern pike and grayling, all this is denied me.

Throw the Big Ones Back

George Merasty is not without empathy for the angler who wants to take home a real trophy. But, he reminds me, it's precisely Nueltin's prohibition against the harvest of all large fish year after year that enables this 1,200-square-mile lake on the border between Manitoba and the Northwest Territories to produce more trophy trout per angler per year than any other lake in North America. He grins. If I truly regret having released my big trout, he says, then I can return in 20 years to this very same spot where—since lake trout often live 60 or 70 years—this very same fish, grown to world-record size, win undoubtedly be waiting for me.

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