counting fish 1Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman MT
It’s a common set of questions in our fly fishing world. How was the fishing? How many did you catch? How big?, what kind?, where? Of course we provide answers—exaggerations, understatements, misinformation and occasionally the truth. In fact, truthful answers to these questions are useful to those who are charged with managing the resource. As early as 1951, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks used angler’s logs to help manage fisheries in the state. Mandated assessments of water quality and research on Whirling Disease have benefited from data collected from angler’s logs. Today there’s a formal Fishing Log Program where anglers from around the state maintain a record of their catches in a small waterproof log provided by the department. Collected at the end of each season, the data from the logs is compiled into a comprehensive summary detailing the collective fishing activity of those participating in the program. I’ve been keeping a Montana Fishing Log since 2009 and have my logs for each year since. The department returns the logs to anglers each January with a new, empty log for the coming season. Even visiting out of state anglers are encouraged to participate.

God's Honest Truth
God’s Honest Truth

By volunteering to keep records such as this, I guess one has to assume a moral obligation to be truthful about the results of their fishing trips. I try hard to eliminate exaggeration in my log. There are two significant challenges associated with this. I catch a lot of fish in a lot of different sizes. The easy log questions are: Where Did You Fish?, How Long Did You Fish?, What Species of Fish Did You Catch? The difficult task is keeping track of the number of and average length of fish, by species while you are concentrating on finding and catching them. So, as I move up or down river I find myself talking to myself—6 browns, 2 rainbows, 4 whitefish, etc. After each hookup, 6 browns, 3 rainbows, 4 whitefish, etc. If for some reason there’s a lull between catches it’s –was it 6 or 7 browns, 3 rainbows and 4 whitefish. Some rivers are more complicated than others. On the East Gallatin, it’s normally just rainbows and browns. On the Yellowstone it might be rainbows, browns, cutthroat, cutbows and whitefish. Even getting the number right is challenged by what actually counts as a catch. Does the fish have to come to hand? How about a good hookup, two or three jumps clearly indicating the species and escape? What about that aggressive strike on the streamer, 15 seconds of dogged struggle deep in the pool before the fish escapes? You know without doubt having never actually seen the fish that was a big brown. Should it count? Unfortunately, the department being a government agency, provides absolutely no guidance on this.

Good for the Average
Good for the Average

One of the columns in the log is average length, which having learned some basic arithmetic 50 years ago, you add up all the lengths of all the fish caught of a given species and then divide that by the number caught. (All the while staying upright in the river, releasing fish, making accurate casts, etc.) Trout Fact #41 from the Wild Trout Trust is very clear about this: All fishermen know that trout get progressively larger after they have been caught! As the catch numbers grow during a mornings fishing, I find it increasingly difficult to feel confident that the average length numbers I submit are anywhere near the truth. I don’t think they are exaggerations, but more like imprecise guestimates. Our rivers are healthy, annual recruitment is good, so those 6-9” fish are always part of the catch. But so are the 18”-20” heavies. Photos next to fly rods and hats help, but I find it hard to say what the average size fish was on any given day. But I suspect the averages I submit are to some extent influenced by trout fact #41 and I wonder if the department has an algorithm to factor trout fact #41 into their analysis.
Finally I return from the day’s fishing, tired but fulfilled. It’s Miller Time (I actually don’t drink Miller, but instead a tasty craft beer from Whitefish, Montana called “Going-to-the-Sun IPA”). Sometimes I fill out the log immediately, but it might be days before the numbers get written down in the log, my memories becoming exaggerations hopefully closer to the truth than not. I just hope the department doesn’t make too many drastic decisions based on my logs.
The logs serve another purpose—retrospect. It’s fun to go back and see reminders of when and where you fished and how successful you were. One year I even took all the data and tallied it up in a spreadsheet. Truth or exaggeration, I surprised myself on how successful I was. So far my best year in Montana according to my moral obligation to log potential exaggerations as truth was 2013. It was a great year out here in SW Montana. I logged over 1500 fish from March through November. You can see that counting a lot of fish can be complicated. But, I am encouraged by Trout Fact #45: “Analysis of catch returns shows clearly that in most fisheries a large proportion of the catch is taken by a small percentage of anglers. Now if we could just inspire some young entrepreneur to invent a small streamside accessory that would record numbers of multiple species caught (by whatever liberal or conservative criteria that qualifies as a catch) along with their average size, I’d buy it. Oh, it’s got to be waterproof.

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