Thursday, January 26, 2012

So you're a Master Angler, huh?

     What is a “Master Angler?”

     As an avid angler, I have often asked myself this question. Does the title come with years of experience? Is it a rare mixture of dedication and natural ability? Perhaps there is some other factor, a factor that is impossible to define? 

     If you live in Colorado, the Colorado Division of Wildlife might appear to be a good a place to begin the search for an answer to that question. After all, the Colorado Division of Wildlife is the government agency that keeps records of outstanding catches of gamefish made in Colorado. 

     We will come back to the question of what exactly constitutes a “Master Angler.” But first, we will look at a few facts about Colorado itself. Here is a link to a chart depicting values for the amount of rainfall, on an annual basis, in every state in America. 
Colorado needs water

     My hunch was that Nevada would have the least liquid precipitation per annum, but in reality that dubious distinction goes to Arizona, with just 7.11 inches per year. Colorado, with 15.31 inches per year manages to slightly more than double Arizona’s pitiful rainfall. This makes Colorado one of the driest states in the union. If you doubled the amount of rain that falls in Colorado, it would not quite equal the quantity that falls in Kansas. Kansas is (as anyone who has had the distinct privilege of transecting it via automobile may attest) a vast expanse of mostly nothing, and not exactly soggy at that. 

     In fact, Kansas, despite being smaller than Colorado by roughly twenty thousand square miles, and having about 2 million less people, is very thirsty. Thirsty enough that they successfully prosecuted their effort to enforce the letter of a compact made in the early part of the last century between Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas. This agreement concerns the allocation of water in the Republican River, a watercourse that is common to all three states. 

     Beginning in Colorado, the Republican flows slightly north and east to Nebraska before turning south into Kansas. Kansas maintained that the upriver states were not holding to the agreement, and owed Kansas water going back for decades. Now, people need water, but crops do too. And the economy of Kansas depends to a large extent on agriculture. So Kansas played their hand, and for Bonny Reservoir, it was a royal flush. 
     After the smoke cleared, Colorado was left with two options, one bad, and one worse. It could drain Bonny and send the water downstream to Kansas, or be in open violation of the law. Bonny reservoir was drained, and in a few years time (assuming that there is adequate rainfall for grass to grow) there should be excellent pasture for the deer to graze where Bonny Reservoir once lay. No doubt the carcasses of tens of thousands of fish will enhance the fertility of the land. 

     What does this prove? It is proof that Colorado is a dry state. One of the driest, in fact. Not much water, and what little water there is falls high in the mountains as snow. A great percentage of the annual snowmelt is claimed by farming, a fact that is difficult to begrudge. Some of it is out of state farming, but no matter. People gotta eat. 

     What on earth does this have to do with my original question of what, exactly, constitutes a “master angler?”

     I will get to that. In a minute. 

     First, a little biology. 

  Fish need water

     Fish, like all life, need water to survive. But fish are a demanding lot when it comes to the quantity of water that they require. You might even call them extravagant in their demands. Whereas you or I may be fine with a lot less than a gallon of water a day most days, fish need water in dosages that would surely prove fatal to other types of vertebrate life. Fish are born in water, breathe in water, eat in water, breed in water, shit in water, and die in water. There are a few bizarre fish that can make short expeditions onto land, but even they must soon return to the water or perish. We all learned this as small children, right? 

     So, let us examine the information that I have so far provided. First, Colorado has very little water. Second, fish need water, and lots of it. Sorta makes Colorado look like a less than ideal place to be a fish, huh? 

     Colorado is not a great place to be a fish, and for more reasons than lack of water. 

     Colorado, in addition to being one of the driest places in North America, is growing faster than almost any other state. Not much water now, and because more people are coming every day, even the water we have won’t be enough. I will not even bother to speculate what climate change might mean in all of this; even the most optimistic predictions of rainfall look inadequate in the face of growth that if plotted on a graph looks like an upward curvilinear arc, something Evel Knievel might have made ready use of. So...

     Fish need water like Wal-Mart needs China. Colorado is bone-dry, and keeps getting drier. And the population of Colorado is skyrocketing.

     What does this have to do with the original question? I will get to that, honestly. 

     Anyone who has kept an aquarium knows that there are only so many fish that may survive in a given volume of water. Sure, it looks great to have lots of fish finning around in there, but they soon exceed the carrying capacity of the tank. Their metabolic requirements for oxygen and the volume of waste they create is not sustainable, and soon smelly, smelly fish-death takes place. A rotten aquarium full of ammonia and dead fish is nothing that anyone wants in their house, so the tendency is to abide by the recommendation set by the aquarium manufacturer as to how many fish to stick in the tank. 

     Lakes and ponds are just like aquariums. Big aquariums, but the principals are the same. Only so many pounds of fish flesh per acre are possible. Colorado is in short supply of suitable fish habitat. There are only so many fish Colorado can produce, and no more. There are exploding numbers of people in competition for a resource that is at best not getting any richer, and at worst diminishing substantially as lakes all over the state go dry. This is the west, crops need water, and people gotta eat.

     But does this have anything to do with my original question? I’ll get to it, I swear! 

     Anglers need fish

     In every state in the union, the local agency responsible for natural resources management keeps track of the largest individual fish –by weight– of each species of gamefish ever landed within that state’s borders. This is what is known as a “state record,” and is the brass ring that any serious angler dreams of taking for his or herself. Oh, some people might claim not to care about the record books, but the opportunity to capture such a rare specimen is something very few would not relish, if only for the feeling of personal accomplishment. Thus, the state record has become the de-facto standard of angling renown. 

     There is a problem with this model, however. The very persons most likely to catch a record sized fish are often the committed anglers that will go fishing come rain or shine, hot or cold, day or night, Hell or estranged spouses. They have put countless hours and thousands of dollars into an angling education that far outstrips the bulk of the angling public. They have become conversant in many techniques, devoured any available knowledge, honed their physical skills through endless repetition, and have apprenticed themselves to the twin masters of bitter disappointment and earned success. Very often these die-hard fishermen have killed enough fish to quench the furnace of their ego, and have evolved into another sort of angler all together; one who fishes because they are compelled to do so, but has no desire to kill a trophy gamefish. 

     Some might even call them master anglers.

     Thus, if such an angler catches a fish exceeding in size the existing record for that species, there are two options they may choose. One is to kill the fish and claim the record. The other it to release the record back into the waters of its capture. To a master angler, killing a trophy gamefish is anathema. But there still is a sense of regret in not being able to claim the accomplishment, if only for bragging rights among one’s friends.

     In an effort to rectify this dilemma, the Colorado Division of Wildlife created a program that enabled lucky anglers that captured outstanding gamefish to be recognized for their catch. They called it the “Master Angler Program” and it was an immediate success. 

     Since the creation of the program in the 1990’s, anglers can apply to be awarded a certificate proclaiming them a “Master Angler” if they happen to catch a fish big enough to qualify. As an example, the size a largemouth bass, (micropterus salmoides) must be to qualify for a Master Angler catch is eighteen inches. There are lakes in Colorado where a bass any smaller than eighteen inches must be returned to the water immediately. So, at these lakes, any fish big enough to be a “keeper” qualifies for the program. A four year old girl that caught a keeper with a Princess combo could apply (assuming she could address an envelope or compose an email) for the status of “Master Angler,” and she would be awarded that title by the authority invested in the state. But we do not wish to be accused of trafficking in sour grapes. The adult responsible for the child would surely swell with pride if their offspring rose at a tender age to the exalted rank of Master Angler. Surely such a child is destined for greatness. No, let them have their fun. Still...

     Resource managers need anglers

     A little known fact of fisheries resource management is that surveying a fish population in a given body of water is very, very difficult. Electroshocking is not as effective a method as most believe, and some species are not easily caught in gill nets. Fish survey methods available to resource managers are limited and in-efficient at best, and nowhere is this more true than with trophy sized fish. 

     If one examines the survey data from a lake known to hold large numbers of better than average gamefish, one might conclude that there was something amiss. Seldom in these surveys are larger than average specimens collected. In fact, the best way to evaluate the trophy potential of a given body of water is with creel data, or data collected from anglers regarding the number of hours they fished, how many fish they caught, what size the fish were, and what species. A program that encourages anglers to voluntarily submit information of bigger than average fish (for a pat on the head) is an unqualified asset to the agency responsible for fisheries management. Again, no problem, right? 


Anglers need to protect the resource 

     There are two points of contention with the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s Master Angler Program.
     The first is that even though there was an existing category for dead fish (this of course being the record by weight, or state record) on the books, the CDOW awards Master Angler certificates for DEAD fish, as well as for those released alive. Every year, roughly half the fish that are submitted for the award are dead. Some species, such as walleye, are kept at higher rates than others. But to have a management program that rewards –perhaps even encourages– people to kill trophy sport fish is counter productive to the objective of maintaining Colorado’s fragile fisheries in the best possible condition. 

     The second point is this; though I do not doubt that the information gathered by the Master Angler program helps the CDOW to make informed choices regarding the implementation of special regulations where appropriate, that information should be between the angler who caught the fish and the CDOW. The fact that the locations of “Master Angler” catches are a matter of public record is a mistake. These records serve to further focus attention on vulnerable public waters, many of which are vulnerable to angler over-harvest and abuse by unscrupulous individuals that do not abide by regulations. In the days of the internet, what is put on display stays on display. The fact that the CDOW is chronically understaffed and underfunded is of course only another aspect of the problem. 

     The Master Angler Program needs to change

     The simple solution is twofold. First, keep data regarding outstanding catches limited to the name of the angler, size of the fish, and the date it was captured. People could still brag to their buddies, but the attention focused on sensitive Colorado ponds and lakes would be diminished. 

     Second, do away with Master Angler awards for dead fish. Encouraging anglers to kill trophy fish reduces the quality of the angling experience for all fishermen. Any body of water can only support so many fish, and very few of those can be large. There are a lot of us here in Colorado, and more are arriving every day. We can not afford to degrade a finite resource that must be split millions of ways.



  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Comment all day folks, but don't do do it anonymously, M'nkay?

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Hello,

    I really admire your subject matter and applaud you for trying.


  5. That is most congenial of you David. I posted this verbatim on a local fishing forum, and the response so far has been gratifying. Perhaps it will get a little traction.



  6. Shaun I really enjoyed that blog!I completely agree with your take on the master angler program