Yellowstone's Fishing Ethic An Export Into Heart of Canadian Pike Country

Fishing ethics developed, in part, in Yellowstone National Park migrated north to Canada, where catch-and-release has been a boon to the angling industry. NPS photo.

You can call it a ripple effect, or “trickle-up conservation” or, in concepts that rabid anglers know in their hearts, the value of wild, sustainable fisheries and what they really mean.

We were drifting though a cove, my teenage son and I, ringed by submerged beds of weeds in clear water allowing us to easily see bottom 15 feet below. Loons were harmonizing in the next bay, moose were tromping through a nearby bog, and the chill of autumn was advancing from the Northwest Territories.

The morning had begun with a bouncing boat ride across wavy chop on a massive tarn, nearly the size of Yellowstone Lake in America’s first national park; only this was Canada’s boreal north. Except for another group of businessmen from Calgary in the other Lund, we had it all to ourselves.

Sheltered from the wind and casting with barbless daredevils for humungous northern pike, the thrill of the action was surpassed only by the consistency of fish size and imprint of a place becoming manifested in my son’s memory.

For a couple of hours, every other outlay of line was met by a blamming strike of spoons from the freshwater equivalent of barracudas.

That’s when our guide—Jean-Luc Dubé, speaking in his Franglais patois—surprisingly steered the conversation homeward. As owner of Oliver Lake Lodge, a wilderness retreat in the granitic shield country of northern Saskatchewan, Dubé credited the health of the pike, walleye and lake trout fisheries, in part, with actions championed in the trout streams of the Greater Yellowstone region.

“Have you guys ever heard of Bud Lilly and Jack Dennis?” Dubé asked. “When my father petitioned the province to have catch-and-release regulations adopted on the lake, he did research and found the names of prominent flyfishing guides around Yellowstone Park who supported the tougher regulations down there.”

The elder Monsieur Dubé also pointed out to environmental ministers based in Regina, the Saskatchewan capital, that catch-and-release and slot limits, now widely embraced in the Lower 48, have yielded huge economic and ecological dividends.

Of course, it wasn’t only Jack Dennis and Bud Lilly who rallied behind catch-and-release, I noted to Jean-Luc. The advent actually started in the United Kingdom and the U.S. East long before.

I’m not here to try and defend sport fishing, though I will say that according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, tens of millions of American families engage in it and that, in turn, it generates billions of dollars for local economies; and again, in turn, those numbers help conservationists make a stronger case for asserting the value of nature, which forms the underpinnings of its public protection.

I know that some folks are still offended; that they find fishing and hunting cruel even if done to put food on the table; and that there are studies showing fish DO FEEL PAIN when they are on the line; and that, as sentient creatures, they deserve our respect.

My attachment to fishing is visceral. It was among the first experiences I had as a boy in the outdoors and therefore has sentimental worth that has fueled a commitment to conservation and the desire to share it with my own kids.

As Richard Louv notes in Last Child in the Woods, we need to get our kids outdoors in ways that give them enjoyment and leave them longing for more.

Catch-and-release has had a game-changing role with wild fisheries in the West. Yellowstone represents its headwaters. The pioneers of catch-and-release angling in Greater Yellowstone four decades ago also had a huge ally in aquatic scientist John Varley when he worked in Yellowstone National Park, and in Dan Bailey, Jim McCue, Bob Jacklin, Bob Carmichael and many others, including groups such as Trout Unlimited and the Federation of Fly Fishers.

Moreover, few events have created more of a public relations buzz in popularizing catch-and-release, certainly in the West, than the annual Jackson Hole One Fly competition on the Snake River now entering its 24th year. The Snake flows through the center of Grand Teton National Park.

As the ethics practiced at Dubé’s fishing lodge attest, Canadians, certainly the most progressive fishing destinations, have embraced catch and release. It’s a radical shift from decades past when Americans poured northward across the border and returned with ice chests full of walleye filets.

Those excursions, also known as “meat runs,” left wild fisheries on the brink of collapse—not unlike the condition of waters of old in Greater Yellowstone.

There is indeed a reason why those grainy black-and-white photographs portraying Victorian-era tourists with long stringers of (dead) trout are now relegated to historical society collections.

I know that some readers invariably will wag their fingers at us for choosing to spin-cast and troll with barbless hooks, over bringing our flyrods, but the inclement windy weather actually made our decision a wise one. We caught many pike in the 30-inch range and a few monsters that topped 40 inches, all of which were quickly returned to the water alive.

Oliver Lake is one of dozens of reputable fishing lodges in northern Saskatchewan and Dubé says catch-and-release is working. Given the size of Dubé’s permit area and the low fishing pressure, one benefit still remains: the legendary shore lunch.

The regulations enabled us to keep a single small pike every day for lunch that was quickly turned, by bush chef Dubé, into Canadian fish and chips.

With my lifelong bias in favor of walleye, I thought nothing could compare. The pike was mouth-watering to my boy and I; the health of the lake and its connection to our homeland here even more savory.