I hate to release a trout I think won’t survive. In Michigan there are minimum size limits for various trout species and it seems like the aggressive undersize trout are the ones most likely to perish from unhooking and handling. Unfortunately, if you are caught with an undersize trout you could face a fine – maybe even lose your license. So there is the dilemma – let the trout go when you know he may die or take it home to eat and risk a fine. This may be a case where a little common sense may improve the law – allow a single undersize fish in the creel. Trust the angler to make a judgment call about the condition of the fish.
Larger fish are usually pretty tough. I have caught trout with a patch over one eye and their left pectoral fin tied behind their back, so survival rate is pretty good after they hit about fifteen inches. It is the duty of these experienced fish to teach the young ones about the various lures and how to recognize a treble hook, but I suspect the tough economy has had a trickle down effect so and more and more little trout have to fend for themselves without the sage advice of their elders. The scary hook jawed trout wearing eye patches may offer advice at the stream corner but if little trout are like little people, their mommas told them not to talk to strangers.
From what I have seen there are no shortage of little trout – at least on the streams I fish. That may have a lot to do with the good management of the resource, or, more likely, on the ability of nature to replenish itself in spite of man.
I fished a steam about fifteen years back that crossed a major highway straddled by farm country. It was small, maybe ten to twelve feet wide with some mix of bottom including gravel and some very sandy stretches. When I stepped on the sand, bubbles of gas came up that stunk like nothing I can describe. I suspect it had something to do with chemical run off from farm land. I kept fishing and caught a few small trout but sure didn’t keep any. After about an hour I came to a sharp bend and at the head of the bend the water was channeled through a tight spot. I tossed my lure in the backwater of the tight spot and saw the largest brown trout I’d ever seen on a small stream. He made a wake going for my lure then ducked into the deep hole in the bend. I went back once or twice hoping to see that fish again. I suspect that massive trout had a couple good stories and with the help of chemicals may have spoken proper English but I never got the chance to interview him.
Back to small trout badly hooked, and some clarification: Depending on the stream, I’d like the option to cook up the ones I think won’t make it. If they speak English and ask to be put back I’ll honor their wishes.