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OPINION | ARKANSAS SPORTSMAN: Eating trout will improve fishery

by Bryan Hendricks | January 27, 2022 at 2:21 a.m.

If anglers want to see bigger brown trout in the Little Red River, they should remove 14- to 16-inch brown trout.

Keeping trout is taboo to fly fishermen that are steeped in the catch-and-release theology, but keeping a few trout for the good of the fishery boils down to basic biology. The Little Red River has too many 14- to 16-inch brown trout. The Little Red River has a limited amount of food to support the large numbers of brown trout, rainbow trout, Bonneville strain cutthroat trout, walleyes, and saugers that inhabit its waters.

Because anglers seldom keep brown trout, brown trout are stacked at 14-16 inches. Because there are so many, they peak at that size, and the limited food supply does not facilitate trout reaching true trophy size. Unless anglers take advantage of creel limits, the probability of the Little Red River ever producing record-book fish, like the 40-pound, 4-ounce former world record caught by Howard "Rip" Collins in 1992, are remote.

Ben Batten, chief of the fisheries division for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, said that anglers resist the suggestion for several reasons.

For starters, anglers have a higher regard for brown trout on the Little Red River than they do at the White River and Lake Norfork Tailwater. The Little Red River supports a wild, self-sustaining brown trout population that anglers regard reverently, largely because of Collins's fish. Let's not forget that Collins's trout broke a Norfork Tailwater all-tackle world record caught by Huey Manley.

Also, there are a lot more brown trout in the Little Red River than anglers realize, Batten said. Because they are wild, brown trout in the Little Red River are harder to catch than stocked rainbow trout, Batten said. Anglers don't see as many browns, so they don't believe they are as plentiful as they are.

"You do not catch brown trout proportionately to how they are in the river," Batten said. "Let's say there are 200 trout in a stretch of river. One hundred are rainbows that we stocked, and 100 brown trout that have spent their whole lives in the river. If you catch ten, chances are that nine of those will be rainbows. Maybe all ten will be rainbows.

"Anglers that don't electrofish, say there must not be as many brown trout because they catch so few of them," Batten continued. "But electrofishing does not lie. You see everything."

Thirdly, trout anglers are culturally more reluctant to keep brown trout. Tournament anglers don't eat bass because they don't want to remove a commodity from the water that might earn them some money. A trout angler's reverence for brown trout is borderline religious.

"The catch-and-release ethic, which is very well intentioned, is part of the DNA of fishing for lack of a better term," Batten said. "As strong as it is in the bass fishing community, it's even stronger in the trout community in general, and that Little Red (River) trout population is even more revered than that."

Keeping a few trout isn't a solution. Anglers need to keep a lot of 14- to 16-inch brown trout to enable the Little Red River to produce the quality of brown trout that excites anglers.

"At this second in time, as tough as those fish are to catch, it would be a bit of a stretch for me to say that we'll turn this thing around in a year or two if people start keeping them tomorrow," Batten said. "Those fish are so dense, and being so hard to catch, it's a long-term issue."

Survival rates of spawned brown trout are very high, Batten said. Predation of brown trout spawn and fingerlings is not a problem. The problem is large numbers of brown trout flatlining at 14-16 inches.

It is paradoxical that anglers prefer to eat rainbows more than browns. A wild brown trout, with its mild, pink meat, tastes much better than a stocked rainbow that was raised on commercial trout pellets. Only after it has been in the river eating natural food long enough does a rainbow's flavor compare to that of a wild brown trout.

My favorite way to prepare a trout is to slab the sides and bake them in butter and lemon, garlic and salt, with crushed pecans sprinkled liberally. In "Travels With Charley: In Search of America," John Steinbeck wrote of throwing freshly caught trout into a skillet until they were crisp and brown. He strained the meat off the bones with his teeth and ate the tail like a pork rind.

Except in catch-and-release areas, the daily limit of trout on the Little Red River is five, of which only one may exceed 16 inches. With fewer small trout, more will grow longer than 16 inches.


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