Release Those Roughfish!

At work today, a coworker came up and told me they'd seen me on the Minnesota Bound TV show, but her husband had mentioned that what we were doing was illegal.  He told her "If you catch one of those roughfish, you're supposed to kill it and leave it on the bank."


I spent the rest of the day feeling a little bit depressed. Apparently, our work is not yet complete.


Needless to say, I politely explained that any fish you don't intend to eat should be released unharmed, but it got me to thinking - on her side of the wall (in the Wildlife Department) there are also game animals (hunted for food) and non-game animals (like loons and chickadees).  But people don't go around saying that any non-game bird should be killed and left to rot.  Why are non-game fishes treated so differently?  There's this class of animals - native animals - that people feel don't deserve to live.  They can be shot and netted and speared in unlimited numbers, wasted, thrown in the garbage - but only because they've had this label attached to them that indicates they are undesirable.  And not only that, but the "roughfishes" are often fine food fishes, big and abundant, hard-fighting, and, dare I say, beautiful. 


I think it has many causes, all intertwined.  Here's another story:


A friend of mine on a recent fishing trip told me about catching bullheads in a small, muddy lake near his suburban house.  When he reeled in a fiesty black bullhead, some teenage boys ran up and asked him if they could have the bullhead.


"Why?" he asked them.  Their answer was simple.


"We want to put firecrackers in its mouth and blow it up!" they said in excitement.  My friend was amazed.


"Why would you do something like that?" he asked.


"Because - it's a bullhead."  The fish was released and the kids got a short lecture, but that was it.


Now we can ignore the age of these boys and just look at it from the purely human standpoint.  There's a certain segment of our culture that just enjoys killing and causing pain.  We call those people sadists.  But there's a tiny little bit of sadism in everybody, and the "roughfish" designation, and the mythical "kill 'em all" policy gives people an excuse to be sadistic with no repurcussions.  It's an excuse to kill things with no strings attached - there's this built in reason, that this type of fish is inherently bad and somehow need to be killed.  People who do this can act like sadists without feeling bad about it.  Those boys (hopefully) would never try to blow up their neighbor's dog or their pet hamster, but with a roughfish, they can get away with it.


The second part is this idea, discussed recently in the forums, that fish and wildlife populations can be "improved" by selectively removing undesirable elements.  The "armchair biologist" who catches a species they weren't hoping for thinks that if they kill those fish, then there will be "more room" for their desired species.  Research doesn't bear this out, but it makes sense on a very visceral level.  Like a garden or a farmer's field - if you want it to produce as much as possible, you pull out the weeds and leave the desirable plants.  The problem is that fish aren't plants, and aquatic ecosystems aren't gardens or fields.  If you were raising fish in a closed pond and feeding them, then you certainly would want to remove any undesirable fish from the pond.  But wild waters are completely different.  Each species has its own niche, and every species interacts with every other species differently at each stage of its life.  Golden shiners might eat the eggs of spawning pike, but adult pike eat the shiners.  Bass might eat the pike fry, but yearling pike might eat fingerling bass.  Suckers and trout might both feed on aquatic insects, but small trout eat sucker eggs and large trout feed on both small suckers and fingerling trout.  Suckers might eat nymphs, but they also dislodge clinging nymphs for trout to feed on. The carrying capacity of an ecosystem, and its stability, depends both on it habitat and its diversity of species.   A stream with suckers and trout in it might produce 100 pounds of trout per mile, but 400 pounds of suckers.  Take out all the suckers, and it might only produce 10 pounds of trout.  In short, the idea of freeing up "space" in the ecosystem is an oversimplification - and removing a link from the chain could have the opposite effect from what is intended.  The problem is that the limited ecosystem idea seems like "common sense".


Unfortunately, there isn't much we can do about these first two things.  We can't cure people of their inherent sadism, and we can't change the fact that the limited ecosystem idea seems like common sense.  The third problem, though, we can do something about.  I'm talking, of course, about ignorance and misinformation.


The justifications I've heard hundreds of times over just boggles the mind. 


"Bowfin should be killed because they eat walleye eggs."


"Suckers should be killed because they pollute the water."


"I'd like to release that redhorse, but it's illegal to put them back."


"Gar eat up all of the bass." 


"Buffalo are bad for the lake."


For this problem of ignorance, we can certainly do something.  All we have to do is speak up.  More and more people get the message every day.  If someone repeats one of these old-wives-tales, tell them they're wrong.  It's hard, sometimes, but in the long run, our message is going to get out there.  It already is becoming more and more common to meet people with an enlightened attitude toward these so-called "rough" fishes when out fishing.  With any kind of luck, this will only increase. 


Tight lines and good fishing!


Corey Allen Geving



roughfish29's picture

this is beautiful

TonyS's picture

excellent - we need to plaster this everywhere.  I'm always amazed at how much misinformation is out there regarding "roughfish"

MNbowfinangler's picture

Corey, this is very well written and I agree with roughfish29 and TonyS. I would like to see the DNR publish this essay in all future fishing regulations booklets (any chance of that?). In the meantime, I'll share it on facebook and refer it to any "misinformed anglers" I encounter.

Reekfish's picture

Well said!


I've always been disgusted by people killing things for fun, and without even eating them. Sure, animals kill other animals but it is always out of need and never malicious. crying


Publishing this in anything anglers are likely to see is a good idea.

Cast_and_Blast's picture

An abreviated version of this should be published in the law book just to help break all the negative stereotypes towards roughfish. 

The irony of it all can be seen in the southwest desert natives.  Years ago, people began to introduce their favorite fish to the Southwest.  Today, many of these roughfish species are near extinction and fishing for them is even illegal.  Millions of dollars are now spent trying to restore what we once had down there. 

TonyS's picture

Slight correction - the SW desert natives were more of a habitat destruction issue than a fish introduction issue.  The damming of rivers and draining of wetlands is the core of the problem there.  Corey, what ever happened to that awesome piece  you wrote on dams?  It was on one of the previous website verisons but I don't see it here.


Of course, quite a few people in Utah-rado would love to get rid of all the natives and dam up or drain all the rivers to grow more peaches, grapes, and cattle. 


Of course the introductions are a problem too

Moose439's picture

Two thumbs up. This kind of stuff happens alot down here, I see people mistreating and wasting fish almost everytime I go out. People think because there are so many fish in the ocean that they can't be effected by over fishing.

the pyromaniac's picture

I have some good news to share, gringos! So, last week I published a photo on my lifelist that I had tentatively ID'd as a stoneroller but Dr. Flathead and JKnuth insist is a creek chub. Regardless of who is correct, the fish had some awesome colors, so I shared the same picture on the Facebook page of my church's men's fishing group with the caption "Trash fish are awesome!" Only two other guys in the group (of 17) target roughies, but about half of the guys have commented to me on what a cool fish it was!




Let there be fire!

Jason E.'s picture

Nicely put.  I always feel mad when "sportsmen" kill just for the sake of killing.

For some reason, I always think of Clint Eastwood's line in Unforgiven.  "When you take a man's life, you've taken all he has and all he's ever gonna have."  How true this is for animals.  They don't leave inheritances.  They don't write up documents to leave behind.  All they have is life.  The only thing that they own is their life.  Why take it from them capriciously? 

Reekfish's picture

wormhunter, "nicely put" to you as well! i really enjoyed that comment and agree entirely! smiley

Outdoors4life's picture

Two thumbs up!


This group is getting bigger all the time! More people out on the water politely telling them that they are wrong by killing these fish just be be left on the bank will have a huge impact. I too have had customers at my work come up to me and say that they saw me and thought it was awesome to have such a group out having fun. As different from other groups as we are we are also very simailar with the amount of passion and drive to protect what we have.

It is all perspective!

Acer Home Inspections

I can't understand why people don't read the fishing regs. in their respective states. I do know in MN, killing roughfish to be left on the bank is considered wanton waste, and can result in a citation. Ignorance of law by folks is bothersome to those of us that do it right. I do get it that it is a perspective thing, and folks need to value the resource.

the pyromaniac's picture

@RealDeal, I don't know for sure but I would imagine it'd be the same in Virginia.




Let there be fire!

perkinsdonald's picture

Its very upsetting to see dead carp/ suckers on shore! Ive been able to throw one or two back when I see someone throw em on land. I would snap if I seen a gar treated like that! I thought I was the only one who felt this way. Im glad im not :-)



The gods do not subtract the alotted span in men's lives the hours spent in fishing.

Nick Li's picture

This is definitely one of the best articles I've seen, I've shared this with my fishing group with some resistance, but not all too much which is nice. Thanks for writing this a lot!