What Does Recreational Fishing Really Mean?

Releasing a bluefin tuna

Is “Limiting Out” Becoming Passé?

Top photo: Releasing a bluefin tuna

I’m not gonna lie, man. I kinda dislike the term “limiting out”… Actually, I hate it.

Mostly because it implies a certain, perhaps outdated, way of thinking – that your fishing trip wasn’t really successful unless you killed the maximum allowed under the current set of regulations. And that somehow the goal all along was just to fill up a cooler.

Equally annoying is the phrase “on the meat” (nails/chalkboard). I mean, come on, man. You want meat, go to the butcher.

I do get it though…such phrases are used mostly to brag, but still, I’d like to think the angling community, as a whole, has evolved. It’s hard for me to believe that anyone who truly understands recreational fishing still thinks that way.

I know, I know…to look down on folks who want to take home a limit is arrogant, elitist, highbrow.

Releasing a striper

Releasing a striper

To be clear, I’m NOT try’n to do that here. I truly believe there is NOTHING wrong or particularly distasteful about killing fish. I mean, if I did, I’d be a huge hypocrite. Because I kill way more than your average Joe. Yeah, most of the time it’s for clients wanting to take home a fish or two, and yeah, sometimes although not often, a legal limit, but it’s not unusual that me and my kid kill a few stripers every year. Gasp! The horror!

Listen, man…human beings are apex predators, hunters, fishermen. Of course killing and eating stuff is part of that. To try and act like it isn’t is ridiculous.

So I guess, in the same respect, the do-no-wrong purists who ridicule folks who do keep a fish or two are just as annoying. Some of the catch-and-release community – which I do consider myself part of (most of my inshore clientele are catch-and-release folks) – understand that even releasing fish has an impact (a significant percentage of fish don’t survive the release). There are a LOT however who still choose not to believe the science on that, or simply refuse to acknowledge it.

Somewhere, in the middle of those two poles, lies what I believe to be the majority of anglers. And, by angler I mean those folks who fish more than a few days a year. Those folks who “get it.” Who understand the real value of fishing.


I think to some extent, the general public grossly misunderstands recreational fishing.

It’s often at a cocktail party or something, when one of my wife’s friends finds out what I do. “Oh, that must be so relaxing,” and “you must eat a lot of fish.” Uhm, no. When I explain that most of ’em go back, there’s almost always a look of confusion. And if I try and explain that it’s more about adrenalin than relaxation, well, they’ve mostly lost interest by then.

I mean, sure, harvesting fish is certainly part of fishing (it’s definitely part of tuna fishing). But honestly, it’s a relatively small part.

The truth is that fishing isn’t really about killing a bunch of fish, “boxing up” and going home. It’s much, much more about the experience.

There’s something unmistakably meaningful about immersing yourself in the marine environment and actually becoming part of an ecosystem. Fortunately, we’re at the top of that food chain, ahem, most of the time. I mean, seriously, sometimes you’re in the middle of it all. Hundreds of blitzing striped bass or tuna. They’re trying to kill/eat baitfish, you’re trying to kill and eat them, or simply act that whole process out without the killing part by catching then releasing them. If you get out on the right day? You might just find yourself handfeeding yellowfin tuna behind the boat.

Bluefin release

Bluefin release

And man, if you’ve ever been sight fishing, that’s the ultimate. You are poking along in knee-deep, crystal clear water while small schools of stripers cruise by. Maybe a big one peels off and follows, turning away at the last minute. Or maybe, you get to see the fish’s bright-red gill-plates flare as it sucks in your fly. You set the hook, and it’s off to the races.

One of the things I find interesting about sight fishing, arguably the pinnacle of the inshore angling experience, is eight hours seems like two. And it ain’t really about catching in those situations. Because while you may see a lot of fish, most of the time you don’t catch a lot, because they are real finicky when they get up in the shallow stuff. But the whole experience… Seeing the fish, stalking them, making that perfect cast. The hope, the anticipation that you “might” hook up. That kinda thing is sooo cool. And if you do stick one? Man, that adrenaline dump is awesome!

And offshore? You get a big tuna swimming behind a topwater plug, then it crashes it right by the freak’n boat? Looking at my watch equipped with a heart-monitor right now, my heart rate just went from 68 beats per minute to 96, just from typing that one sentence.

I could go on here with a hundred different examples.

The point is that it isn’t so much about getting that fish in the boat and killing it, it’s the entire experience of being on the water, or on a beach, and not just witnessing it all, but immersing yourself in it. Not just as a bystander, but as an active part of the food chain.

Maybe that makes sense to some, and maybe to others it really doesn’t. But if you’ve been there, I’m sure you understand how profound such experiences are.

Anyone who thinks you just go out kill a few fish then come home is greatly underestimating the experiential nature of fishing.

Releasing Fish

I suppose that it is in that respect that releasing fish is so satisfying for many of us. A quick photo of a lit-up, healthy, living fish is so much more appealing to the eye than a washed out dead/bloody one. And when you drop it back and watch it swim away, then turn around and high-five the angler? THAT is a sort of joy that ya just won’t understand unless you’ve been there.

But yes…it is a fact that some fish don’t survive the trauma. Catch-and-release anglers often hem and haw about impact, but the science is very clear that dead discards are significant. With striped bass the estimated 9% discard mortality adds up to almost 50% of entire fishing mortality when multiplied across the number of anglers targeting striped bass.

Still… that 9% discard mortality estimate is WAY lower the 100% mortality rate from fish tossed in the cooler. And discard mortality? Well, with any “sport fish” of course there’s going to be lots of discards (a.k.a. releases). It’s simply part of any fishery where the vast majority of participants put more value on the sporting aspect rather than food. And while the numbers might not indicate it as such, common-sense should tell ya that a catch-and-release fishery is WAY more benign than the catch-and-kill one.

But back to the point. Releasing fish can be considerably more satisfying than actually killing one. While for sure some folks won’t understand that, well, most experienced anglers do.

Dead Fish

Like I said though, there’s a lot of killing going on too. I’m not trying to deny that at all. And that’s okay, as long as it’s sustainable.

But a couple of things here.

As a charter captain, I kinda put my own limits on anglers who charter me out. With yellowfin in particular, well, you can keep 3 per person. If I have 4 or even 6 anglers, x3 fish in the 40 to 100lb range, well, that’s a ridiculous amount of fish. And most anglers don’t have the room to bring it all home, much less the freezer space. (Note: IMO it’s blasphemous, maybe even a little bit offensive, to even consider freezing fresh tuna!) Also, ahem, I don’t want clients lingering around my dock for 3 hours while my mate sweats over the cleaning table. Plus, I’ll have a ton of carcasses I’ll need to disposed of. Regardless, all that killing just ain’t necessary. And in most cases, it’s just wasteful. That sort of waste is disrespectful to the resource itself.

With other species? Well, striped bass are so coveted that it’s pretty self-regulating. I can count the number of times clients want to keep a limit each year on one hand. And with bluefin? Well, the regulations are pretty constraining with those. Other species I don’t really have a problem with either.

I guess the point here is that I always try and discourage overindulgence and waste. And sometimes that’s not easy as the impulse is strong in some anglers to kill/keep as many as they can – even though it’s really unlikely they can eat it all, or even give it away.

Yeah, sometimes it’s a recommendation, but most of the time it’s an order. My boat, my rules. While I’m in no position to turn away or lose business, if your sole intent is to go out and “limit,” then go with someone else. Sure, if you want, you’ll go home with as much fish as you can possibly use. But I’ll be dammed if I send you away with more than you can effectively use. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is.

If my clients don’t initially understand the rational for that, well, I certainly try and make them understand. And so far, that’s never been an uncomfortable conversation.

One Fish Two Fish

Another thing I find somewhat irritating is when I get back to the dock and ya get the “how many ya get?” question. Some of the time it’s from those people eager to tell you they caught more, like it’s some sorta competition, and other times it’s just from folks who wanna know. Which is okay, I guess. Regardless, I’ll pretty much always respond that “we caught a few.”

I mean, maybe we caught a bunch, maybe we didn’t. But come on, man…it ain’t about the numbers. Again, it’s about the experience.

There are some trips where maybe we stick only one fish. But the strike was epic, and it took the whole crew on the rod to get it to the boat. Or hell, maybe we even got skunked, but we had our shots, maybe lost one or two, and saw some of the most crazy whale feeds. I mean, yeah, it sucks to get skunked, but there’s WAY more to it than just coming home with fish.

And it ain’t even just the experience here that I’m talking about. It’s the stories ya get to tell…sometimes for decades. The “one that got away” sometimes creates a more profound memory than the ones ya landed. And honestly, it’s that kind of thing that keep anglers coming back. I have so many of those memories/stories, man, that I could entertain ya for hours.

I often justify my overindulgent lifestyle and career path (to myself) by finding meaning in the fact that when all is said and done, I help to create memories for people. Because really, life, when all is said and done, is simply a collection of such memories.

I think Taylor Swift is on point when she belts out the refrain, “Hold on to the memories they will hold on to you” (Note: Hey man, I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a Swifty). As I get well into my back-9, I’ve come to understand how true this actually is.

Dead Fish Pics

And lastly, I can’t really get to a place where I’m okay with the dead-on-the-dock pics. I try to muster up the willpower to hit “like,” cause I wanna be stoked for the anglers, but I just can’t do it.

My colleagues know I hate them, so they often tag me in those posts just to break my chops.

Yeah, it’s kinda funny, I guess. And I know, I’m sounding like an elitist again, but really man, those dozen-or-more pallid, graying fish, spread out across the dock baking in the sun? Kinda gross IMO. I mean, does anyone like those shots? I guess they do, and I mean great on ya for catching so many fish, but yeah, to me anyway…ugly.

And I always have to question what happens to all those fish once they leave the dock in a hundred ziplocks. Do they really get utilized? I often doubt that they do, but hey, who knows? Just seems unlikely to me.

Getting back to the photos, I’d think that a living, or freshly killed bright, colorful fish would seem a lot more pleasing to the eye than a washed-out dead fish baking in the sun, but what do I know?

And then there’s the bloody-fish/bloody-deck pics.

Hey man, fish bleed when ya kill ’em. Tuna in particular bleed a LOT. I’m not gonna lie though, I really dislike those sorts of photos too. Certainly not because I’m squeamish. I’ve been around more blood than most ER doctors. But again, because they’re just ugly.

In the end though, what I really don’t like about all of the above-described sorts of fish pics are that they tend to emphasize or insinuate that the fishing experience is about the killing more than anything else. IT ISN’T! Least not for me, and really it doesn’t seem to be for most people whom I interact with, although I would acknowledge here that we do tend to surround ourselves with like-minded folks.


Say what ya want, but I do believe that with most anglers, it’s the experience that defines recreational fishing, NOT how many ya kill. And while some folks don’t want to admit that, deep down, I think they know it’s true.

Certainly, a lot of anglers, likely the majority of them, have moved away from the “limiting-out” paradigm and have learned to just enjoy the experience rather than judging a trip’s success by the amount of fish ya killed.

While I think I’ve made it clear here, I should again mention that the experience, even without the “limiting-out” part, is not without impact, so it’d be great if people would stop pretending that it is. But by acknowledging the experience, promoting it and emphasizing it over the killing part, we do the resource a great service. Because that sort of thing is undoubtedly less impactful than limiting-out.

From a charter captain’s perspective though, I still see way too many pros stuck in “limiting-out” mode. And while I have no right to interfere or even recommend how folks should run their businesses, it’s not a great model. Because it’s not sustainable.

The coastal population has grown exponentially. And recreational fishing participation has exploded since COVID. That flood tide currently shows no sign of an ebb. That is undoubtedly a good thing for charter businesses like mine, as it’s definitely driven business.

But this idea of marketing trips by bragging about limiting out, filling coolers, and the insinuation that it wasn’t a great day unless you can achieve that? That may have worked in the past, and it may be working now. But lemme tell ya. Given recreational fishing effort increases, fisheries regulations in general are likely to become more and more constraining, and it’s very unlikely we’ll ever see real liberalization in most fisheries. That may be an uncomfortable reality for some charter/party folks, but I’m afraid it’s true.

So if those guys haven’t evolved to embrace the experience rather than the killing part, well, natural selection will likely run its course. I don’t for a minute mean that to be offensive to the folks that emphasize harvest, even though I’m sure it’ll come across as such, but that doesn’t make it less true.

In The End

I do believe recreational fishing has evolved quite a bit in the last two decades, and I think it’ll continue to do so. Limiting-out is old-school, man…and it’s quickly becoming passe. At least in the crowds that I run in.

The new school train of thought? It seems to be more about emphasizing and embracing the experience, rather than the killing part. And while there’s always gonna be some killing, and of course catch-and-release is NOT without impact, the new-school is WAY better for the resource and the people who depend on it than the limiting-out model.

The folks who shun and criticize the new-school as somehow “woke” or less masculine? Well, while I certainly don’t want to see it, they will likely be left behind as recreational fishing continues to evolve.

Only time will tell though…and I suppose we’ll just have to see.

In the meantime, if you’re a charter/party captain, or just an angler, it’s really not a bad idea to begin to focus on embracing the experience rather than how many you can kill, assuming you haven’t already. I mean, really that sort of thing seems to be a win/win on a number of fronts.

The truth is that we can all benefit by enjoying/embracing those extraordinary moments on the water, separate from the killing. Because THAT kinda thing is what creates lasting memories.

And in the end, those extraordinary moments, the memories?

They’ll likely outlive you… through the people you share them with.

About John McMurray

Capt. John McMurray is a full-time charter boat captain and president of ONE MORE CAST CHARTERS in Oceanside, NY. McMurray spent nine years on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and six years as a legislative proxy on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and is a founder and past president of the American Saltwater Guides Association.

3 comments on “What Does Recreational Fishing Really Mean?

  1. I am a “recreational fisherman” in Florida. Strictly catch and release and inshore. I might keep a few pompano each year but everything else goes back in the water. The experience of being on the water and community with nature is what it’s all about. I don’t care what species I catch. It’s all about the sport. I couldn’t agree with you more. I see all too many meat fishermen here in Florida and it’s killing the fishery..

  2. Really good article John. With striped bass it is estimated that 90% of fish caught are released and of those released, 9% die. This tells us that the great majority of striped bass anglers practice a C&R ethic.

    I think that what we should be stressing is responsible harvesting, and education goes a long way towards this goal. It takes an appreciation of the history of the resource and the role that we all play in ensuring that the resource will be there, not just for next season, but for our kids and grandchildren to enjoy.

    To criticize people for taking a legal fish home is just wrong and is counter to influencing someone’s fishing habits. We should be educating anglers to think prior to making the decision to take the fish – Will this fish be eaten by my family? Will the fish wind up with freezer burn before being eaten? Am I aware of the health advisories that come along with eating this fish?

    For too many, taking meat home at the end of the day is the goal and the definition of a successful outing. As your article states, the fishing experience itself, the thrill of the catch, the camaraderie of fishing with others, and the satisfaction in seeing a fish swim away to fight another day needs to be continually promoted.

    Just one man’s opinion.

  3. You’ve heard me say this before but it’s worth repeating here: If you don’t want to kill any fish they you’ll simply have to stop fishing! We all know that even with the best release techniques some of those fish will die…thats a reality we have to accept. Having said that (don’t you hate it when people say that?) I love fishing too much to ever stop. I also like eating fish, but I buy 99% of the fish I consume from the market, the fish I catch and keep cost me about TEN TIMES the price of market fish. So IMO the answer is for people like John McMurray, who IMO is one the most respected recreational captains in our area, to keep promoting the sentiments he expressed in this article, with hopes that more recreational anglers will follow. Catch em up, Dave Azar

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