I've done it, you've done it, we've all done it at one time or another. Kept score that is. Counted the number of fish we've caught in a given day, or on a given trip, or in a given season. Is there anything wrong with that? In and of itself, the short answer is no. The long answer, however, is that there could very well be something wrong with the attitude of an angler who judges their day and the overall experience by how many fish they land.
You may counter that this is all very easy for me to say. I get to go fishing all the time, virtually whenever I want. While I wish that were true, the fact is that I value a day on the river as much as anyone else, even if I do get to go somewhat more than the average person. And don't get me wrong, I like catching numbers of trout as much as the next guy. But I believe there are limits we should place on ourselves and, most importantly, attitudes we should avoid for the sake of our fisheries.
One particular fishing outfitter in nearby Idaho comes to mind. I won't name names because it is not my intent to trash them or to make this personal. Rather I'd like to point out what I believe to be harmful attitudes and how they propagate themselves to the detriment of a fishery and to the sport of fly fishing in general.
I'll call them "Outfitter 123" because they are so wrapped up in the numbers game. Promotional newsletters blare such inane headlines as "100 Trout Day On Secret River" or, believe it or not, "150 Fish In One Day (on our new super duper double secret probation stealth pattern)" or my personal favorite, "Man Lands 95 Trout On 95th Birthday." I'm paraphrasing, of course, but I still think it should be everyone's goal to catch one trout for each year of their existence on (preferably) their birthday...NOT!!!
Outfitter 123 goes so far as to install counters (you know, they look like odometers) in their driftboats. One fish, one click...I kid you not. Ostensibly, I suppose, this is to prevent people from calling them a bunch of liars. Think about it. 150 fish in a single day (an actual claim) is one fish every four minutes for 10 straight hours. When do you have time to change flies, rebuild your tippet, eat lunch, relieve yourself, admire the scenery or even take a deep breath. And what about playing the fish, doesn't that take a certain amount of time as well?
Do I think it its possible that someone could actually land 150 fish in a day? Sure, it's possible. But isn't Outfitter 123 sending the wrong message to their potential clients, many of whom are new to the sport and may not know any better? Do we really want newbie anglers to get the impression that sacking up huge numbers of trout is what fly fishing is all about? Doesn't Outfitter 123 have a responsibility to educate their clientele on the finer points of fly fishing? Points such as aesthetics, conservation, etiquette, and how not to abuse a fishery. I sure think so.
And lest anyone really believe Outfitter 123's dubious claims, let me tell you how they do it. On a float trip with clients a few years back, we pulled over to wade fish a riffle full of rising trout. Anchored nearby in an eddy was an Outfitter 123 driftboat, complete with fish counter. With all the larger trout feeding in the riffle, the smaller (4-6") trout parr had wisely congregated in the eddy and were feeding heavily. They were also under heavy attack from Outfitter 123, whose client, happy to rack up large numbers of trout as he had been "taught", proceeded to haul in 30 or 40 (I'm not really sure, I wasn't counting) of those poor little uneducated juvenile trout. All in the name of bragging rights. My clients only managed to land two very selective 17" cutthroats during that same one hour time period. Bummer.
As I'm sure you realize, small trout to not handle being handled very well. Their mortality rates are much higher than a large trout undergoing the same treatment. They are delicate little creatures. To abuse a fishery in this manner, for the sake of generating business, is unconscionable. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you!
So when is it OK to count fish? Whenever you want, that's when. As long as you aren't judging your day or value as a human being on the final tally, what's the problem? None, in my opinion. You may even use your fish count to indicate that it's time to call it a day and give the fish a break until tomorrow, or next week. I like to count fish so I really know how many I landed that day, instead of guessing and having the number grow in much the same fashion as a large released, but unmeasured, trout continues to grow with each story telling.
Fish counting over the years will also provide insight into the goings on of a given fishery. If you've been keeping records and therefore know for a fact that you caught 15-20 fish per day on River X for three years straight in the first week of July, but this year you were lucky to get 6 or 7 a day, it may indicate a change in the fishery. Not necessarily a bad change, but a change nonetheless. Perhaps the fishery is deteriorating, but it is just as, or perhaps more, likely that the conditions are simply different this year. This may lead to an investigation on your part as to how varying river conditions effect fishing and fish behavior. Over time you will come to recognize the effects of factors such as high vs. low water, clear vs. cloudy water, air and water temperature, fishing pressure and so on. And you won't be guessing or going on a hunch. You'll be using your own, albeit less than scientific, data to reach your own conclusions. And even though your fish counts may not be entirely scientific due to the multitude of variables one experiences in the field, it may well be the best data available anywhere. Unfortunately, most fisheries are not the subject of professional scientific analysis.
Now that you've come to understand the ebb and flow of a given fishery thanks to your own observations and investigations, you've just become a more knowledgeable angler. And that, my friends, makes the world a better place. Counting fish to boost ones ego and potentially damaging a fishery, however, does not.