Earlier this week, we covered South Carolina’s resilient trout population and Dave Fladd’s Release Over 20 initiative. In this segment, we’ll dive deeper into how Dave’s conservation ethic guides his decisions on the water.
It’s 2021, and the way anglers feel about conserving fish populations has evolved over time. The days when anglers kept every fish that hit the deck — regardless of need or edibility — have mostly gone by the wayside. Still, with the constant human population growth along our shores, coastal fisheries must be carefully managed to ensure sustainability into the future.
A growing number of conservation-minded anglers have self imposed limits that are more restrictive than the law requires, knowing that their own actions can have a positive impact on the fisheries that they love. Eye Strike Fishing co-founder Dave Fladd’s Release Over 20 initiative is a perfect example of this philosophy. The initiative encourages anglers to release all spotted seatrout and southern flounder over 20” because these larger individuals are almost exclusively female, produce lots of eggs and are vital to creating a sustainable number of offspring.
Release Over 20’s website quotes the great conservationist Aldo Leopold: “Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching — even when doing the wrong thing is legal.” That mindset forms the backbone of the initiative, which is rooted in the concept that anglers’ voluntary actions can have a positive impact on coastal fish populations.
We recently sat down (virtually) with Dave Fladd to discuss what conservation means to him.
Q: What led you to develop such a strong conservation ethic?
A: Tagging fish for SCDNR has been a big reason. When you tag fish, especially redfish, and see them caught on the same piece of structure over several years, it becomes very clear that it would be easy to clear out an area of fish in a matter of days if they all were kept. I think I just get a lot of enjoyment out of fishing and I want to see a lot of fish for us to catch in the future, including, hopefully, my grandkids.
Q: Your Release Over 20 initiative creates a de facto upper slot size for seatrout and flounder. Can you elaborate on how that mindset can apply to other species?
A: Release Over 20 isn’t really just about releasing fish over 20” or even just about trout and flounder. It’s more a philosophy of making your own personal catch and creel limits stricter than the law allows, and then following them. It could be applied to any species of fish. You could decide that your upper slot for sheepshead was 18” or that you will only ever keep one redfish. It allows us to make an immediate impact on a personal level even if the law allows more lenient limits.
Q: Trout don’t respond as well to handling as some other fish species. Can you share your tips for handling spotted seatrout to ensure that they live to fight another day?
A: I try to keep a livewell full at all times and soon after I unhook the fish, I put it in the well to recover while I get my camera ready. I think if you turn the tables and imagine yourself holding your breath, how long could you do that? A fish is not going to do well if it’s kept out of the water for several minutes. It’s also important to remove the hook with the fish in a net. Many fish are dropped when holding it to remove the hook. Otherwise, I try to minimize handling of the fish to maintain its slime coating as much as possible.
Q: What’s next for Release Over 20?
A: After listening to two presentations by SCDNR on [the decline] in flounder stocks, I decided to add flounder to the rewards program. It’s time to introduce the concept of letting big flounder go instead of putting them in the cooler. We’re trying to change mindsets by rewarding conservation. Every cent we receive in donations is returned directly to the participating anglers.
You can participate by entering your catch at releaseover20.com and by following @releaseover20 on Instagram.
About the Author: Matt Perkinson spent a decade as a research biologist with SCDNR before becoming the agency’s outreach coordinator for saltwater anglers. An avid fisherman himself, Perkinson lives on James Island with his family.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.