4 Reasons Why it is Better to Keep Small Fish Than Big Fish


Despite the winter weather outside, many people are still out on the pursuit of catching fish on the water and on the ice. A common debate held among anglers in forums and comment sections is often revolved around the ethicality of keeping large, “trophy sized” fish for eating. Those who choose to keep large fish often argue that there are plenty of other fish that could grow to the size of said fish and that taking one large fish is better than 5-10 smaller fish. While on the other hand many point out the issues in keeping large fish in the modern age based on variables such as pollution and fishery/habitat/ecosystem health.

While I understand the logic from both parties, I tend to lean towards the crowd that prefers to keep only smaller sized fish. No, I don’t practice this belief because I only catch small fish, but because of my experience dealing with fish closer to 10+ lbs and the information that I have been exposed to throughout my fishing career. For some reason this subject seems to create an emotional debate that leaves both parties rather annoyed.

I by no means am using this blog article to try and tell someone how to fish and what fish they can keep, but I hope to share my ethical perspective and use scientific literature to defend my position. I will state here that taking a big fish from a fishery every half decade or more may have relatively little impact in a fishery, but there are many variables that play in that outcome. I often like to look at the vintage black and white fishing photos online where it seems like almost everyone was catching giant fish behind their house in their local waterways. I think it is safe to assume that prior to overfishing; the creation of dams/destruction of habitat, the fishing was superb and probably left no shortage of large fish within most bodies of water.  

I don’t wish to linger on what fishing used to be and how we have degraded fisheries since then, but rather to point out ways in which we can improve fishing for ourselves and our children/grandchildren. I do not want to live in a world without great access to fishing, nor do I wish to pass down a world like that to any form of offspring I may have in the future. I am sure that most people would agree with me there. I am encouraging you, the reader to consider shifting your attitude towards the mindset of making bold changes today so that the future can be better.

Often the obstacles preventing great change revolve around two variables. One being ignorance and a lack of education/experience in the field/area and the second being greed. Greed is deadlier than that of ignorance. Often many will argue that they won’t let a fish go because the next person will just take it home. In order to help break this mindset everyone must do their part in spreading this mindset and being the bigger man. I too struggle with this mindset at times. In more cases than not you will be rewarded for doing the ethical thing over time. Not all good deeds go punished on the long-term scale of things.

Anyways, I hope to discuss 4 reasons why it is better to keep small fish than big fish (for eating). I will go in depth on how keeping smaller fish can help reduce your consumption of industrial pollutants, reduce your chance of seeing worms/parasites in meat, help maintain the fish species population(s), and is better overall for the aquatic ecosystem. I hope you learn something and broaden your ethical picture.  

1. Reduced Consumption of Industrial Contaminants

As many of us know, in the last hundred years or so a lot of the materials used to make various industrial products were toxic. Many of the byproducts of said products were just dumped into various lakes and rivers or dumped in landfills where they leached or runoff into various water sources. It wasn’t until more relatively recent years here in the United States that the government began to crackdown on these occurrences and creates agencies to help protect against situations as such.

Unfortunately, many of the industrial pollutants are still present in our waterways and within the fish that we have grown accustom to eating. Some of the most common pollutants that we hear about when eating fish include mercury, PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls), PBDEs (Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers), and chlorinated pesticides to name a few.

PCBs were an industrial waste often created via the manufacturing of electrical components such as capacitors. PBDEs are from the creation of flame retarding clothing/material. It is easy for everyone to understand how pesticides are washed into the waterways via rain runoff and ground water contamination.

Now that I have explained a few of the big players in industrial contaminants within fish it is important to note that not all fish are exposed to these chemicals at the same rate. There are many variables that need to be accounted for such as where in the water column the fish lives and how high up the food chain the species is, as well as the body of water it is from. Typically if a fish is a predator you will begin to see an accumulation of these toxins build up in the system over time. This is why new studies/reports are coming out showing that eating single fish from a U.S. lake/river is equivalent to a month of drinking contaminated water.

I am not bringing up this information to scare you as it hardly scares me, but I do like to understand the risk I am taking by consuming wild fish of any sort as many of these chemicals are toxic and can cause long term health risks to you and potential offspring. I use this research to base my own judgement on how often and how much fish I prefer to both consume and feed to friends/family. I by no means go out of my way to avoid eating fish if I catch something, but I personally wouldn’t eat catfish from the river every day. I am just pointing out that older fish tend to accumulate these toxins in their body as they spend more time in the environment and require higher energy inputs (more food) to maintain high amounts of body mass.  

There are plenty of research papers, government PDFs, and websites touching on the matter, but do take matters into your own hands and do what you want based on your own risk level and the information you have at hand.

2. Less Chance(s) of Parasites in Meat

Branching off from eating contaminated meat. I did want to touch up on my observation that a lot of bigger fish have a higher likelihood of being infected with parasites. Parasites are very common across an array of fish species. Many cause some discomfort to the fish, but don’t really impact the long-term quality of life to the fish in many cases. Often time these parasites are only really an issue to fish species and cannot cross into humans, though I personally would prefer not to be the Guinea pig to test and verify those results.

It seems as though the longer a fish is alive the more obstacles he or she runs into. A fish has a hard life and its work never gets easier. All of the parasites in fish we eat can be killed when cooked fully through and reach an internal temperature of at least 140° F. Many don’t have the stomach or mental fortitude to knowingly eat a fish or animal with parasites. I personally don’t blame them and have thrown out a pair of beautiful channel catfish fillets into my compost that were full of yellow grub worm larvae. My family didn’t want to eat the fish after I pointed it out, and frankly I didn’t want to either after I saw them squirming on my cutting board.

3. Helps Maintain Population

After discussing the reasons why it is somewhat more favorable to eat “small” fish instead of big fish. I also wanted to write on the population/ecological side of the argument since that is my chosen specialty/field. In a pond or relatively small lake/reservoir populations go up and down but typically stay in balance. Within these populations there are various differing percentages of fish at various age groups. Each fish plays a role regardless of age or size to some degree.

It is expected that a large amount of young fish will be eaten or die naturally each year. This is why most fish generally lay so many eggs. In order for a sustainable amount of fish to reach maturity their physiology must account for staggering losses. If this balance is shifted and more fish are reaching later stages in adult than normal then you may begin to see signs of overpopulation and malnutrition or even higher rates of disease.

Typically, other factors such as predation prevent overpopulation from occurring, but humans play an important role in helping manage a fishery. I say this because as I mentioned earlier young fish make up a majority of the population percentage. Sure you can harvest a few medium sized fish and open some resource availability for smaller fish but from a reproductive standpoint big fish play a greater role in keeping a population stable and consistent as the large fish produce more eggs than small or medium sized fish.

Often times in smaller managed ponds and lakes the main issue with fish populations is actually related to under harvesting. A lack of predation for smaller fish can have a toll on the whole population. There are obviously other variables at play, but to keep it in simple words, if you want a healthy, sustainable population try to harvest smaller fish or even medium sized fish before harvesting “trophy sized” fish. If you care about your favorite fishing hole or pond/lake spot then I recommend leaving the big fish in the water.

4. It’s Better For the Ecosystem

Expanding off of the previous concept that when too few smaller fish are harvested the population becomes overpopulated causes interspecies competition for resources. This can lead to mass die offs in the water which can impact water quality depending on the scale/size of the water. If a population gets too over populated it can also have a negative impact on other fish, especially if the fish species with a high population is a predatory species. This could wipe out many species of prey fish from a body of water.

A single species can make a huge difference on multiple species. I know that it may not seem so clear from the observer, but I can assure you that everything is connected in some way shape or form. It is our job to ensure that populations don’t get too high or too low and that plenty of habitat is available for the fish. I would rather see an improving ecosystem than a declining one.


The grand takeaway that I hope you all received from this blog article is that it if you are planning on getting your limit for the day; please consider taking only the small to medium sized fish out of the ecosystem. They are not the biggest players in the game. If you wish to keep the fishing good please leave the big fish where they belong. Obviously stay within the legal length requirements if you are fishing for certain fish within a given state/lake, but the information is all there. All of these reasons are based entirely off of science and/or personal observations. There are many other incentives for leaving the big boys/gals in the water but the best one is that the fishing could be improved upon for the future.

Works Cited

“Eating One Fish from U.S. Lakes or Rivers Likened to Drinking Month’s Worth of Contaminated Water.” CBS News, AFP, 18 Jan. 2023, www.cbsnews.com/news/pfas-forever-chemicals-one-fish-us-lakes-rivers-month-contaminated-water/.

“Fish Population Management.” Purdue University Extension, Purdue University, extension.purdue.edu/pondwildlife/fish-population-management.html. Accessed 12 Jan. 2024.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *