Whether you’re new to fishing or an experienced pro, chances are you practice some form of catch-and-release fishing. Something that was once only popular in fly-fishing has now found its way into mainstream angling. The reasons for releasing fish vary: from anglers who like to fish but hate the taste, to anglers who practice strict conservation methods in the hope of sustaining a healthy fishery for future generations.
To best ensure the lowest mortality rate possible for your catch, turn your attention to these five basic areas: selection of gear, fighting the fish, hook removal and proper fish handling, revival and release, and leaving no trace.
Here’s what you need to know, to let them go and let them grow.
Selection of Gear
Treble hooks: These hooks can cause a lot of damage to your catch. Avoid them at all costs. Most hard baits from the store come pre-hooked with this style of hook. You can easily replace these stock hooks with J-hooks, which can even increase your hard bait performance in the water.
Just about all hard-bait manufacturers use a small split ring to connect the hook to a metal loop that is embedded into the lure during the manufacturing process. These split rings are just like miniature versions of the ring you keep your car keys on, but opening it with your fingers may be difficult for some, due to the small size. To solve this problem and avoid getting a hook in your hand, pick up a pair of split ring pliers. You can find these in most tackle shops and hobby shops, since they are also popular with jewelry makers.
Using the split ring pliers, open up the split rings on your hard bait. Remove the stock treble hooks and replace them with J-hooks or circle hooks.
Since J-hooks and circle hooks create less drag in the water than treble hooks, you may notice a significant increase in your lure’s action when fishing. This is a good way for aspiring tournament anglers to experiment on heavily fished waters.
J-hooks: these hooks are used a lot for live bait, but can still gut-hook a fish. Circle hooks are best.
Circle hooks: these hooks are designed so that the point is turned away from the shank to form a circular shape. This allows the hook to pass back through the fish’s stomach should it be swallowed, and hook in the corner of the lip once line pressure is applied by the angler. These hooks have been heavily researched by biologists and are a must for all catch-and-release anglers.
De-barb your hooks: use a pair of pliers to squish the hook’s barb down. Once the fish takes the hook, be sure to keep solid pressure on your line and reel fast. This will help prevent the fish from spitting the hook out during the fight.
Fighting the Fish
When you hook a fish, it’s a stressful event for the fish. Lactate levels begin to rise in its blood, similar to what happens to humans during intense physical exercise. This has been linked to mortality in many species of fish, causing them to perish hours later, even after a successful release.
To best combat this, oversize your fishing line and gear to help you land the fish quickly. Go with a stronger fishing line test if you can, and try a heavier fishing rod.
Hook Removal Tools
There are many hook-removal tools on the market today, from surgical forceps to special pliers to tools that cut the metal of the hook shank. Choose your personal preference, then keep it close at hand.
Never use the “through the gill” removal method, even if you know how to. In fact, you should never touch a fish’s gills at all. Simply cut the line as close to the hook as you can, and release the fish. The hook will rust away within a short time and the fish will have a better chance of making a full recovery than if you messed with its gills or reached deep down its throat with your equipment.
Revival and Release
Sometimes even after a quick fight your catch might appear lethargic during the release. To help, try to circulate water through the fish’s gills. If you are in a stream, simply hold the fish in some fast-moving, preferably bubbly current, with its nose facing upstream. If you are in still water, push the fish forward and gently backward to help move water through its gills.
A Quick Release
If you’re going to get a photo of your catch, try to keep it quick, and don’t take the fish out of the water too long, if at all. Some state wildlife agencies are now passing laws that prohibit anglers from removing the more endangered species from the water for a “hero shot.” Florida DFW passed this law a few years back pertaining to tarpon, and is actually searching for anglers who have violated the law by investigating them through social media websites.
To keep yourself out of hot water, be sure to check your state’s regulations before you snap that photo.
If you do have to take your fish out of the water, avoid holding it up horizontally by the jaw with only one hand supporting it. This can cause further injury to your catch.
A lot of game fish have an internal organ called a swim bladder, which helps them maintain buoyancy at different depths in the water column. When brought to the surface rapidly by an angler, the gasses in their swim bladder expand rapidly like an over-inflated balloon. The swim bladder can actually expand to the point where it forces itself, or other internal organs like the stomach, out through the fish’s mouth and/or rear orifice. Fish released in this condition are unable to achieve neutral buoyancy or maintain equilibrium, and may even have unnoticed damage to their internal organs.
Different species respond to capture at depth differently. The thresholds where depths are problematic for certain species are unclear and can vary widely. Thanks to new research, we now know that what was once considered a problem only saltwater anglers faced when fishing deep trenches offshore is now one we see inland as well, in smallmouth bass, walleye, and yellow perch.
One drastic option for anglers is to avoid fishing in deep waters when planning catch-and-release fishing. A modern solution involves the angler venting the swim bladder with a needle to release the gas, or using drop weights to get the fish back to depth faster. However, further research has revealed that venting and drop weights have no significant effect in reducing mortality. Since the effects of barotrauma on fish can be so severe, it’s usually better to avoid targeting deep-water fish unless you plan to keep your catch.
Leaving No Trace
Discarded fishing line, lead weights, soft lures, and bait containers are becoming a serious environmental problem. It’s estimated that an average recreational angler loses 44.9 feet of fishing line each year. One way anglers can help prevent discarded monofilament from entering the environment is to carry a small tool that stores old mono.
While technically not a catch-and-release issue, it is an important consideration for the low-impact, environmentally conscious angler, which most catch-and-release fishers would like to consider themselves.
Catch-and-release fishing can be a rewarding way to enjoy the water and make sure others will be able to enjoy it in the future as well. If you want more information about how you can help protect our fisheries, a good place to start is to join a local watershed group or non-profit that specializes in environmental advocacy.
- Joe Overlock, Fix.com (Contributor)