Catch & Release: The Right Way

Simply putting a fish back in the water isn't enough. Know how to increase that fish's chances of survival.

Are you a masterful fish-catching and -keeping machine? Oh, you practice catch and release, you say? Well, you may be a fish killer without even knowing it! Releasing a fish and watching it swim away may make you feel better, but that fish might die anyway.

Why is that? You ask. Here are some reasons:
• Dry hands remove some of the protective slime from the fish’s skin, making it susceptible to viruses or bacteria or parasites that can kill it.
• Bringing it aboard to remove the hook and take pictures can damage its internal organs.
• Holding it horizontally by the lower jaw for a photo op can break its jaw.
• A gut-hooked fish can die from both a difficult hook removal and the hook being left in its gut.
• Not reviving it after a long, hard fight can cause its demise.
• A fish can be too exhausted for well-intentioned revival efforts to work.
• Bringing a bottomfish up too fast forces its swim bladder to expand and protrude from its mouth, and not venting the bladder or getting the fish back down to depth can be fatal.
• You gaffed it, but then caught a larger one…

Anglers can avoid these needless transgressions and improve a fish’s chances of survival in several ways.

Circle hooks were invented by Neanderthals many thousands of years ago. Amazingly, their fishing hook design remains the most effective release hook to this day. Rather than snag in the throat of a fish, the rounded hook pulls back out of the throat until it catches in the corner of the fish’s mouth.

A hook is easier to remove if its barb is pinched down. A pinched barb makes it easier for a fish to throw the hook, so anglers practicing safe release techniques should remember to keep steady pressure on the line while fighting a fish when the barb is pinched.

Most predator fish bite or whack their prey and then turn it so as to swallow it headfirst. Anglers who practice giving a drop back or feeding the fish until it completely swallows the bait run a higher probability of gut-hooking a fish. They should set the hook immediately to help avoid this problem.

Humans are the only predator that constantly targets the biggest, strongest and healthiest prey. All other predators help to maintain the health and genetic purity of stocks by targeting the small, weak and unhealthy. Many fishing enthusiasts feel it’s more sporting to fight big fish on ultra-light tackle. While that may be true for the human, the fish often gets more than it can handle. A prolonged fight on such gear causes exhaustion and a buildup of lactic acid in its muscle tissue, which ultimately causes that tissue to break down. It’s not uncommon for a big, exhausted fish to slowly swim down after release and die on the bottom. If it survives, it certainly has a harder time escaping other predators. Make sure to drag the fish gently, so seawater flows in its mouth and across its gills.

If that bottomfish you just caught looks like it has a huge tumor sticking out of its mouth, that is its swim bladder. You can either deflate the bladder using a venting tool — learn how to do this carefully or you can just as easily kill the fish instantly — or you can use one of the numerous weighted bits of terminal tackle designed to drag the bloated fish back to the bottom, where its bladder will be deflated by the return to depth, and then automatically release the fish unharmed.

Whenever you handle a fish to remove a hook, attach a bottom-sender or swim it alongside, be sure to wet your hands before touching the fish, which helps preserve its skin’s protective slime layer. Better still is to not touch the fish at all. A dehooking tool makes quick, easy work of removing a hook without hurting the fish or needing to hold it. Some even safely remove a hook from a gut-hooked fish.

Netting a fish can also remove precious slime, so if you plan to release a noted fish, use special release nets that have soft, smooth, knotless mesh.

Smaller fish can be safely handled using a tool called a Boga grip, a pincerlike arrangement that holds the fish by the lower jaw and then drops it at the touch of a button. Obviously, dehookers, nets and grips cause less stress to the fish than a gaff.

On the subject of touch, many anglers lift fish by sliding their fingers inside the gill plates. Gills, which function as the fish’s lungs, are very delicate and should be avoided. Don’t damage them.

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