THERE ARE SEVERAL REASONS TO release a fish you catch: you don’t plan to eat it, it’s out of season or it’s too small (or large) to keep. Here’s how to release a fish without harming it and to ensure its greatest odds of surviving.
No matter what kind of fish it is, it has a layer of slime on the outside that protects it from disease, parasites and abrasion. Disturbing this coating opens the fish up to all manner of harm. Always wet your hands before handling a fish and, if possible, don’t handle it at all.
In this era of social media and selfie fascination, many anglers succumb to the temptation to lift a fish aboard for photos. While doing so may be relatively harmless for small fish, it could damage bigger fish: the larger the specimen the more damage handling it can cause. Nature designed fish to have equal support all around their body thanks to being immersed in the water. Remove them from that support, and they readily suffer from internal organs shifting and tearing from their internal anchoring points. All fish will fare better when they’re left in the water and released there. Numerous dehooking tools exist for the purpose of releasing a fish without touching it.
Obviously, not hooking a fish deeply makes more sense than trying to remove a hook from a fish’s delicate internal organs. The best way to accomplish this is to use circle hooks, an ancient design that slides out of the fish’s gullet and hooks in the corner of its mouth where it can be removed easily. Another way to avoid gut-hooking is to use pliers to press down the barb on the hook, which allows the hooks to slide out more readily.
Certainly, circle hooks make the greatest contribution to improved release mortality. But the composition of the terminal tackle also makes a difference. High quality stainless steel hooks last longer in a tackle box and may prove stronger while fighting a fish, but cheaper, lower-quality metal that corrodes quickly actually serves the fish better. The acids in a fish’s stomach combined with the corrosive nature of salt water help a hook fall apart quickly, thereby causing less harm if you need to cut the leader and leave the hook in the fish.
Dehookers abound in many designs and sizes. Most anglers use tiny ones (often homemade) when fishing for live bait. It’s much easier to flip a small baitfish off a hook with a dehooker than by trying to hold it. It also prevents the fragile scales of the baitfish from falling off, thereby increasing its life considerably.
ARC makes a dehooker (dehooker4arc.com) that has been certified by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The tool works well for simply removing a hook, but unlike most others, it works better at safely removing deep hooks.
Fish brought up from the deep need special care and assistance to treat barotrauma — uncontrollable inflation of the swim bladder. The bladder often extends out of the fish’s mouth and also often makes its eyes bulge dramatically. One way or another, the fish must return to its original depth to survive. One way to facilitate this is to “vent” the air bladder, a procedure that involves inserting a hollow needle through the fish’s abdomen and into the bladder, letting the air pressure escape. It works, but it can introduce bacteria into the fish, which can cause infection and eventually kill the fish.
Back in 2013, the Pacific Fisheries Management Commission, in concert with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, passed a regulation limiting bottom fishing to 50 fathoms (previously 60 fathoms). Fish from such depths invariably suffer from barotrauma. If you simply release a fish procured from such depths, it will flop around on the surface as if it’s wearing an overinflated life vest. Ultimately, it will die.
Channel Islands anglers helped pioneer “descending tools” that quickly return deepwater fish to their original depth without any needles, surgery or other invasive processes. Such tools are available commercially, but one can be made easily. Attach a heavy weight to a dedicated “descending rod.” Below the weight, attach a barbless hook or pincher mechanism. Attach the deepwater fish to the descending rod mechanism and send it back down. A gentle tug when the fish hits bottom releases it.
With sustainability becoming a more common catchphrase daily, fishermen must protect the environment that inspires their passion. If we don’t, more draconian regulations will do it for us. Fish responsibly and release fish safely.