How you hook and fight a fish you are going to release is a big deal... to the fish
For once, I didn’t screw up the cast and fired the only blue crab we had just in front of a quickly moving school of permit. A 40-pounder inhaled it and took off, ripping line from the spinning reel at an alarming rate. The commotion didn’t go unnoticed by a 6-foot-long bull shark, which sensed an easy meal and closed in for the kill.
OUT ON “BAIL”
It was like a WWI dogfight. The “man in the gray suit” was all over the permit’s tail. Just when it looked like the shark was going to take a crescent-shaped bite o’ sushi out of the permit, I did something I’d only heard of before: I flipped the bail open on the reel, which released the pressure on the fish. The permit shifted gears. It immediately put a few feet between it and certain death, and its sudden gain in speed and mobility caused the shark to lose interest. I thought I’d lost the fish, but when I reengaged the reel, the circle hook was still connected. I was able to reel it in, grab it by the tail, hoist it out of the water for a quick photo for my article and revive it while keeping a wary lookout for a reappearance of Jaws Jr. This bail-flipping technique is also beneficial to use with a fish that’s heading toward tangled roots or a dock, because it thinks it’s gotten free.
One of the most serious side effects for a fish that’s hooked by an angler is a buildup of lactic acid in its system. Prolonged fights can lead to blood acidification, which can disrupt the fish’s metabolism. If a fish can’t get its blood chemistry back to normal levels, it may die, sometimes days after the fight. Anglers can do two things to help the fish.
The first way to shorten a fight is to use appropriately sized rods and reels. Most anglers have a pretty fair idea of the fish they will be catching, so gear up accordingly. When trolling for species such as mahi-mahi (dolphin fish), use heavier gear, because you never know what size fish will attack the bait. It could be a 5-pound dolphin or a marlin. You can still have light-tackle fun if the mahi you reel in is a small schoolie. Just keep one hooked next to the boat, break out the smaller rods and flip cut bait to the ones that are visible.
Another way to keep a battle short is to fight fish aggressively. Always keep heavy pressure on them and try to gain line whenever possible, and follow the fish with the boat, to avoid having to drag the fish all the way in. Inexperienced anglers tend to hang on and let the fish dictate the fight. Use short pump-and-reel motions on larger fish to gain line, and don’t let up. Tarpon will fight for hours if you don’t apply max pressure from the start. When one comes to the top, use a sideways sweeping motion of the rod to try to turn its head. Once accomplished, a tarpon will often give up.
WHEN TO GO SLOW
Bringing up a deep-water fish too quickly will cause its swim bladder to inflate, at which point the angler will have to use a venting tool to deflate the bladder so the fish can go back down (before being eaten). Of course, most fish in deep water are caught on structure, so you have to be immediately aggressive to get them out of reefs or rocks. Once they are clear, however, use slow but steady pressure. Doing so often allows the fish to acclimate to the reduced water pressure and come to the top with its bladder uninflated. I’ve found that sometimes a slow, steady retrieve can keep a fish from panicking, so it will go with the path of least resistance — leaving it healthier after the fight.
TROUBLE WITH TREBLES
Treble hooks are highly effective at snaring fish, especially when two or three of them are on a lure. As I’ve discovered over the years, they are also really good at sticking anglers. There is some evidence that treble hooks save fish lives by reducing gut-hooking, which is the most common cause of fish catch mortality, but using circle hooks when fishing with natural bait will prevent that too. With treble hooks, more than one hook often bites home, making it difficult to gently remove it without damaging a fish’s mouth.
For the last decade, I’ve used single hooks instead of trebles, but single hooks can affect a lure’s action. So I was really pleased when I received some sample lures from Rapala, including the Twitchin’ Minnow and Twitchin’ Mullet X-RAP Single Hook Series. I’ve used them to catch trout, which have very fragile mouths, without harm. To make single hooks even less invasive, mash down the barb. As long as you keep steady pressure on, fish stay hooked. Plus, it’s far more sporting … which is what catch and release is all about.