Catch and Release: The Right Way
Upon releasing a fish, most anglers figure that if it swims away, it’s just fine and will survive. Unfortunately, this isn’t necessarily true. In studies on hooking mortality, biologists hold fish for observation, usually for a number of days. What they’ve found is that a fish which appears all right at the time of release may have suffered trauma, injury from the hook or damage from handling, which leads to death later on. That the fish swims away under its own power doesn’t assure its survival.
In holding fish for longer periods of time biologists have been able to determine the factors that induce mortality. Which brings us to some undeniable hard information about catch and release: fish that are hooked in the gills or in the gut have a much lower rate of survival than those hooked in the outer portions of the mouth. If you rupture a gill with a hook, a hemorrhage ensues and the fish bleeds to death. Gut hooked fish survive poorly for a number of reasons including bleeding, impaired feeding ability, infection, and disease.
Many people think they can bring that deeply hooked fish to the boat, cut the leader, and the hook will rust out right away. There is absolutely not data that would suggest the hook rusts away in a short period of time. What is clear is that deeply hooked fish have much lower chances of survival than lip hooked fish. If a fish is gut hooked, you do get better survival by cutting the line rather extracting the hook, but the survival rate is still unacceptably low.
You can greatly improve the survival of the fish you release by not feeding line to them when they bite. Circle hooks and modified circle hooks radically decrease the rate of gut hooking and this is well documented in studies. My experience with king salmon fishing with circle hooks is that we gill-hook or gut-hook about one in 20 kings. And, we keep those deeply hooked fish as our bag limit.
Mortality is also affected by exhaustion. A big fish fought on ultra-light tackle can’t be forced to the boat until it’s totally gassed. This can stress your catch past the brink. Exhaustion creates extremely high levels of lactic acid – potentially fatal. Also, large fish have a problem with overheated muscles that actually begin to break down in the course of a long fight. An exhausted fish has a lot of problems avoiding predators after release.
Each second you keep a fish out of water decreases its chance of survival. In a Canadian study, rainbow trout kept out of the water for 30 seconds had more than double the mortality of those left in the water. Rainbows left out of the water for 60 seconds had 6 times the mortality of those kept in the water! Holding a fish up for a picture may be a death sentence.
Fish have a protective outer layer of slime. Handling them with dry hands can remove that slime and leave them prone to infection. Knotted nylon nets can have a similar effect. So, don’t net the fish, don’t lift them out of the water, don’t hold them up for mug shots with the camera. Keep them submerged, reach over with a hook-out and set them free.
Lastly, consider gills an internal organ. Reaching into the gill plate to hoist a fish for a photo or to get to a hook is not recommended. It can damage sensitive tissues, increase chances for infection, or induce hemorrhaging.
Catch and Release the Right Way
- Pinch the barb on your hook flat so it’s easily removed. You should also start by using the right hook. Circle hooks are the ideal choice for catch and release fishing.
- Bring the fish to the boat as quickly as possible to avoid extreme exhaustion. Don’t use ultra-light gear for catch and release.
- Keep the fish in the water and resuscitate it. Handle the fish gently with wet hands or moist gloves. If you must net it, use a release net made of soft knotless fabric and keep the fish under water in the net. Don’t lift the fish up in the air or squeeze it. I know you want a picture before you let it go, but that photo-op may kill the model.
- If you plan to keep a fish or two for the table, let the hook-up decide what you kill. Many people who claim to practice catch and release are in fact doing what commercial fishermen call “high-grading”. They are sorting out the smaller fish, looking for the bigger fish. If a trophy size fish is hooked in the lip for an easy release – let it go. If you catch a smaller fish that is bleeding – keep it.
- Have tools and a plan. At Angling Unlimited, we use a hook-out device called the “Fish Hook Extractor”. It’s the best tool for the job I’ve seen. Have the tool ready along with gloves for holding the line and protecting your hands. Make sure your eyes are covered in case the hook flies free. Locate the hook, then decide how to approach it.
- Fish responsibly. Alter your method or your gear to minimize hooking mortality. That may mean going to circle hooks or setting the hook a little sooner. Apply deeply hooked fish to your bag limit and release the fish with good survivable hookup. If we are responsible in our approach today, it will mean more fish in the future for everyone.