With such a strong emphasis put on catch & release these days by recreational anglers (and rightfully so), there is really more to it than meets the eye. It's not just tossing a fish back after a catch, you have to release a fish properly if it's going to survive! With the heat of summer just around the corner, I felt it important to touch on the subject of catch & release, with a firm emphasis on the release part.
Catch & release holds the key to our future fishing prospects, but only if the fish we catch survive the battle and more importantly the release. If we don't take time to release our catch properly, there may not be a catch.... in catch & release. Here's a guide with some tips on properly handling and releasing saltwater gamefish. To see a true fighter swim away healthy is a joy to behold, not to mention the lesson it teaches a youngster in preserving the future of fishing.
AVOID THE NET! Landing nets can cause damage to eyes and the external mucous covering the fish's body. This external mucous is the prime defense against disease. Landing nets may increase the time it takes to release a fish. As fish roll in a net tangling line and hooks, this increases the length time a fish is out of water before its release. Land fish by hand whenever possible. If you're going to use your hands, wet them first. You can use cotton gloves, but wet these first too. These simple precautions go a long way in protecting the outer "slime."
USE THE RIGHT STUFF. I enjoy a good battle with any gamefish and who doesn't? Plying one's skills against the quarry's need to escape & survive, tests even the most experienced angler. There are times however, when enough is enough, particularly when inshore waters are either too warm or too cold. Winter fishing in Northport at the power plant or the sizzling back bay waters in August & September are both good examples.
Exhausting fish through prolonged give & tackle struggles on very light lines, can leave a fish too fatigued to properly be revived. With studies done in recent years on delayed mortality, it makes sense to be prepared. Use the right stuff by stepping up your tackle a notch or two and play your catch with the same enthusiasm, but quickly! Get the fish boat side promptly.
GET A HANDLE. If your catch has a built in handle, then use it. Billfish like sailfish or marlin can be controlled boat side by their bill. The hard forked tails of jacks, tuna and bonito lends themselves to be grabbed using what nature gives them. If there's no natural handle, but the mouth of a fish presents no danger to your "digits," then grab the fish by the bottom jaw. Otherwise put a hand under the belly and grab the tail if possible.
The best tool I've seen for gripping a fish is the Lipper or Boga Grips. These gripping tools allow you control of a fish by its jaw (even a bluefish), keeping fingers away from dangerous territory and never touching the slime of the fish. Most times you don't even have to take the fish out of the water!
THE ROLL OVER. If you bring your catch on deck, roll it over. This has a quieting effect on most fish. You can further relax a fish by placing a wet towel over the eyes. This quickly helps calm your catch, decreasing release time! A fish flopping and bouncing on the deck may cause internal injuries to itself.
SHOW THEM SOME SUPPORT. If you take your fish out of the water for photos or to be weighed, show them your support. This is important for long-bodied fish like sailfish that should be supported by a couple of anglers, or spread across the deck or transom. Large bass and blues need the same support. Smaller bass can be supported by the jaw, as can tarpon and snook if fishing south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but ONLY if held vertically. Do not hold a fish by the jaw, horizontally to the ground. This can cause severe damage to jaw structure, particularly largemouth bass, making it very difficult if not impossible to feed.
QUICK SHOTS. Make sure the camera is ready and film is loaded before boarding the boat. Nothing puts more stress on a fish than "sunbathing" on the deck, waiting for a slow poke to ready a camera. When the camera is ready, then lift the fish from the water and snap the shots you need. Release the fish immediately after photos.
GET HELP WITH THE HOOK. Don't take all day removing a hook. Make sure you have pliers handy, or better yet, carry them on your belt. Be gentle, yet firm when removing the hook. There are products designed to help you with imbedded hooks. There are also a number of hook-out type removers on the market today. Quick release tools are also found in tackle shops, or can be made with bent wire and a wooden handle. However, the best overall device for this job is not a hook removing tool, but a barbless hook. If you have no barb, you have no problems! Fish can be removed and released quickly without removing fish from the water!
LEAVE THE HOOK. If you think removing a hook is going to injure or kill a fish, leave it in. Don't kill a fish to save a 50 cent hook! Cut the line as close to the hook as possible. The acids in the stomach will dissolve it with the help of saltwater. Don't use stainless steel hooks, they last too long. Stay with the bronzed or cadmium hooks and do not leave treble hooks from lures in the mouth of a fish!
TIME TO REVIVE. Spend whatever time it takes to properly revive a fish. The time and effort you've taken up to this point is wasted, if you don't give the fish ample time to recuperate. Picture running a 4 minute mile, then someone sticks your head under water and tells you hold your breath. This is what a fish goes through after a fight at the end of a line.
Gently move the fish back and forth, flushing water through its gills. When the time comes to release the fish, you'll know. The fish will want to swim out of your hands. For fish that are extremely tired, use the boat's motor or trolling motor to run the boat, giving the same oxygen rich water a chance to flush over the gills. Holding the fish's head into the current should there be one, also works.
Finally, when the fish is ready to swim away on its own, tap the fish where tail meets body. This simulates the area where predators often strike and stimulates the fish's escape reflexes. This will tell you if the fish can really swim with speed and strength or it needs more time to gather itself. Practice catch & release, it works!