5 Practices for Safer Catch-and-Release Angling

5 Practices for Safer Catch-and-Release Angling

Almost every angler out there enjoys eating fish. From frying up some walleye or panfish on a Friday night to making a hearty chowder on a cold winter’s day to plopping a freshly caught trout into a frying pan beside the river, cooking and eating your catch has always been an iconic part of angling culture. Yet no matter how much you love bringing home a mess of fish for dinner, the fact is you simply can’t keep them all.

Whether you’re limited by size or slot limits, are fishing for an endangered or rare species like steelhead, or you just don’t like the taste of fish, there are plenty of times when you just have to let a fish go. But even the most devoted catch and release anglers can unintentionally kill their catch—carelessly chucking a fish back into the water is no guarantee that it will survive the damage or trauma of being caught. While catch-and-release fishing can be controversial, when it’s done properly, you can ensure the fish’s survival so that it will swim off to be caught another day.

Not Too Hot and Not Too Cold

Fishing at the right time is the easiest way to ensure that a fish experiences the least amount of stress and trauma when it’s hooked. While some fish are tougher than others, many popular gamefish species, such as trout and grayling, and even seemingly rugged species, like pike and muskie, can actually die from the stress of being caught under the wrong conditions.

Catching fish when water temperatures are extremely high or when water flows in rivers are extremely low are probably the most common times that anglers accidentally kill fish. It happens because warm water temps and low river flow decrease oxygen levels in the water, causing hooked fish to essentially suffocate while they fight for freedom. For them, it’s like trying to sprint while they’re in a sauna, making it nearly impossible to get any air. This is especially true for cold water species like trout, salmon, and steelhead which can actually die from simply swimming through water warmer than 75 degrees.

The best way to avoid hurting these fish is, of course, by ignoring them altogether and concentrating your angling efforts on other, more temperature-tolerant species like panfish, bass, or catfish. Of course, unless you have an extremely diverse fishery on your doorstep, chasing other species isn’t always possible. So your best bet for making sure fish survive being hooked in warm or low water is by only fishing for them during the early morning or at night when air and water temperatures are cooler and oxygen levels in the water will be higher.

Extreme cold can also be a fish killer. Though they’re fine in the cold water, when you remove fish from the water in below-subzero air temperatures, their gills can freeze quicker than Flick’s tongue froze to the flagpole in_ A Christmas Story_. This is a common occurrence for ice anglers and winter steelheaders who lift their fish out of the water in bitterly cold temperatures to unhook them or to get a picture before releasing them without realizing that the fish’s delicate gill filaments can freeze in two to four seconds.

This cuts off blood flow and gas exchange within the fish’s body meaning that the only place it will be swimming after it’s released is straight to the morgue. To avoid this, keep the fish in the water as best you can when landing and unhooking it, and if you really need to get a picture of it, make it quick.

The Right Tools for The Job

Having the right gear for catch-and-release fishing is essential to ensuring their survival after release. While this may seem like common sense, many anglers avoid bringing extra equipment like nets, hemostats, and line clippers with them as they don’t think they’re necessary. However, being able to do things like keeping a fish in the net while unhooking it with a pair of hemostats or being able to cut the line and leave the hook inside the throat of a deeply hooked fish instead of pulling its guts out are all great ways to avoid unnecessary fishy demise.

Another thing that many anglers don’t consider when catch-and-release fishing is using heavier gear. As much fun as it is to hook a big fish on light tackle and then fight it for an indeterminate amount of hours like the Old Man from Hemingway’s novel, the fact is that on light tackle, you can accidentally fight a fish to death. Instead, choose a heavier-action rod and a heavier fishing line than you think you need so you can “horse” fish a bit and get them into the net with plenty of energy. While this can make getting bites more difficult, especially when you’re fishing for heavily pressured fish, there are certain types of fishing lines—such as fluorocarbon—which are nearly invisible beneath the water. These lines allow you to use a heavier pound test when fishing for smaller fish without scaring them away.

Keep Them Wet

In the world of social media, getting a good grip-and-grin shot of your fish is almost as important as catching the fish itself. Yet many fish can die during the “hold it out a little bit, now turn its head, no wait the other way” photography process.

It’s so important to remember that every time we remove a fish from the water for a photo to unhook it or just to admire it, we’re cutting off its oxygen supply. If this is done too often or for too long, the fish won’t survive. So, whenever you remove a fish from the water, try to time it it like you did back when you were dunking your annoying sibling’s head at the town pool—quick enough to be satisfying but not so long that they’re going to tell Mom.

Another thing that anglers don’t give enough consideration, aside from when they’re washing it off their hands, is the fish’s slime. This delicate outer mucus layer coats the body of almost every fish there is and helps keep fish protected from disease, fungus, and other things that may compromise their immune system. Often anglers taking a picture of the fish will lay it down on the rocks, grass, or a dock, or they’ll grasp it with a pair of gloves or a completely dry hand.

Doing any of these things scrapes off the delicate slime and allows every microscopic threat in the water to get under the fish’s skin, and usually results in the fish going belly up. Avoid this by wetting your hands before touching a fish, never using gloves, and keeping the fish in the water when taking those badass profile pics.

A Gentle Touch

Despite being covered in an armored hide of scales, fish are delicate creatures. If you squeeze them too hard, poke your fingers into the wrong spots, or drop them on the bottom of the boat, they aren’t going to be swimming away from the encounter. So, it’s best to hold any fish you intend to release as gently as you can and, frankly, treat them like they’re made of glass.

Whenever you’re lifting any fish from the water, always do it by tenderly cradling it with one hand beneath its belly and the other around the wrist of its tail just above the tailfins. If it’s a small fish and only requires one hand, cup your fingers beneath its stomach and lay your thumb across the top of its back to keep it steady. Always hold fish over the water or over a net so that if they do wriggle free, they’ll have a soft landing and won’t bash themselves on the boat or the rocks on the bank while to trying to get away.

Certain species, such as bass, pike, and muskie, all have conventional ways to hold them, with anglers traditionally gripping bass by the lower lip or sliding their fingers into gill plates of pike, muskie, and other toothy fish. While these may be traditional, the fact is that if they aren’t done perfectly, they can still cause the fish a lot of damage.

If you’re going to hold a bass by its lower lip, do it at a low angle so that the fish hangs vertically so that you don’t flex the bass’s mouth open with it’s body weight. If you’re going to lift or hold a fish by its gill plate, make sure your fingers don’t touch the gills themselves and that you only hold them this way for short intervals. Honestly, though, it’s probably best to avoid putting your fingers anywhere near a fish’s gills at any time, and better to do the belly cradle and tail clutching method instead. I mean, you wouldn’t like someone’s fingers fluttering around in your lungs, and fish don’t like it either.

Revive and Release

After the pictures have been taken and all the high-fives have been given, the final step to getting your fish safely back into the water is the release itself. So many anglers nonchalantly toss their fish back into the water like they’re flipping an empty beer can into a trash can. Or worse, they lob the fish into the air like a kid throwing a rock just to see the splash. Both practices or anything with similar impacts can be extremely traumatic to an already stressed-out fish and even have a chance of stunning or killing them.

Additionally, simply letting a tired fish go can also cause them to die or to be easily taken by a predator. Instead of just tossing your fish into the water, you’re going to want to revive and then gently release you’re the fish once you’re sure they’re okay.

To revive and release your fish, lower it gently in the water with your hands gently cupping its belly and holding it upright. If you’re in a river, turn the fish’s head upstream so that water is passing over its gills, or if you’re in a lake or pond, start slowly moving the fish back and forth in a slow and steady rhythm. You’ll know that the fish is ready to go when it starts to kick and try to swim away. When it does this, wrap your hand gently around the wrist of its tail and continue to hold it in the water until it starts to struggle strongly, letting you know it’s ready to leave.

Please Fish Responsibly

Fishing has always been and still remains a fun and efficient way to hunt and gather food. Our ancestors did it with spears and nets and then later with hooks and lines, handing down a passion and love for fish and fishing to their children and eventually to us. Yet as with all things, time has changed fishing from a necessary subsistence to a regulated and beloved sport.

We modern-day anglers are much more than hungry survivalists who need to bring home every single fish we catch. We are sportsmen and stewards of the lands and waters we recreate, and know we must fish responsibly so that our sport can continue to grow and thrive. Handling and releasing fish safely helps to sow the seeds of the future. For as much as we love to eat fish and will continue to do so, the fact is that there are a lot of fantastic, hard-fighting, and simply awesome fish species out there, and most of them are worth catching twice.

Feature image via Tosh Brown.

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