Fishing isn’t always about catching. Occasionally we need to release our catch due to them being out of season, over the slot size or bag limit or you don’t want to keep them. Either way, if the angler chooses to release the fish, it must be done carefully to give it the best chance for survival.
The first step in releasing your catch is to quickly retrieve the fish to shore. During the fight, a fish uses up a lot of energy. The remaining energy is needed to feed, spawn or escape a predator. When the fish is exhausted and returned to the water after a long fight, they may not have enough energy to begin breathing again or to escape to safety. So we need to ensure the fight is short.
The next step to releasing is to minimize the handling of the fish. All species have a protectant film on the surface of their skin. This film helps to prevent infection but it also helps them slide thru the water quickly. When bringing a fish to shore, it’s best to use a plastic net. Also, try to keep the fish in the water or at least wet. Some nylon or cotton nets will strip the film off as the fish tries to escape. So I try to avoid using them.
Once the fish is in the net, most anglers will use a gripper or plyers to steady them. Their first instinct is pick up the fish vertically to take a photo or a measurement. This technique is extremely lethal for the fish. By holding the fish vertical and upright, the organs and tiny structures in the fish’s body are pulled by gravity toward the tail. Torn structures will not heal timely and possibly cause the fish to die soon.
Also you want be gentle when removing the hooks. Don’t grab the fish but gently and firmly hold the fish steady to grip the hooks. Pull the hooks to minimize any damage. I like to flatten the barbs on all my hooks to aid in the quick and safe release.
If you need to remove the fish from the water or net, hold the fish horizontally. Always keep your hands wet when holding a fish. Use the gripper to control the head but always support the mid-section and tail (see picture insert). This ensures that no stress is on the vital organs. Plus, by just resting the fish in your hands, no slime or protectant will be wiped off. You will be surprised how calm they can be when held properly.
Holding a fish for a picture can be the most stressful time for the fish and even a short time can mean the difference between recovery and survival.
When the time comes to release the fish, gently lower the fish in the water. Do horizontal swimming movements to help run water over their gills. And the fish will let you when they are ready to swim off. When ready just open your hands and they will swim away – usually with a big splash.
Never drop a fish from a pier or bridge or just toss in back into the water. This action can stun them and make them more susceptible to danger. They need to be re-introduced back into the water carefully.
So remember, when you need to release a fish, keep your hands wet, don’t squeeze them tightly and reduce the time it is handled out of the water. The time out of the water and your handling techniques will determine it the fish will survive and swim away to be caught again.
Until next time – Tightlines. Capt. Tony