To butcher a popular expression, many dead fish are killed with the best of intentions. Releasing fish you don’t plan to eat has become an accepted management and conservation tool among most fishermen and, with strict bag limits in place for the most coveted species, a necessity. But simply throwing a fish back in the water is not necessarily a good thing.
“Eighty percent of anglers release most or all of their catch, most or all the time,” said Teeg Stouffer, the executive director of Recycled Fish, a nonprofit organization dedicated to responsible stewardship in fishing. “However, that doesn’t mean that there is a 100% survival rate.”
Here are some things to think about for responsibly catching, handling, and releasing your favorite fish.
Sling The Circle
The worst thing you can do to a fish you plan to release is hook it in the gut. According to Rudy Lukacovic, a fishery biologist who does catch and release studies for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, a deep hook wound is the predominant factor in caught fish mortality. One study showed that, under normal conditions, survival rate is 99 percent on shallow-hooked fish, that is fish hooked in or around the mouth and lips. The solution? Use single-hook lures and flies, which greatly reduces gut hooking. When fishing with bait, circle hooks are proven fish savers. Says Lukacovic, “By the use of circle hooks versus J-hooks, you can reduce mortality by 90 percent.”
Among shallow-hooked fish that don’t survive, the single biggest factor is stress. The exertion a fish goes through during the fight can exhaust it. Using heavier tackle and techniques to subdue a fish quickly will cut down the fight time and aid its recovery. Reviving the fish in the water before releasing it will help it catch its breath.
Keep 'em Wet
You’ve landed a trophy that gave you the fight of its life. So what do you do? Hoist it out of the water for pictures. “Fish can live out of water for about as long as we could live under it – after running a marathon,” says Stouffer of Recycled Fish. “Keeping them out of water for the shortest time possible gives them the best shot at survival.” A Canadian study showed that trout fought to exhaustion and exposed to air for 30 seconds had a 38 percent mortality rate. Fish held out of water for 60 seconds shot up to 72 percent mortality.
If you want a photo, have a plan in place beforehand to pull the fish from the water quickly and release it back as soon as possible. Or, as Lukacovic says, “Leave the fish in the water.”
Another way to put undo stress on a fish is to pull it out of the water and hold it vertically by its mouth. A fish’s body structure is designed for immersion in water. “Those fish have never come out of suspension...their internal organs, they are suddenly much ‘heavier’ when they’re out of water, just like we’re much ‘lighter’ when we are in water,” says Stouffer. If you hoist a big fish out of the water, hold it horizontally and support its belly with your free hand.
Holding a fish vertical to weigh it has the same harmful effects. Stouffer and Recycled Fish have an alternative solution. “Buy a digital scale and attach it to the handle of a fish-friendly net.” Zero the scale to the weight of the net, and then when you weigh the fish its body will have support.
What is a fish-friendly net? Catch and release enthusiasts prefer nets made out of knotless rubber that don’t strip the fish of the outer layer of slime that protects it from disease. “We like the Frabill Conservation Series nets or the many knotless, rubber mesh nets on the market,” says Stouffer.
Another idea gaining currency is to use musky cradles to handle and release all sorts of big fish. This idea is being championed by Careful Catch Maryland, a program from the Maryland Coastal Conservation Association.
Follow these practices and your good intentions will be rewarded. According to several different studies, properly handled fish have a survival rate of 97 percent. That means, overwhelmingly, the fish you throw back will live to fight another day.
Pete McDonald writes for Boating, Yachting, and other marine and fishing publications. In the past, he has written for Power & Motoryacht and Salt Water Sportsman, and spent 11 years on staff as a technical editor at Boating. All things considered, at any given moment he would prefer to be fishing.