In recent years, there has been more interest in catch and release (C&R) fishing. One reason could be the increase in C&R fishing areas. In our area, we have stretches of the Housatonic River and Westfield Rivers which are designated as C&R areas with artificial lures only. Other anglers are releasing their fish rather than eating them due to the health advisories of mercury, PCB’s etc. On MassWildlife’s web site they list local waters where such advisories exist. Some people just don’t like the taste of the fish and let them go.
At least once a year a fisherman asks me to do an article on how to properly release a fish unharmed. That is a complex subject on which people have different opinions. The following is my opinion: If you wish to release a trout, my first recommendation is to not to use treble hooks which come on lures. These barbed hooks frequently hook the trout on the top, bottom and side of the mouth at the same time. That means that you probably will have to hold the fish firmly and twist the hooks out. Do not place your fingers through the gills. Do not hold the fish with dry hands. That causes the protective slime on the fish’s skin to come off and the fish will probably die from some kind of fungus. Keep your hands wet while handling the fish. If the fish starts to bleed, forget it, that fish is a goner. It is best to keep and eat it, if legal. In a designated C&R water body, you must release all trout whether dead or alive. I recommend that you replace those treble hooks with a single, barbless hook or cut two of the three hooks off. If you can’t get any barbless hooks, pinch the barb down yourself.
So will the fish get off with barbless hooks? If you keep tension on the line and don’t allow any slack, the chances are good that you will catch the fish. Fly fishermen love barbless hooks because after they net the fish, the hook usually comes out of the fish on its own. They don’t even have to touch the fish or take it out of the water. And, if the hook sticks into the net it comes right out. How many of us have had a barbed hook get stuck in the net and had to cut it out? Incidentally, use C&R nets as the material is less abrasive and have soft or knotless mesh. Also, if you happen to stick the hook into your clothes or body you will be very thankful that it was barbless.
Don’t fight your fish longer than necessary. Use sufficient line and equipment to bring that fish in rapidly. So many times fishermen use ultra light equipment to enjoy the fight longer. An exhausted fish will swim away, but will probably die later because of lactic acid which builds up in their systems during long fights. Don’t allow the fish to flop around on streamside rocks or bottoms of boats because they harm themselves. Never grab the fish by its eyes or gills. Avoid squeezing it by its stomach.
When the rivers become warm during the summer, trout have decreased chances of survival after release. You might consider switching to fishing in the early morning when the waters are cooler. If you catch a trout from a river, especially during warm weather, hold your fish pointing into the current in slower sections until it is revived and swims away on its own. Sometimes it takes a little time.
Release your fish as soon as possible and if you take photos, do so as soon as possible also. Use needle nosed pliers, fishhook removers or hemostats to remove hooks. Do not try to dig out a deeply hooked fish. Most fly fishermen I know simply cut the tippet near the fly if it is deeply embedded in cartilage and let it go. The fish will live and the hook will rust out after a short time.
If you are a bait fisherman, I recommend using circle hooks. It is rare to gut hook a fish using them because they almost always hook the fish in the corner of the mouth. If you decide to fish with bait and conventional hooks, set the hook quickly to avoid deeply hooking the fish.
Bass fishermen should lift the fish out of the water by its lower jaw and be sure to keep the body in an up and down (vertical) position. Unlike what you see on those TV bass fishing shows, do not hold the fish by the mouth in a horizontal position. They have lived their lives in suspension and experts tell us that such a hold can tear their internal organs, viscera and dislocate their spines. Hold them by the mouth or jaw and support the fish under the belly. I quit watching those TV bass fishing programs because many fishermen hold the fish horizontally by the mouth in front of the camera and carry on a lengthy conversation before releasing the fish back into the water. I hate seeing that and don’t understand why the B.A.S.S. organization doesn’t get after them.
As one aquatic biologist put it, After the fight of your life, say going 12 rounds in a boxing ring or running a marathon, imagine having your air cut off! That’s exactly what we do when we lift a fish out of the water. Fish kept out of water for more than one minute have a greatly diminished chance of survival, once a fish has been out of water for three minutes, it has virtually no chance for survival, even if it swims away.
Questions/comments: Berkwoodsandwaters@roadrunner.com. Phone/fax: (413) 637-1818