Catch and release fishing is often one of the most enjoyable yet misunderstood practices of modern fishing. When most non fishing enthusiasts go fishing, they automatically assume they will bring home their catch to put on the table. Not so for many fishing enthusiasts who ply our local waters for steelhead, salmon, trout and bass.
The basic fundamental of catch and release fishing is for enjoyment. A fishing enthusiast can catch and release fish all day long without worrying about going over their daily limit or breaking the law. The practice of catch and release fishing applies especially well to good fishing days when fish are plentiful on the line and many are caught. Below the basic level of enjoyment from catching multiple fish in a day comes a deeper level of enjoyment derived from conservation of declining fish populations. In this day and age our fisheries are declining due to rapid habitat loss, commercial fishing, and a changing seascape. When you combine these factors with recreational fishing where everyone takes home their limits, it doesn’t give the fish much of a chance for future generations of fish, not to mention limiting the angling options of the future generations of our children.
Many anglers choose to practice catch and release fishing to help sustain the fish population for themselves and for generations to come.
A trend these days is that often times it is almost taboo or deemed unethical to keep certain kinds of fish. Take wild steelhead and salmon out of rivers or largemouth bass out of lakes for example. These species of fish should almost always be released, even when legal to keep them, to ensure the survival of the species and keep our fisheries strong.
There is much more involved in catch and release fishing than simply letting a fish go. If not done correctly, the fish will almost assuredly die soon after being released. Fish are delicate creatures and can suffer from smashed internal organs, loss of their protective slime covering, excessive bleeding, and other injuries suffered from improper handling. The following are some guidelines to follow when handling fish that are to be released.
First off, never remove a fish from water any longer than is absolutely necessary to remove the hook. Often times, the hook can be removed while the fish still remains under water. Fish live under water their entire lives and are accustomed to feeling the pressure of water around them. They are accustomed to being wet and derive oxygen from passing water through their mouths and gills and pulling the oxygen from it. When removed from the water the pressure changes on their bodies, and they are essentially drowning in the air. If you absolutely must remove a fish from the water to take a picture, make sure to get the camera ready before removing the fish, and then only remove the fish for as short a time as possible.
Fish are covered in a protective slime that helps protect them from disease and keeps their scales in prime condition. If mishandled, this slime can be removed and open the fish to infection and disease. To avoid this, it is important to wet the hands before handling a fish, or even better to wear wool gloves while handling the fish. Wet wool gloves are the best since the wool is soft and doesn’t remove the fish’s protective slime. Besides handling the fish other things that remove slime are setting them in the dirt, or on a rock, in the bottom of the boat, or on the sand. All of these things can lead to death after the fish is released.
Another important thing to avoid when catch and release fishing is trauma or internal injury. Trauma can be caused by dropping the fish on the ground or into the bottom of the boat. Internal injury can be caused by squeezing the fish when holding it. This should be avoided to ensure the survival of the fish.
Unnecessary stress can be a major killer of fish after they are released so it is important to revive your fish before releasing it to make sure that it swims away strong. In cold waters especially, fish will be under major stress when caught and will use up almost all of their energy fighting against the angler. Always work to land your fish as quickly as possible to ensure that the fish doesn’t play itself to death. Even when landed quickly, the fish will be extremely tired after being caught and will require resuscitation before being released. The best way to do this is to hold the fish by the tail with one hand and with the other underneath the belly. Move the fish back and forth in a rocking motion to help move water and oxygen through the fish’s mouth and past its gills. This will force extra oxygen into the fish and help to revive it. When the fish is ready to go it will start to pull away from your hand. Gently release your grip on the tail and wait for it to swim away. If the fish stops or starts to turn over or float sideways, retrieve the fish, turn it upright, and start the process again until it is revived. Fish will die if they are left floating upside down in the water.
If using a net to land your fish, use a knotless ‘catch-and-release’ net. You can find these at local fishing stores or online. Catch and release nets are made of a soft mesh material with no knots to reduce stress and injury on the fish.
And finally, one of the greatest fundamentals of catch and release fishing occurs before even wetting your line. The use of treble hooks with barbs can make releasing a fish unharmed severely difficult. If you aren’t planning on keeping what you catch, it’s recommended that you use a single barbless hook. To de-barb your hook, simply use a pair of pliers to smash down the barb. This causes much less injury to the fish and increases the survival rate of released fish. Treble hooks should be replaced with single hooks to help reduce injury as well.
However, if a fish is hooked in the eye or gills, it should be kept if legal to do so. A fish that is bleeding excessively or that has sustained major damage to it’s gills, throat, or eye will most likely not survive.
So if you’re thinking about practicing catch and release, these are a few pointers to get you started towards catch and release fishing and the conservation of our fisheries. It’s always fun to bring home your catch and put it on the table, but oftentimes it can be just as rewarding to let the big one go.