Fishing is one of those rare activities that I can enjoy even if I am not successful. It is my zen activity that balances me and lets me relax. There is something soothing about standing by the water or sitting in a boat. Cast after cast the back and forth motion just melts my stress away. Of course, I enjoy catching fish more than not catching fish. I am competitive by nature and always try to catch more fish and bigger fish than the person next to me. It might be my best friend, my father, or a complete stranger. It does not matter to me. I have to be better.
I have a great respect and appreciation for the fish that I chase. I truly believe that the life of each fish is precious. I often fish for the freezer and try to get my limit so that I can provide food for my family. There is not much better than a big fish fry with my family around the table or a shore lunch with fried potatoes and onions. The two exceptions are when I am trophy fishing or when I catch a fish that is too small to keep. I am picky, so the latter happens often.
If you do not handle these fish properly, they will surely die. Small fish will never grow large enough for other anglers to pursue, and trophy fish will never give other trophy fishermen the same enjoyment they have given me. There are several ways that catch-and-release fish can die. I feel that is my responsibility to do absolutely everything I can do to prevent this from happening. I appreciate nature providing for my family and my enjoyment, and I want to show respect and appreciation for that gift.
In addition, there are two major changes happening in the fishing world. One is that sport fishing is growing in popularity. As more and more people stop eating the fish they catch and buy their fish at the grocery store or fish market, the nature of fishing is changing. The number of anglers has not decreased. If anything, it has increased. However, people are fishing for fun and not food. People leave their corner office, hop in their Benz, put on their designer fishing vest, and head to the river just to unwind. This means that they typically throw every fish back into the water. Unfortunately, some of these anglers know absolutely nothing about proper catch and release techniques.
The other major change in the fishing world is that regulations are becoming more common and stricter. The enforcement of these regulation has become a bigger deal as well. I remember a day when people could fish all week and never see a ranger. Now if you are on a public waterway for any period of time you are likely to get a visit. They will check your catch, your equipment, and your license. In our current world people are very enthusiastic about protecting animals. While it has always been a priority, conservation is much more commonly discussed. Personally, I think this is a good thing. We have a pond on our property and very carefully monitor the number of fish we catch and keep to be sure the population stays at a healthy level. We are also very careful about how we catch-and-release. Because of this, almost every fish you catch in our pond is a five-pound bass or larger.
Most people just do not understand. They do not focus on the harm that they cause with the hooks they use, the handling of the fish, and the gear they employ. As much of this article has been anecdotal, adding some statistics may focus the picture for you. If you catch a fish that swallows the hook and you throw it back, the odds are roughly 2/3 that it will die. In addition, roughly 1/3 fish that are caught on live bait die after a release. Those are scary odds. Think about the number of fish that you catch in a season and do the math. We as a community of anglers are killing fish that could survive if handled properly.
In this article I will cover in detail the strategies you can use to keep more fish alive once they are released. It is our obligation as a whole to preserve this resource. I personally would like to be able to take my grandkids fishing when I am retired. It makes me sad to think that poor care and conservation could prevent that from happening. These actions will make sure that all of us have ample fishing opportunities for the rest of our lives.
You probably are not going to like this suggestion, but I am going to give it to you anyways. Many anglers like to use lightweight rods with thin gauge line. The purpose it to make small fish feel like you are fighting a large fish and large fish feel like you are fighting a monster. It requires you to work the fish in the water two to three times as long. While this is more fun, it puts a great deal of stress on the fish. If you use the proper weight of rod and line, you can reel in the fish faster without worrying about it breaking the line. This is less stressful for the fish and gives it a better chance of survival.
As stated above, 2/3 of the fish that swallow the hook do not survive because of the way they are handled. While it may seem cruel, you are best to leave the hook in place. Think about that hook being in your skin. If you try to pull it out, you will rip the skin and flesh causing you to bleed profusely. The same happens with fish. Over time the fish will likely be able to naturally work the hook out of its flesh. This does virtually no damage. Studies have shown that 2/3 of the fish with the hook left in will survive after released. If you rip out the hook, it almost certainly will die. Snip the line close to the hook and get it into the water as quickly as possible.
You may or may not know that you can purchase barbless hooks in all the same sizes as barbed hooks. The barb is what does virtually all of the damage to the fish. You can cleanly remove a barbless hook almost every time. When you first get started, there will be a learning curve. You will notice that setting the hook is easier because the tip is thinner. However, the fish will be more likely to get off the hook before getting to your net. The hidden benefit is that this will make you a better angler. If you work a fish properly, you can consistently get a fish to shore on a barbless hook. In addition, you will be able to remove the hook faster with less damage and get the fish back in the water. You can also use pliers to flatten out the barbs on your existing hooks.
Many anglers pull the fish out of the water by the line. Take a second and think about how much damage that does at the point where the hook penetrated. It is really rough on the fish. The first priority is to always use a net. The next is to use the right net. If you need length to get to the spot where your fish is, use a net with a long handle. I actually have one that telescopes out to eight feet from end to end. This is ideal for shore fishing so you are not dragging the fish in closer to shore. Make sure the size of the loop on your net is large enough for the fish you are catching. If the loop is too small for the fish, you will struggle to net it and do more damage. Finally, make sure you pay attention to the net material. Nylon is prone to tangle and does more damage. I personally prefer a rubber mesh net. You also need a trout net for trout. They are more sensitive, so do not try to cut corners.
You have probably noticed that all fish are slippery and somewhat slimy. This is because there is a layer of mucus on their scales that is needed for the fish to survive. Trout in particular are sensitive to damage to this layer, but it affects all fish. It helps the fish stay healthy. It is like the skin on a human. Without it you are prone to infection and all kinds of other issues. To prevent damage to this layer, wet your hands before you handle a fish. This will make your hands less abrasive. In addition, handling sensitive areas like the eyes or gills is horrible for the fish. I know you may have grown up holding and stringering a fish by the gills, but you are best to hold or stringer a fish by the bottom lip. It does no permanent damage.
The ground is the enemy – Just like your hands can do damage to the mucus layer, dirt or grass will do even more damage. Always keep your fish off of the ground until you release it.
Be cautious with the head – You may not realize it, but the head of a fish is much more sensitive to impact than other animals. Even a little bump can do damage or kill the fish. Be sure you handle the fish in a way that it takes no blows to the head.
Take pictures with care – We all love snapping a picture so you can show your friends the monster that you caught without them. However, the longer you keep it out of water the less likely it is to survive. Keep it in the water until the last moment and then lift it out briefly for the picture.
Know how to release – When you are in running water, the worst thing you can do is move the fish back and forth trying to get it to swim away. You are best to just face it upstream so water runs through the gills. This is enough to get it moving without any damage.
Check the temperature – Catch-and-release does not work in any weather. In temperatures above 80F, just bringing the fish out of the water in your net can be enough to kill it. Always check with the department of conservation in these conditions to see if catch-and-release is a good idea.
Okay, I will step down from my soap box for the moment. I am very passionate about conservation, and you should be too. I had a wonderful childhood enjoying the natural resources around me. I hope we can pass on that same experience for generations to come. If you take a few precautionary steps, there will be plenty of fish for everybody to enjoy.