It’s always nice to have your freezer stocked with your favorite fish, but I think we can all agree that the real joy comes from actually catching them. Keepers can be too small or too big to eat, and depending on the species, they may not be a tasty option. For some, catch-and-release fishing is a controversial topic. In theory, it combines the best of both worlds: endless fun for anglers that doesn’t harm the local fish population. Unfortunately, many of us who love to fish aren’t used to releasing our catch in a manner that is conducive to the fish’s health.
Proper catch-and-release fishing is actually much more involved than any weekend warrior might guess. It consists of everything from using the correct tackle, safely landing the fish, carefully handling your catch, and releasing the fish in a timely fashion. Let’s take a deeper dive into the proper techniques for catch-and-release fishing so that you can do your part to help sustain local fish populations while still having a blast.
Using The Right Tackle
Sure, it is possible to catch big fish using light gear, but it doesn’t help the fish’s chance of surviving after you let it go. This is also true when using certain baits and hooks, so before your next outing, make sure to get that tackle box in order.
Rod And Reel
Most folks sound of mind wouldn’t use a hammer to sink a screw into a piece of wood, bring a knife to a gunfight, or wear a tank top when ice fishing. This same logic applies to catch-and-release fishing. Always remember to bring the right tool for the job.
This means you need to consider what your target species is so that you can bring a rod with the right weight and correct line. Trying to reel a northern pike or muskie in on an ultralight rod with 4lb. test may sound like a fun challenge for some, but it will result in one of three unwanted outcomes. Either your rod blank snaps, the line breaks, or it will take forever to reel the fish in.
No one wants to shell out unnecessary cash on new rods, but the latter two scenarios create a higher chance of killing the fish. A broken line most likely means that the fish swims off with your hook in its mouth, gills, or stomach. Unless the fish you hooked has a pair of pliers stashed somewhere, you can bet that the fish will eventually die because of this.
All fish are going to put up a fight, and this is a huge part of what makes fishing so darn fun. That said, there is a fine line between letting a fish tire enough to reel it in without snapping your line and simply toying with the fish until it’s exhausted. Removing the hook and releasing the fish takes time while the fish is out of the water and struggling to breathe. That means your catch will have a much better chance of living after you release it if it isn’t completely gassed when you land it.
Choosing The Right Bait And Hook
Some baits and hooks are more prone to being swallowed whole by the fish. While this isn’t a big problem if your catch is going into the livewell and straight to the fish cleaning station, it will almost guarantee the fish will die after releasing it.
Scented artificial baits are designed to help the fish find your bait in low-light situations, but they encourage the fish to swallow it whole. This problem is compounded by the fact that most anglers use barbed hooks. They do their job very well when a fish is hooked in the lips, but getting them out of the throat, gills, or stomach without doing major damage is next to impossible.
There is always a heated debate on how well fish can digest hooks, but the fact is they didn’t evolve to digest large metal objects, so it is always better if the fish doesn’t have to pass a hook.
You can purchase barbless lures and hooks or you can remove the barbs yourself. The easiest way is to take a pair of needlenose pliers and simply flatten the barb. Your hook is still effective, but now it will be easier to remove without harming your catch, especially if the was foul-hooked.
How To Hook And Land Your Fish
There is nothing quite like the feeling you get when you set the hook, your rod bends in half, and the sound of your reel spooling as the fish makes a break for it fills the air. The key here is to set your hook as soon as possible to prevent the fish from swallowing the bait.
It may seem like common sense, but always stay close to your rod and pay attention to its action. The fish has a better chance of stealing your bait or swallowing it if you take your time setting the hook.
Make sure always to bring a properly sized landing net. Lifting the fish out of the water without a net not only puts more stress on the fish, it creates another chance for the line to break and your catch to escape. Landing nets make it possible to maximize your chance of successfully bagging the fish while giving you a chance to remove your hook without pulling the fish out of the water.
Properly Handling Your Catch
Handling your catch is the tricky part, and many anglers do unnecessary damage to the fish during this stage. We are all guilty of the stereotypical fish picture where we hold the fish vertically by its gills away from our bodies to make it look bigger for bragging rights. It makes for a great photo, but it isn’t great for the fish.
When possible, try to keep the fish horizontal in the water for as long as possible. You don’t want to injure yourself by getting a hook in the hand or sliced by a sharp gillplate, so you will have to use your best judgment when deciding whether or not to remove the fish from the water.
It is also important to wet your hands or use rubber gloves when handling a fish. They are coated in a slimy mucus that helps them swim and protect them from infections, so we don’t want to remove this. Leave the cotton gloves and towels at home because they will remove this protective layer.
Successfully removing your hook can be a dangerous chore, so be sure to stay focused. You want to get the hook out of the fish as fast as possible, but you need to be gentle with your catch to avoid unnecessarily hurting the fish.
Hooked fish are slippery and love to thrash around, so you will want to get a firm hold on the fish so that you don’t get hurt and the fish doesn’t hurt itself trying to break free. Avoid squeezing the gills or gripping the fish too tightly as it can damage vital organs. If you can, hold the fish underneath its stomach and place your other hand on the tail. This supports the fish while restraining it so that you can get the hook out quick and clean.
Dehooking tools and needlenose pliers are much safer than using your bare hands to remove a hook. You can quickly remove the hook without getting bit or cut, even if the hook is deeper in the fish’s mouth.
Tips For Releasing The Fish
Its far too common for anglers to just toss their fish back in the lake after getting the hook out and snapping a picture. The proper way to release a fish is to hold it horizontally in the water, supporting its stomach, and allowing it to breathe before letting go. Think about holding your breath underwater for as long as you can. When you come up for air you need some time to breathe and get the oxygen flowing through your blood again before you do anything. The fish needs to get its strength back before swimming off back into the depths.
Other Factors To Consider
Even if you follow these procedures to the letter, there are some other factors that can affect a fish’s survival rate that are out of our control.
Water Depth And Temperature
As the hottest days of the year continue to drag on, the water temps at our favorite honey holes will continue to rise. For most species, this means migrating to deeper waters to stay cooler and follow baitfish. Pulling fish out of deep water can cause something called barotrauma. This is similar to “the bends” when divers surface too quickly from deep waters. Gases like nitrogen build up in the fish, causing it to bloat and lose the ability to get back to the depth it came from.
You can combat this by fishing shallower waters or by using recompression tools. Fish descenders are an effective way to ensure that a fish pulled out of deep water will live to swim another day.
This may seem like a lot of work if you aren’t an experienced angler, but it is always important to help preserve these fish populations so that people who come after us can enjoy this beloved pastime like we do. Make these steps a regular part of your fishing trips, and they will become second nature.