A Guide to Catch & Release Fishing:
Catch and release is effective and easy fish conservation. Whatever species you pursue, releasing your catch to fight another day ensures not only the survival of that fish and proliferation of the species, but also allows other anglers, maybe even you, the chance of catching a bigger fish.
Effective catch and release is based on a few simple principals. First, give barbless hooks a try. Second, land your fish as quickly as possible. Then, gently remove the hook using the proper technique. Finally, after briefly admiring, immediately release your fish. These principals along with understanding proper fish handling, helps to preserve fishing for generations to come.
It starts with your hooks; use barbless.
I know what some of you are thinking:
How can I hook or even land a fish without a barb on my hook? Simple. You need to keep a tight line while landing your fish. The catch rate of barbed and barbless hooks is not significantly different, but there are advantages to using barbless hooks. They allow for much easier unhooking, thereby reducing the length of time your fish may be out of the water. Barbless hook use is also less likely to cause injury or permanent damage to the fish.
When barbless hooks are not available, simply crimp down the barb. While being careful not to damage the point of the hook, use a plier to pinch the barb down against the hook. To test, you can then run a cotton ball against the flattened barb. You have properly crimped the barb if the cotton doesn’t "grab" the flattened barb.
Landing your fish properly is a key element to its survival.
In most situations a quick landing will be less stressful on a fish. The exception is where a fish is caught in 30+ feet of water. Due to the depth, fish will need to be reeled in slowly to allow the fish to decompress. This is similar to what scuba divers go through coming up from a deep dive. However, this can be a lose, lose situation. Fish brought up too fast from deep water are almost sure to die after their release. On the other hand, fish played long to allow decompression may build up a fatal amount of lactic acid, reducing the chance of survival. If you are planning to release fish it is best to target shallower fish. With that said, always use the heaviest line possible for the fish you are pursuing. This will decrease the amount of time needed to land your catch. Like people, fish build up lactic acid in their muscle tissue when under stress. This build up of acid is a result of the oxygen that is lost in muscle tissue while under physical exertion. Due to the lower oxygen content, fish caught in warmer water will build up this acid at an increased rate over fish caught in oxygen rich cooler water. Your quick release will increase the likelihood of a full recovery from the acid build up, allowing your fish to fight another day.
Once your fish is brought in, avoid using landing nets made of nylon, polypropylene or other abrasive materials. Whenever possible try to land your fish by hand. Wet your hands first though. Wetting your hands helps preserve the protective mucous coating and scales. This coating acts as a barrier, protecting the fish from waterborne infections and disease. Do not handle fish with dry hands, gloves, and abrasive netting.
When landing, try to keep your fish in the water while unhooking. To help calm a fish, roll it over on its back while removing the hook. Never handle a fish by the eyes or gills. This is almost a guaranteed death sentence. If the hook is hard to reach, use a forceps or needle nose plier to dislodge the hook. When faced with a deep set hook in the gills or throat that is too difficult to remove, it is best to cut the line and quickly release. This rather than stream side surgery, will increase the fish’s chance for survival.
Release your fish with care.
If you have followed the above, your fish should be in good shape at this point. With the hook removed, this is the time to admire your catch for a moment, measure it against your Rodrule, Boatrule, or soft, wet seamstress tape ruler, and get a good photo for the wall. Holding by the tail and belly, gently release your fish head first, cradling her if needed, she will let you know when she is ready to swim away. If you are stream or river fishing, point the fish head first upstream during the release. Be patient and give your fish the time it needs to swim away on its own.
Remember to limit the kill; don’t kill the limit.
Catch and release is all about preserving the wonderful sport of fishing. When we all take some time to learn how to properly handle and release fish unharmed, we are ensuring the likelihood of a healthy sport in the future.