There’s nothing wrong with catching a tasty fish and bringing it home for dinner. And there is certainly nothing wrong with keeping your legal limit, as long as nothing goes to waste.
For a variety of reasons, however, many sport fishermen today are practicing catch and release, giving gamefish an opportunity to live, breed and fight again someday. In the United States, for example, nearly 60% of the recreational catch is now released nationwide (based on National Marine Fishery Services estimates).
Releasing a fish or keeping it is a matter of personal choice. When you do choose to release a fish, it only makes sense to do everything you can to ensure its long-term survival. Here are six ways you can make sure that the fish you let go survive:
- Know the sportfishing regulations for the area you’re fishing, including gear restrictions, seasonal closures and species closures. Know how to identify the fish species you’ll catch before you go (many state Department of Fish and Game agencies offer online resources and fish ID books you can keep onboard). This is important, because you don’t want to waste time figuring out if a fish you’ve landed is a potential “keeper” or not.
- Have the proper tools (long-nose pliers or fish de-hooker) to land and unhook fish quickly, and keep them at the ready while fishing. Time spent out of the water is a leading cause of unintended fish mortality, so the last thing you want to be doing is hunting around for your tools while the fish is thrashing around on the surface, or worse yet, out of the water.
- Handle fish with care. If possible, leave the fish in the water at boat side while you unhook it. If you must bring fish aboard, use a special catch and release landing net which has small knotless mesh that is usually rubber coated, and a flat panel sewn into the bottom to properly support a fish’s body. If the hook is too far down to quickly remove it, simply cut the line close to the mouth. You will do more harm than good trying to dig it out. If this is a fish you would keep for the dinner table, consider taking this one as its odds of survival are lowered. Revive tired fish by supporting their bodies and moving them gently back and forth to get water flowing over the gills. You’ll feel the fish start to kick when he’s ready to go.
- Use non-offset circle hooks, which greatly increase the likelihood fish will be hooked in the corner or roof of the mouth for easy release. Regular circle hooks are offset to make them easier to bait, however, these can cause damage to the fish’s throat and mouth until they set.
- Always wet your hands before handling fish, and never stick your fingers into a fish’s gills. This would be like somebody sticking their hands into your lungs.
- If you’re going to take photos before releasing a fish, do it quickly and gently. It is safest to photograph the fish while still in the water, but if you must hold it, support the fish’s head and body. Don’t hang it vertically by its jaw. Fish are biologically designed for their body weight to be supported by water, and having its full weight suspended by a lower lip can cause undue stress and internal damage.
Several scientific studies have shown that fish, when properly released, have a very high survival rate. If you’re an angler who likes to keep a few for dinner and release the rest, consider doing this. Release those fish where the hook is easily reached on the outside of the mouth, and keep the ones that are deeply hooked — regardless of size. If all anglers do their part to improve catch and release techniques, it will mean a healthier ocean and more fish for all of us.