Catch & Release: Doing It Right

When I first began thinking about how I would approach an article on catch and release, my brain got all tangled up with thoughts about why I fish, whether I would fish if I was convinced that fish feel pain, and if catch and release really achieves the goals that anglers believe it does.

It goes without saying that fishing is a wonderful way to be outdoors, that it is an enjoyable challenge for most of us to pit our large, human brains against the much smaller brain of a creature from another world, and that we do, at certain times, fish to eat. So, where did the concepts of fishing just for fun and practicing catch and release come from?

Anglers have probably always engaged in some catch and release activities, even if we didn’t call them that. We’ve let fish go because they were smaller than the legal catch limit, because we just wanted to catch a bigger fish, or because we hooked a sucker instead of the trout that we were after.

Now, however, even when we catch the trout that we targeted, we release it.  How come? When did things begin to change? Who is responsible for the concept of “limit your catch, don’t catch your limit” or the “zero limit” phrases that have become so popular?

Most fly anglers credit Lee Wulff, a giant in the world of fly fishing, author of eight books, inventor of the fishing vest, and a founder of the Federation of Fly Fishers, with being the “father” of catch and release. They use his now-famous 1936 quote, “A game fish is too valuable to catch only once,” as the rallying cry for the conservation movement.  Michael Gold, the photographer/videographer who captured Wulff on film, said, “He believed that it was important to release a fine fish so that the next angler could have the same experience. That no-kill concept changed angling forever.”

In Wulff’s early days governmental agencies regulated fishing through bag limits, slot limits, retention/non-retention rules, and open and closed seasons, if they regulated it at all. Management or conservation through catch and release was almost unheard of. Anglers who practiced it did so strictly voluntarily. Over time, though, catch and release (called “delayed harvest” or “selective harvest” in some states) has progressed to being a legal requirement on many waters. In Alaska, those requirements often coincide with “fly fishing only” or single barbless hook restrictions.

After years of practicing catch and release both voluntarily and as a legal imperative, we know that both fish and fishing derive benefits from its usage.  First and foremost, anglers receive the satisfaction that they have contributed to the future of their sport as Wulff’s comments suggested. If permitted by local law and regulation, they may also be able to extend the fishing day by releasing the additional fish they catch after reaching their limit.  In addition, catch and release is now an instrument used by governmental agencies as conservation and environmental protection mechanisms. Simply stated, returning fish to the water helps avoid the depletion of resources, and ensures enjoyable fishing experiences for ourselves and other anglers.

Objections to Catch & Release

Clearly, not everyone agrees with the catch and release philosophy, regardless of its benefits. Disagreement takes several different forms. Some see catch and release as an onslaught on the use of conventional fishing methods and equipment, others claim that fish mortality from catch and release is so high that it is not achieving its species conservation objectives, groups like PETA view it as fish torture, and a few simply see it as a ridiculous waste of time to catch a fish and then not kill it and eat it.

In Alaska catch and release sometimes engenders a cultural debate as many Alaska Native people characterize returning fish to the water as disrespectful of the fish. Raised in a culture that reveres fish as a major subsistence food source, they consider this mistreatment of the fish. Their belief holds that when animals are mistreated, the natural order becomes disrupted and people may risk food shortages in the future as a result. This position is not a debate but a cultural ethic. Anglers should respect such beliefs and traditional hunting and fishing grounds and move away from obvious traditional use sites.

Rather than enter into any of these debates, I’d rather concentrate on some of the reasons for fish mortality in fresh water catch and release fishing and how its correct practice can lower those numbers.  We’ll leave salt water catch and release and tournament release discussions for another time.

Fish Mortality With Catch & Release

Biologists have conducted many studies of fish mortality in fresh water resulting from the use of catch and release fishing methods. Some have to do with survival in particular species, some have focused on specific reasons for fish mortality including the use of certain gear and equipment, hook site factors, and fishing methods, and some have addressed the link between mortality and the actual techniques of catch and release.

The picture is increasingly clear that catch and release practices impact different fish species in different ways. Water temperature, salinity and fish size are three important interactive factors that affect survival of released striped bass, for instance. Spawning sockeye salmon tend to remain near their redds and are, therefore, more vulnerable to being caught and released multiple times, which can lead to incidental mortality. Adult coho salmon, on the other hand, may be more susceptible to high mortality rates from catch and release in estuaries since they may still be actively feeding and thus more apt to swallow bait and incur deep hooking injuries. Some fish caught and released during times of very high water or very low temperatures may show increased mortality when released, and fish such as lake trout, caught at great depths and brought too quickly to the surface of the water, may die from the fish version of “the bends.”

In spite of the fact that there are not yet species-specific catch and release methods, there is a growing body of evidence about which fishing gear, methods, and release techniques contribute significantly to increased mortality in catch and release fishing. Location of the hook and deep hooking, certain extraction methods, and the use of treble hooks and barbed hooks are some of the equipment considerations. Playing a fish to exhaustion, keeping it out of the water too long, and releasing it too quickly are types of fishing or release techniques that contribute significantly to fish mortality.

Studies show that fish hooked in the gills, throat, or lower internal organs are considerably more vulnerable than fish hooked in the upper or lower jaw. In fact, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Recreational Catch and Release Mortality research program has concluded that the location of the hook wound is the single most important factor influencing catch and release mortality. The mortality rates may differ, however, depending on the species’ mouth construction, (grayling have softer mouths than trout, for instance), location of vital organs in relation to the throat, feeding methods, the activity level of the fish in the particular fishing environment, and the type of terminal tackle used.

It is true that a baited hook, whether treble or single, is more conducive to deep hooking than other methods of fishing simply because the fish is more apt to swallow bait. Many biologists recommend that the angler could reduce fish mortality by simply deciding not to use bait except when keeping fish. The type of hook the angler uses is the subject of many related areas of study.

Treble hooks and single hooks are another area of interest in the study of fish mortality with catch and release methods. The purpose of a three-pronged hook is to increase the anglers’ chances of hooking up the fish. More often than not, two or even three prongs of the hook will have impaled the fish. That makes the treble hook three times more likely to injure the fish and two to three times more difficult to extract. If these injuries are in the gills or the throat, the fish is increasingly likely to expire.

What about the barb or barbs on the hook? What difference does that make? The barbed v. barbless hook debate is another of the gear considerations in catch and release fishing. Studies have shown that while even barbed “j” hooks (which are, of course single hooks) reduced the time it took for the angler to land the fish, they also caused more hooking injuries. They also took longer for the angler to remove, increasing the potential for injury to the fish as well as its time out of the water.

Studies comparing the circle hook with the “j” hook generally show that use of the circle hook results in somewhat lower mortality rates in fish, especially when the fish are hooked in the upper or lower external jaw. Circle hooks are less apt to cause internal injuries than are “j” hooks. The fact that fish are often harder to hook with circle hooks than with “j” hooks, makes it likely that anglers will be less apt to use them, however. Studies related to types of hooks  used in catch and release fishing stress that other factors such as length of time the fish has been played, time the fish is out of the water, and skill of the angler in removing the hook all have a significant affect on the comparisons.

Some anglers object to fishing with barbless hooks because they believe that they will lose too many fish. In fact, the barb on a hook may make hook penetration even more difficult in fish with bony mouths. Just think how often it is necessary to set either a barbed or barbless hook several times on a large coho.

“J” hooks, circle hooks, and treble hooks can all have barbs. It’s easy to remove them by taking a needle-nosed pliers and pinching them down.  Japanese hooks, which typically have what is referred to as a “miro-barb,” are easier to flatten than stainless steel hooks or hooks with larger barbs.

Anglers lose just as many fish with barbed hooks as those who are fishing barbless. If you watch carefully, you’ll see that the successful angler is one who can set the hook well in the first place and then keep the line tight while playing the fish, regardless of whether the hook is barbless or not.

Correct Catch and Release Methods

Besides wounding, the other primary cause of mortality for caught and released fish is stress. Stress on the fish results from being played to exhaustion, and/or being released incorrectly. Here are some guidelines for playing and releasing fish.

  1. Get the fish in quickly 

    Protracted fish-fights are the stuff of legend. Many’s the angler who brags about the length of time it took to land a fish. That seems to verify that the fish was extraordinarily large and that we have been the victor. A fish that rolls over or lays on its side is clearly exhausted. It must be revived and released correctly to survive. The goal should be to land the fish before those signs of exhaustion appear and then to release it quickly, correctly, and safely.

  2. Use the size of tackle recommended for the fish you’re after 

    Using the proper tackle is a pre-requisite to getting the fish in rapidly. A rod and line too light for the size of the fish will always cause a prolonged battle. Unfortunately, people insist on using the lighter weight rods that are now on the market to pursue heavier species than they are intended for. Sure, you can probably land a four or five pound rainbow that you have accidently hooked on a two-wt rod, but by the time you do, the fish is so exhausted it you cannot revive it. Even if it appears to be o.k. when released, it may die later of the delayed reaction to stress. Better to just pop out the fly or break the leader to let the fish go. There’s less damage to the fish with a hook in its mouth than there is from being played too long.

  3. Use single barbless hooks
    Barbless hooks are much easier to remove from the fish than hooks with a barb, and single barbless hooks are the easiest of all. Rather than just clip off two of the hooks on a treble hook, replace the hook with a single, barbless hook. Pinch the barb down with a needle-nosed pliers (and keep the pliers accessible for hook removal.)
  4. If using a landing net be sure it is soft, knotless mesh or rubberSome anglers use landing nets and others do not. There are many excellent landing nets on the market now that are made of soft, knotless mesh or soft, flexible rubber. Avoid using old-style nets made with knotted cotton or twine.  They scrape slime off of fish.Some anglers choose not to use a net at all. They prefer to land fish by “tailing” them. If the fish has a soft mouth, “lip-landing” may be the method of choice. Either method requires that the fish’s belly be supported during handling and release.
  5. Keep fish that are going to be released in the water. Don’t haul them  up on the bank 

    Fish starved of oxygen often cannot be revived. Even when they appear to be o.k., they’ll still risk delayed mortality. Fish allowed to thrash around on the bank or in the rocks suffer serious injuries to their internal organs. Stand in the water and remove the hook without taking the fish from the water.

  6. Hold it correctly for hook release so you don’t remove its slime 

    Take hold of the fish right in front of the tail to avoid removal of their slime. Keep hold of the tail during hook removal and picture-taking so that the fish does not escape prematurely and return to the water without proper revival. Better yet, take a picture of the fish in the water.A fish’s slime protects it from bacteria and parasites. It is important not to wipe it off by handling the fish. Fish also need to remain in a horizontal position to avoid damage to their internal organs. Don’t just hang the fish off the end of the line without supporting its body during the hook release or picture taking.  A release that just tears the hook out of the fish’s mouth while it is struggling in a perpendicular position can do extensive damage. Hold the fish in front of the tail with one hand and support its belly with the other. Lift the fish out of the water for hook release or picture taking just briefly, returning it immediately to the water. Maintain a hold on the fish’s tail to help control it so that you can properly re-stabilize and re-oxygenate it during revival.

  7. Keep your fingers out of the fish’s gills and away from its eyes. 

    Putting your fingers into a fish’s gills can puncture its gills and kill it. Regardless of whether the fish is in the water or out, it will begin to bleed, and will die because it can’t breathe. It is also easy to put out a fish’s eye with your fingers. Although a fish might be able to survive with only one eye, there is an effect on its feeding habits and a risk of infection from the open wound.

  8. Remove the hook with a commercial hook-release tool or needle-nosed pliers, and not with your hands 

    Hook removal is one of the most sensitive aspects of releasing a fish. Much depends on where the hook is lodged. Lip and jaw hook-ups are the easiest to remove and generally result in much lower mortality rates for fish. Hooks lodged in the gills, throat, or stomach are the most problematical to release as well as the most lethal.Many people use a needle-nosed pliers or hook-release tools to extract hooks from fish. With a needle-nosed pliers, the angler just needs to grab the bend of the hook with the nose of the pliers and rotate the hook backwards from the way it entered the fish.  When using a commercial hook-release tool it is important to learn to use the device before going fishing to avoid hurting fish while you learn. Some people practice by inserting a hook with a line on it into an orange or an apple and using the tool to remove it. Others stick a hook inside a small cardboard box (to give the illusion of a deeply-hooked fish) and practice for removal of a hook that could be in the fish’s throat or gills.

    Since inserting a tool or pliers into the fish’s throat or stomach frequently results in bleeding, catch and release studies recommend simply cutting the leader and leaving the hook in the fish. Even that can cause the fish to die, however, because the hook can impair natural feeding. A barbless hook is, of course, more apt to dislodge no matter where it is located. Unless prohibited by catch and release regulations, it

  9. During revival hold the fish underwater with its head facing into the current 

    When reviving a fish, one hand should be holding it tightly right in front of the tail, and the other should be cradling the fish’s belly. (In front of the tail is the only place you can safely squeeze a fish.) Do not move the fish back and forth, as this forces water backwards into its gills and can actually slow down the revival process or even drown it. Simply hold it without letting the current turn it sideways.To revive, the fish must re-stabilize and re-oxygenate. That process takes time. Released too soon, the fish will wobble out into the current, turn belly-up and drown.As re-stabilization and re-oxygenation begin to occur, the first thing the angler will notice is that that the fish’s gills start to open and close naturally. Next, the fish will begin to wiggle and appear to be ready to go. It isn’t. Keep its nose pointed into the current, and continue to hold it there. Make sure it stays straight into the current and don’t let go of it. A fish that is completely revived and re-oxygenated and ready to swim away safely will forcefully trust itself out of your hand. You won’t be able to hold it. Releasing a fish prematurely is a very common mistake in catch and release. Follow the rule that it is the fish that decides when it is ready to return to the water, not the angler.

    Just a word about releasing a fish in a lake from a float tube or canoe. When there is no current in which to revive a fish, the angler needs to create one. When releasing a fish from a canoe, most anglers simply paddle along with one hand holding the fish in the water until it revives. It’s harder to do in a float tube because you’re paddling backwards. In that case, secure your rod, hold the fish in front of the tail and under the belly with its head below the water.Then begin to paddle slowly with just one flipper around in a circle with the fish’s nose pointed into the current that you’re creating.  If it takes awhile and you are feeling dizzy, just carefully turn the fish around and paddle with the other foot in the other direction. Just as in moving water, the fish will force itself out of your hands when it’s ready to go.

    Certainly, there are some fish that we’ll keep. We all want a few salmon in our freezer. But with other species, it’s a good idea to follow the recommendation to limit your kill to just fish that you’ll be eating right away. Finding that you’ve put fish into the freezer only to get freezer-burned and then thrown away will make you wish you had.

    When you do keep a fish, dispatch it quickly. Just one sharp blow right on the top of the head where the head and body meet is usually all it takes. If you have a knife, just one stab into that same spot will achieve the same result.

    I think that it’s great to see a healthy, revived fish take off like a rocket back into the watery depths. Saying goodbye isn’t nearly as hard when you know that you’ve released the fish correctly so that it will be around for you, your children, or other anglers to catch another time.

    “Catch & Release: Doing It Right” was originally published in Fish Alaska Magazine, October 2008