“Catch and release” has become an important phrase in the fishing world.
In addition to being a good way to sustain the fishing resource for future anglers, this self-explanatory angling procedure is necessary for those who fish in areas (or fish for species) that have minimum length limits and other restrictions. However, catch-and-release fishing works only if anglers know how to release the fish they catch.
Unhooking a fish and getting it back in the water without doing any harm to the fish can be a trickier feat than many people realize. Improper handling can do as much damage to a fish as the sharpest treble hook. Releasing a fish is a technique that involves several considerations.
One of these that many people don’t think about is how you hold a fish. The basic fact about this is a simple one to remember – the more you handle a fish, the more likely you are to harm it. That’s because all fish are covered with mucus that reduces the friction with the water and also increases the fish’s resistance to disease. Removal of this mucus, which can happen through rough or prolonged handling, can lead to infection and death for the fish.
While we’re on the subject of what you shouldn’t do with your hands, here’s something else to remember: Holding up a large fish by its gills may look good on television but, if you plan on releasing that fish back into the water, it’s not the best thing you could do for the fish. Gills are fragile and can be easily damaged. When gills get damaged, it often results in excessive bleeding which, in turn, can have fatal results for the fish. If you must hold a fish, hold it firm enough to measure it or remove the hook, but as gently as possible. Keep your hands behind the gill area and your fingers out of the gills.
Remove hooks as carefully as possible. Hooks on the edge of the mouth do little damage to the fish. Hooks in these locations can usually be removed with needle-nose pliers (and often with your fingers). Barb-less hooks can be purchased for those who want to make the catch-and-release process easier. (Barbs can also be filed down on hooks, too.)
Problems may arise when a fish is hooked deeper in its mouth or down in its throat. Trying to disengage these hooks sometimes does more harm than good. By the time you’ve wrestled the hook free, chances are you’ve done enough internal and external damage to the fish to severely hamper its chances of survival. For that reason, when a fish that you want to release is deeply hooked, it’s usually best to clip the line and leave the hook in the fish. Fish hooked deep in the throat have a better chance of survival if the hooks are left in the fish than if you try to pull the hooks out.
The most important thing to remember about the catch-and-release process is that, if you’re going to release the fish, do it quickly. Catch the fish, measure it (if you want to or need to) and put it back. This doesn’t mean you have to avoid photographs: They’re important - particularly if kids are the ones catching the fish. Just remember that if your goal is for the fish to survive, the sooner you can accomplish all the out-of-the-water stuff and get the fish back into the water, the better the fish’s chances are of surviving. As added insurance to fish that appear to be stunned, you can hold them for a few seconds in the water and gently move them back and forth. This moves water over the gills and allows more oxygen to enter the blood.
While you’re practicing catch-and-release, remember that it doesn’t hurt to practice “catch-and-keep” fishing every now and then, too. After all, part of the fun of fishing is to be able to bring home a few for the frying pan. But it’s also important to leave fish behind for the next trip or the next angler.
Tips for releasing fish and other fishing information can be found in the 2017 edition of the “Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations.” This free booklet is available at all Missouri Department of Conservation offices and most locations that sell fishing permits. Fishing information can also be found at www.missouriconservation.org
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.