Thursday, February 17, 2011

Releasing Fish

Caught two years in a row.... catch and release works...
For most fly anglers a great moment is watching the fish we just caught swim off unharmed. I have to admit that for me that is very rewarding. I can remember many awesome fights and seeing that fish head back to the depths that it came from. There is one brown trout in my home river that I caught twice in two years that I go keep an eye on from a good vantage point. He has been caught by me twice, hooked a third time and he is still going strong. Definitely a great example of how catch and release works. A critical element in catch and release is knowing how to properly handle a fish. And that changes depending on the species.

One of the most critical elements of proper release is the length of time out of the water. Most fish can be out of the water for a few seconds without much harm. That leaves plenty of time for a photo or two. If you need or want more pictures, keep the fish in the water for a while before pulling it out again. Pretty simple. This holds true for most fish. Being out of the water damages a fish’s gills. At a certain point that fish will die. It suffocates. Try this sometime- hold your breath as you hold the fish out of the water. That gives you a bit of an idea of how the fish feels. 

Out of the water less than 30 seconds...

This is one of the reasons I have issues with the professional bass tournaments. Ever watch the weigh ins? They hold their trophy bass up for pictures and the audience then toss them into a laundry basket to get weighed. How long are they out of the water?  A study was done to see how long bass can be out of the water. Survival rates were over 90% when the fish was out of the water less than a minute. It dropped to 50% at two minutes and then dropped dramatically after that. Those fish are released after tournaments and they swim off. Delayed mortality is what is not usually seen. A tournament in 2009 in Plattsburgh, NY showed this. Several days after a tourney on Lake Champlain dozens of dead bass washed up. Delayed mortality- so much for your much vaunted catch and release bass guys! Do it right or don’t brag about it.
There are fish that can handle being out of the water for a while. Bowfin, gar, carp and catfish typically deal with it better than trout, pike, bass and the like. They are fish that are adapted to lower oxygen environments and are generally tough as nails. This doesn’t mean that they should not be handled carefully and treated with respect though.

I would not have landed this fish without a net

Nets do make a big difference in safe handling of fishes. I used not use a net much but in the past few years I have seen what a difference they make. The type of net makes a difference too. Make sure that you have a net that is appropriate to the size of the fish you are catching and it is better to err on the side of too big a net than too small a net. The material of the net and the size of the holes in it matter too. I started to use rubber nets a few years ago and in my opinion they are the best way to go. The rubber does not rub off as much slime as nylon nets and an added bonus is that they don’t get droppers stuck in them either. Big bonus for us dirty nymphers. In the end a net decreases the fight time which increases the survival rate of the fish. The one group of fish that I will suggest not using a net is the pike/musky family. These long slender fish can be damaged by being put in a typical net. This is where a cradle can come in very handy. Cradles are made specifically for these fish and they work out very well. I strongly recommend them.

Learn how to handle the fish you are targeting. I fished for pike with someone that I used to guide with last year. I caught a good sized pike and got it into the canoe. It thrashed out of my hands and shot to the other end of the canoe where this guy was. Instead of trying to handle it (because he did not know how to handle a pike of that size) he literally kicked it back to me. Yea, he is willing to guide for pike still. I pity the client that goes with him. There will be a good chance that the client will get to deal with the fish and the client will probably know what they are doing more than the guide will.

Kevin shows how to do the snake grab on a pike

Fish that can bite back definitely require special handling. I have had some close calls with muskies and my buddy Marty got nailed last year. It wasn’t bad, but I have seen some pretty messed up fingers thanks to pike and musky. You really want to do some research on how to handle these fish- read and talk to folks who fish them. It will help protect you and the fish will appreciate it too.

Two areas of the fish that should be off limits for handling are the eyes and the gills. This should be pretty obvious to anglers. In Northern New York fishing circles there is the notion that the best way to handle pike and muskies is to grab them by the eyes. This is fine if you plan on keeping the fish, but releasing a blind fish is not the way to go. I caught a blind musky and kept it years ago. I know it was handled in this manner.  On the same token, keep your fingers out of the fish’s gills. The gills are very easily damaged. I was handling a carp a couple of years ago and it struggled and my fingers slipped into its gills. The fish started bleeding immediately and while it did swim off when I let it go, I found it the next day dead. It was an accident, but it really struck home. 

I know a local guide who has to take a pile of pictures of the big fish he catches when he is by himself. He moans about how hard it is to take hero shots with a self timer. I have taken shots like that myself but I make sure that I do it in a manner that does not damage the fish. The last pictures I saw of a big fish this guy caught his fingers were firmly in the salmon’s gills. Please learn how to handle the fish. Or even better- just take a picture of the fish next to your rod in the water. But that isn’t as cool is it?


  1. Great post!... Drew. Keep on fighting the good fight. Catch. Release. Fight again!

  2. ...does that first brown "bark" too??

  3. Ryan, it does if you know where to look for it...

  4. Great post Drew. Us oldertimers definitely need some re-education with regards to the ethical treatment of our quarry especially now with the close scrutiny of animal rights groups like PETA. Long live the sea kittens!