Releasing Your Catch Safely

by Captain Sal Tardella with Bonnie Tardella

Everyone agrees that conservation is a good thing. So each time I go fishing, I request that my fares observe my First Rule of Thumb:
Keep only what you’ll be putting on the dinner table for the next couple of days.

The following are the techniques employed aboard “My Bonnie” Charters to assure that the fish we release have the optimal chance of survival.

When catching schoolie bass, we almost always use single-hook buck-tail lures. (I avoid treble hooks, whenever possible; they tend to lacerate a fish, and if inhaled or swallowed, they can’t be easily disgorged without doing serious damage.)  Reel in your catch, and when it’s alongside the boat reach down with your thumb, and grab his lower jaw at the base of his mouth.  Gently lift him out of the water, keeping pressure on his jaw to minimize his thrashing about as you remove the lure.  (Remember: this technique is only good for toothless fish from 1-10 lbs.) A larger fish and one inclined to bite should be brought aboard with a landing net, then placed on the deck and immobilized by firmly holding the back of his head as you remove the lure from his mouth with fisherman’s pliers. A fish that swallows the hook is not necessarily doomed.  Most hooks can be removed with the help of a “Hook-Out” or “Fish Flipper.” These specialized gadgets are invaluable when practicing catch-and-release.

Second Rule of Thumb (if you want to keep your thumb):
Don’t try the above-described lure-removal method with a bluefish, regardless of his size!

Third Rule of Thumb: Be a kinder, gentler fisherman, to wit:

  • After hooking a fish avoid a long, drawn-out battle. It’s much more difficult to revive a fish that’s had his energy sapped by a strenuous tug-of-war.
  • If you must use a gaff instead of a net, then try to snag your fish in a non-vital spot, preferably the lower jaw.Don’t restrain a fish by its gills; an injury to these organs will compromise his survival.
  • Avoid “over-handling” your fish.
  • Work quickly. Less time out of water increases the odds that the fish to be released will live through his ordeal.

Fourth Rule of Thumb: Do not use stainless steel or other non-corrosive hooks. Bronze hooks are my personal choice when bottom fishing because if I find it impossible to dislodge a swallowed hook, I can cut the line as far down in the fish’s body as I can reach, and then leave the hook intact.  It will eventually rust out and be eliminated in the natural way.

To conclude: A fish that’s been hooked and caught is a traumatized creature.  He cannot be summarily thrown back into the water and then be spontaneously revived from his shocked state.   The proper way to return him to his habitat is to “prime” him after placing him overboard.  Grip the fish just above the tail, and apply a sawing motion-forward and back-to force seawater through his gills. This should be continued until you sense a change in his response-a surge of strength and an attempt to escape from your grasp-your cue to release him.

There’s a special gratification in store for the angler who sees his catch making its way back to the bottom-almost as exhilarating as the rush experienced when that fish was plucked from a similar location just minutes before.  Try it!

June 2009

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