Catch and Release Done Right — Wilderness North

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Catch and Release Done Right

There are still conspiracy theories about how catch-and-release doesn’t work. How fish released eventually go belly up. How some species of fish are “bleeders.” Most of these theories are rooted in ignorance. The truth lies in how the fish are handled. Catch-and-release does work if done properly. Here’s my case:

I’ve participated in two separate fish-tagging studies along the north shore of Superior. One on Lake Superior steelhead and the other on coaster brook trout. Both species are fragile and require cool, well oxygenated water to survive. In the case of brook trout they are perhaps one of the most fragile fish on the planet.

While participating in this study I caught several brook trout that had one, two and occasionally three tags in their bodies. One tag would mean the fish was caught at least twice, and in the case of fish with two and three tags, three and four times. The study was conducted to learn more about the migratory habits of the coaster brook trout – a large brook trout that lives along the north shore of Lake Superior and its tributary streams. A number of avid anglers and guides participated in the tagging study. They were already well versed on catch-and-release but were instructed to keep the fish in the water as much as possible while inserting the tag and taking a quick length measurement. I netted my fish and put them directly into a live well where the tagging and measurements were done. The tag was placed under the skin just behind the dorsal fin. The number on the tag was recorded prior to releasing the fish, as well as the date, location and length of the fish. So this tag number now became a reference if the fish was caught again. In many cases they were, often several years later and several miles away. So clearly, catch-and-release does work if done properly.

Conversely I’ve seen people catch brook trout, hold them up with a finger inserted into the gills for a lengthy photo shoot, drop them into the boat a couple times, and toss them overboard like a pail of chum. They didn’t survive. Surprise surprise.

To correlate this into human terms try wrestling an anaconda under water for 3 minutes with a punctured lung. Not good odds.

To be clear I have nothing against legally harvesting fish. But if you’re going to release a fish do it so the fish will have maximum chances at survival.

Occasionally a fish will die regardless of how carefully it is handled. Keep this in mind – especially in warm water conditions where fish are more stressed during the fight. In warm water situations stop fishing after catching the fish you wish to harvest.

Under normal conditions you can absolutely catch-and-release fish without causing mortal injury. You can remove the hook and measure it in the water – perhaps in a net or a live well as I’ve mentioned. Even capturing a photo can be done with the fish slightly or partially submerged.

So please, enjoy your fishing adventures to the full and release the fish you are not going to consume with the confidence that they are going to survive.

Seven “Un-Deadly” Catch and Release Tips:

1. Keep the fish in the water as much as possible.
2. Handle the fish as little as possible. Sometimes you can remove a hook from a fish and release it without touching it at all.
3. Use a knitted wool or kevlar glove to grab the fish by the base of the tail while removing the hook. This increases your grip and prevents the fish from escaping and injuring itself.
4. Avoid contact with the gills. On large fish like pike you can carefully insert a finger under the gill plate at the bottom of the fish where the two gill plates meet without touching the gills.
5. Use a jaw spreader and needle nose pliers to remove hooks that are lodged deep inside the mouth.
6. Photograph the fish while cradling it just below the surface of the water, or lift it out of the water briefly once the camera is ready. It is best to hold the fish horizontally,
7. When releasing a fish, hold it by the tail until it is ready to swim away. Point it upstream if fishing in current so the water naturally flows into the mouth and through the gills.

Author: Scott Earl Smith

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