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Fishing Tips

TIPS ON RELEASING FISH

Posted 12/6/2010

This striper inhaled the clam and circle hook, but it got hooked around the jaw.  Use circle hooks when using live or dead bait, which fish tend to swallow.  The ARC Dehooker in action on a sea trout that swallowed a grubtail jig.

Saltwater fishing isn’t as simple as it used to be. Our grandfathers could flip a line off their boats, catch a mess of fish and take them home for dinner, but we have to abide by an ever growing number of regulations. A fish that doesn’t pass regulatory muster must be released, but have you ever stopped to wonder if they survive the encounter? 

According to marine biologists, a portion of them die within a few hours or days. The estimates vary from species to species, but they end up as “release mortality” in management jargon. Release mortality is used in determining future regulations and is established using a statistical process based on randomly sampling anglers to estimate what they keep and let go. The number released is multiplied by the percentage of fish assumed to die. It’s a complicated system with lots of room for error, but one thing is clear; the fewer fish that die, the more fish there are still swimming around to reproduce and be caught again.

The striped bass fishery illustrates why release mortality is a concern. In 2003, anglers legally kept an estimated 2.4 million stripers, and caught and released 15 million more. Scientists determined that about eight percent or 1.2 million fish don’t survive release, a number greater than the entire commercial quota for that year. Release mortality is even higher for some popular bottom species where pressure changes occur when reeling them to the surface, much like the “bends” divers experience if they surface too quickly. For these species, release mortality is double or triple that of striped bass. So the question becomes, what can we do to assure a greater percentage of fish survive? Knowledge and a few simple, inexpensive tools can make a big difference in survivability.

Did you know that handling a fish can strip some of the protective slim coat off its body leaving it vulnerable to parasites and infections? Ideally, not handling a fish at all is best, but if you do, wet your hands or wear wet soft cloth gloves to minimize slime loss. The major cause of release mortality comes from where a fish is hooked and how the hook is removed. Hooking a fish deep inside the mouth can puncture the gills, gullet and even the stomach lining, and clumsy hook removal can compound the damage. Cutting the line is not a solution because a hook left behind can impede feeding and cause infection. One of the best ways to reduce deep hooking is by using circle hooks when fishing with bait. Traditional J-type hooks impale a fish wherever the point touches it when the angler pulls on the line to set the hook. Circle hooks are designed to wrap around a fish’s outer jaw structure, an area composed of bone and membranes with few blood vessels. When a fish inhales a baited circle hook and turns to run, the angler reels the line tight and the hook slides back out and catches around the edge of the jaw. Surprisingly, the hook up ratio with circle hooks can be higher than with J-hooks when used for such popular species as striped bass, snappers, groupers, bluefish, weakfish and other round fish. They are easier to remove because the hook eye and line are already outside the fish’s mouth, and no vital organs have been damaged.

The latest recommendation from biologists is to remove all hooks, even those deep inside a fish, with the absolute minimum of handling, and there is only one hook removal we know of that can do the job. It's called an ARC Dehooker® and is a simple, stainless steel rod with a T-handle on one end and a circular pig tail on the other. The circle is open to allow it to be slipped onto the line and slid down onto the hook bend, even if it’s deep inside a fish’s mouth where you can’t see it. With the line held tight and the tool bottomed out on the hook bend, a light jab forward pushes the hook out and captures the point inside the circle for complete extraction. It comes in sizes to cover everything from panfish to marlin, and it works so well you can unhook most fish without even taking them out of the water. The company website www.dehooker4arc.com has video instructions that make learning how to use the tool a breeze. 

The same company also offers a venting tool developed by Sea Grant biologists for dealing with bottom fish that experience decompression problems when reeled up to the boat. It is actually a needle and syringe without the plunger that is used to puncture the belly of the fish to relieve the pressure built up in the stomach cavity. The give away that a fish is experiencing pressure problems is the stomach actually gets pushed up into its mouth by expanding gasses. The vent tool is used to release the pressure so the stomach can return to normal position, and the fish can immediately swim back down to the bottom. Once you understand a little about the anatomy of the fish and how the venting tool works, it is a pretty simple procedure and one that dramatically reduces mortality of fish like red snapper, grouper, black sea bass and other bottom dwellers susceptible to this condition.

Any concerned angler should have the tools on his boat, and know how to use them to release fish in the best condition possible. It’s one of the most important things you can do to promote conservation on a personal level.