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Catch and Release Fishing

Paying it Forward

The best catch is a good release.

The first big fish I ever released was a brawling 65-pound amberjack I hooked using a live goggle-eye for bait while fishing in 90 feet of water off Singer Island, Florida. Actually release may not be the right word because near the end of the fight on 30-pound tackle a bull shark moved in and inhaled every bit of my fish leaving just its head. This also was my first experience with a bull shark and the mate on the charter boat estimated the poundage of my near catch based on the remains. The popped-out eyeballs alone were worth a pound apiece and the look on the fish’s face was pure fatalism.

Releasing fish intentionally is a different story altogether and a popular avocation with many sport anglers. On the same day the amberjack fed the shark, I released a tagged sailfish that was recaptured two weeks later. Releasing fish to grow and fight another day is critical to the longevity of the sport and the sustainability of fish stocks. However, turning a hooked fish loose doesn’t necessarily enhance its chance of living.

Federal law dictates that any Atlantic Highly Migratory Species such as tunas, sharks, billfish, and swordfish caught, but not kept due to size, limit, or personal decision have to be released in a manner that maximizes its survival. A footnote to the law also claims such fish may not be removed from the water during the release process. One important reason is that when a fish is pulled out of the water exposure to air causes the gill layers to collapse. In rapid order, the gill filaments begin to stick together. Even when the fish is returned to its environment, the gill damage may have already occurred. While the fish may appear fine swimming away it carries with it the results of the stress and often will not recover and instead may die within a few hours. If you feel it necessary to remove the fish from the water long enough to take a picture, a tongue-in-cheek recommendation is that the photo op should only take as long as you can hold your own breath. Gentle is the first rule when releasing any fish. Obviously grasping it with fingers jammed in the gills for the purpose of taking a photo or admiring your catch should only be done if you plan to keep it.

fish with hook

We all like to fish and must serve as stewards of the resource. Catch and release will help us achieve this but careful practice is crucial, particularly in regions of heavy fishing pressure. The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, for example, reports that while only 300,000 striped bass are retained annually, another half-million stripers may die in the same period due to stress and mishandling of released fish.

When catch and release is the game plan you need to be prepared. The longer you fight the fish on the line, the more fight you take away from its life. The stress factor ramps up rapidly and overloads the fish’s muscle and blood with lactic acid. Use non-stainless steel hooks; if you need to cut the leader, the hook will corrode or fall out over time. If you haven’t already done so, switch over to non-offset circle hooks, which generally hook the fish in the corner of its mouth, instead of deeper in the throat. When using live bait learn to set the hook quickly so the fish doesn’t have the chance to inhale it. Think about filing off the barbs to make it easier to de-hook. Remove treble hooks from lures and use a single instead. I caught a bluefish once while chumming that had a Rebel plug in its mouth and it was easy to see how the lure interfered with its ability to eat. If the fish does swallow the hook, cut the leader as close to it as you can, or if legal, make that fish your keeper. 

Whether you release the fish in the water, or land it to remove the hook, be prepared. Try to keep the fish horizontal when extracting the hook because this is how it lives and gives its body full support. Make this the best angle for a camera shot if you need one. If you must lift the fish out of the water to get the hook use a net to cradle the body. Best results for survival will be achieved if the net is rubber, and not knotted, which will wear away some of the fish’s protective slime. 

Similarly, make sure if you touch the fish your hands are wet or you’re wearing wet rubber gloves. Wet cotton gloves will abrade the slime especially if the fish begins to struggle and you’re forced to renew your grip. A wet cloth over the eyes will help keep the fish calm. Always net the fish head first so it swims into it and does not panic attempting to get away or break the line. If you need a photo, make sure the camera guy is ready for a quick snap and then get the fish back overboard. A totally exhausted fish may need a little help so try holding it close to the side of the boat and let water flow over the gills as the boat moves slowly ahead. Moving the fish back and forth is not effective. 

Some fish are easier than others to release. If it is regulated by length, such as the summer flounder, keep a ruler with the exact size handy so you don’t waste time measuring it. Flounder are difficult to hold and grasping one by its head with your thumb and finger squeezing its gills is a good way to kill an undersized fish.

If you’re like me and learned how to catch fish as a kid, I’m sure you’re grateful for what fishing means to you. As I get saltier, releasing fish safely is what is uppermost in my mind to ensure others will share in what I have been able to enjoy.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.