By Ed Wall
One of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen was while surf fishing on North Carolina’s Core Banks. There were piles of two and three-pound bluefish left on the sand to rot because fishermen had caught more than they wanted to take home. That was a long time ago, but the memory is still vivid.
Thankfully, such scenes are not nearly as common as they once were. That’s partly because a lot of anglers have come to realize that fish are not an infinite resource and keeping more than they can consume is not a very smart thing to do. In many cases, it’s also illegal.
Creel limits have been instituted for many species in recent decades. In the case of red drum in North Carolina, for example, the limit is one per day and that fish must be between 18 and 27 inches.
The question that often arises is how should an angler deal with fish that don’t make the grade size-wise, or when they already have their legal limit on ice? Hopefully, they obey the law – and common sense – and release subsequent fish to live, reproduce and fight another day. They practice catch-and-release.
The concept of catch-and-release is thought to have originated in this country in the 1870s when fishermen on Maine’s Penobscot River were encouraged to liberate Atlantic salmon that were declining in that waterway. In North Carolina, biologist Albert Hazzard is credited with introducing the practice on some mountain streams in the mid-1950s. His program, called “Fishing-for-Fun,” showed that restricting the killing of trout helped their populations to rebound and led, in the long run, to a much better fishery. It quickly became part of the management plan on streams in a number of other states.
Today, catch-and-release is standard procedure in nearly all bass tournaments, as well as for a lot of weekend fishermen. There’s more to it, though, than just yanking a hook out and tossing a fish overboard. Competitors in bass tournaments have gotten keeping fish alive down to a science with live wells, aerators, special chemicals and other methods.
There are a number of things all anglers can do to reduce mortality among released fish. One involves the type of hook used. Hooks without barbs or on which the barbs have been crimped down decreases the time and tissue damage involved with unhooking a fish. Single, as opposed to treble, hooks also make it easier to release fish that aren’t going to be kept. Hint: When using single hooks on a hard bait, turn them so the points face forward and backward, respectively.
Another, major thing anglers can do to increase a released fish’s chances of survival is use circle hooks when fishing with bait. A design as old as hook-and-line fishing itself, circle hooks have been found to be important conservation tools and effective fish catchers. When a fish takes bait on a circle hook and starts to swim off, the line becomes taut and the hook slides upward and embeds itself in the corner of the jaw.
A circle hook holds well but can be released with a quick twist of needle-nose pliers, often without removing the fish from the water. Non-offset circle hooks work best.
It has also been found that artificial lures tend to inflict less injury on hooked fish and result in greater survival in those released. In situations where natural bait is used, it’s suggested that a deeply embedded hook be left in a fish and the line cut as close to the hook’s eyelet as possible. Except those that are stainless steel, hooks will rust quickly (especially in salt water) and fall out, causing little damage.
How an angler plays and handles fish also affect their odds of survival. As a general rule, the longer a fish is played before being landed, the greater the stress it experiences. This is especially true during hot weather.
Although light tackle is both productive and sporting, common sense dictates that gear be used that is suitable for the size of fish targeted. Tournament bass anglers, to whom fish survival is critical, understand that and use the heaviest line and stoutest rods that will get the job done.
What happens when an angler gets a fish to the boat or shore is also important. Coarse, knotted net materials tend to remove the slime coat that aides in protecting fish from outside infections. Biologists recommend using nets made from knotless nylon or rubber with a small mesh.
They also point out that, when handling fish, anglers should wet their hands for the same reason. The preferred technique is to grab a fish by the jaw (not through the gills) by hand or, in the case of those with sharp teeth, with a grip tool such as a Boga stick. Then, support the fish under the middle to minimize physical stress to internal organs that can result from being held vertically.
When a fish is returned to the water, the best method is to hold it steady and upright and move it in an “S” pattern until it appears ready to swim off. Since water must pass over the gill surfaces from a front-to-back direction for oxygen to be transferred, moving a fish forward and backward doesn’t help and may hurt the chances for recovery.
Catch-and-release used to be a radical notion but now is just considered good, sensible management. There’s nothing wrong with keeping a mess of fish for the table but there’s a lot wrong with killing a bunch just for the sake of showing off a heavy cooler at the dock and wasting what’s in it. A small, digital camera or iPhone can record the moment, preserve the trophy and leave the fish to be caught another day. It just makes good sense.