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Catch & Release Like a Pro

What you need to know so that fish will live to be caught another day
By Dan Armitage
Published: April 1, 2006
A net large enough to contain the fish while the hook is removed – without lifting the fish from the water – is important to a successful release.
Photo by Dan Armitage
Where regulations allow, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with catching and killing a fish that is intended to be eaten.  Catch and release has its place, but I have no problem going on record as a proponent of “catch and eat” when and where fish stocks make it appropriate.
At my cabin, food value often tromps fighting ability when I determine my target fish species. Given equal opportunity for catching both, I’ll usually chase crappies instead of bass, for example. Crappies taste so much better – especially when rolled in bread crumbs and deep-fried in peanut oil.
That said, there are species and scenarios that benefit greatly from the catch and release philosophy. Certainly any gamefish that is caught and not destined for the table should be handled with care and set free. Local fishing regulations provide good information and legal guidance; allow your ethics as an angler to rule when the law doesn’t address a particular catch and release issue.

It Starts with the Strike
The hook removal process determines whether most fish eventually die or are released successfully to swim – and be caught – another day. The longer a fish is out of the water and in the hands of an angler the less likely it is to survive the ordeal. That’s why it’s so important to get the hook out of the fish as fast – and with as little trauma to the fish – as possible.
Because it’s eating the real thing, a fish is much more likely to eat and swallow live bait than a metal or plastic fake. When fishing with live bait for a fish you intend to release, set the hook as soon as you detect a bite. A quick strike betters the odds that the hook will drive into the fish’s lip or mouth rather than in its throat or gut.

Fish prized much more for their fight than for table fare, like this muskellunge, should be released. This one is being revived by moving it back and forth to move water over its gills.
Photo by Dan Armitage
It Continues With the Fight
Going ultra-light may sound sporting, but using tackle too light for the fish being sought can result in an extended battle that actually increases the odds that the fish will tire beyond recovery. No matter how gently it is landed and cared for, a fish that has given its all to get away cannot be revived due to excess lactic acid that builds up in its body during extended exertion. Match the tackle to the fish and get the fish boat-side in a reasonable amount of time to ensure its recovery.

Hooks and Handling
If a fish swallows the hook or is hooked deep in the throat, it’s often better to simply cut the line as close to the hook as possible and release the fish. Jabbing around in the fish’s throat and keeping it out of the water during the process can prove more deadly than an imbedded hook.
The fish may eventually pass the hook, form scar tissue around it or dissolve it with stomach acid. Plain brown steel hooks that quickly rust or dissolve are better choices for bait fishing than gold- or nickel-platedmodels.                                               
Barbless hooks are easier to remove and are required in some areas where catch and release is the law. You can make barbed hooks “barbless” by crimping down the barbs with pliers. Some anglers who use barbless-style hooks claim that the lack of a barb allows easier penetration and actually results in more secure hook-ups.
Rather than tossing a candidate for release back into the water from the deck of your boat – which can be quite traumatic for the fish – cradle your catch in your hands in the water until it swims off by itself.
When a released fish turns on its side or belly-up, it needs help reviving itself. You can perform a type of artificial respiration by holding the fish with one hand around the tail and the other under its belly and moving it back and forth to force water through its gills. The process will either revive it until the fish swims away on its own or turns belly-up for the long term.
If the latter is the case and the fish is of legal species and size to keep, consider it a meal and get it on ice.
Photo by Dan Armitage
Release Tackle

You should be prepared with the tools required to successfully release any fish. Here are some basics:

Good landing net. Models featuring baskets made with soft nylon knitted into small mesh do less damage to fish than large mesh, hard nylon models. By leaving the net in the water after encircling the fish, you can often contain, unhook and release it without the fish ever leaving its element.

Boga-style grip. Even better than a net because no net material comes into contact with the fish, these plier-like devices clamp down on a fish’s lower lip while it’s still in the water. It uses springs and the weight of the fish itself to maintain a vice-like hold while the hook is removed. Some models even have a scale built into the handle to weigh the fish.

Needle nose pliers. They make removing hooks faster and easier – especially from the maws of toothy species such as pike and walleye – and the wire-cutting feature found on most can be used to cut the hook or line when the fish is hooked deep in the throat or gut.

Damp towel. The wet cloth allows you to hold a fish while extracting the hook without removing excessive amounts of the protective layer of slime that coats the fish.             

Circulating livewell. If you’re fishing for dinner, you may want to keep the first few fish alive until you know that you will have enough for a meal. If you don’t end up catching enough to fill the fryer, you can release alive the few you do catch.
Camera. Capturing a prize fish on film makes it easier to justify its release – especially among young and/or infrequent anglers who want bragging rights.

Tape measure, pencil and pad (and maybe a calculator!). You can estimate a fish’s weight using measurements and a simple formula. For pike and walleyes, cube the length of the fish (length x length x length) and divide that total by 2,700 for walleyes and 3,500 for pike. For bass, square the length, multiply it times the girth (length x length x girth), and divide by 1,200. For trout and salmon, square the girth, multiply it times the length (length x girth x girth), and divide by 800.*

By combining a close-up color photograph and the fish’s dimensions, a good taxidermist can create an extremely lifelike replica mount of any trophy fish you or your guest is likely to catch – without having to kill the fish. 

* EDIT: May 22, 2012. SOURCE: Arkansas Game and Fish Commission
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