Catch and release fish handling

Posted by Al Agnew on February 12th, 2016
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The tangent the gigging thread veered into made me decide to start a thread on best practices of handling the fish you want to release. We all know that they should be handled with care to insure their survival. But what is the best ways of handling them?

Here are my suggestions…everybody else can chime in as well.

1. Barbless or not? I don’t always use barbless hooks (or pinch barbs) on bass lures. I do pinch the barbs all the time on trout flies. It’s not because I value trout more than bass, it’s because trout are inherently more difficult to handle and get unhooked once you get them in, and I want the unhooking process to be as easy and quick as possible. With bass, you can pretty much immobilize them in order to unhook them, not so with trout.

I do pinch the barbs on my trailer hooks on spinnerbaits and buzzbaits. All too often the fish gets hooked with the main hook but the trailer hook swings around and snags a cheek or somewhere else.

2. Get the fish in as quickly as possible. If it’s a smaller one, that’s easy, but I see guys just playing around with smaller fish. No matter what the truth is on lactic acid buildup and fish mortality, it just stands to reason that if you play a fish to total exhaustion, it will have a harder time recovering. In my opinion, this is especially important if you fish for bedding bass. The fish are already “overworked” by the stresses of spawning and protecting eggs and young. If you wear them out and release them back onto the bed, they probably can’t protect the bed well for quite a while afterwards.

3. Now, once you have the fish near at hand…if you use a net, make sure the mesh of the net is of a soft, slick material, and that it’s wet and cool before it touches the fish. From that first touch, you want to protect the fish’s slime coating.

4. If you don’t use a net, wet your hand before lipping the fish or grasping it. We see quite a few bass in some situations that have black patches or fungal patches on their lips, probably from being lipped with dry hands. I don’t like the use of gloves, because I think your skin is slicker when wet than most gloves and will do less damage to the slime coat.

5. Trout are especially difficult to “land” without a net. You can’t lip them because of the teeth, and they don’t stop flopping when you grasp them. I’ve seen recommendations to hold them gently with your hand under their belly, or even to turn them upside down and hold them gently. In my experience, none of this works consistently. And when they flop, they ARE going to come out of your hand, possibly dropping a significant distance to the bottom of the boat or the rocky shoreline. Not good. And when they flop, you automatically want to grasp them a lot harder, possibly doing internal damage.

Have your forceps handy, and try to grip the fly and twist it out of the trout’s mouth without lifting it from the water. This takes a bit of practice. But in my opinion, you should probably always have a net when you trout fish.

6. With bass, of course, you can grasp them by the lower lip and they become somewhat immobile. However, don’t bend their lower lip very much. Do NOT lever the bass to where its body is angled toward horizontal. With bigger bass the weight of its body on that bent lower lip can dislocate the lower jaw. If grasping only by the lower jaw, hold the bass so that it is completely vertical, never at an angle. If you want the bass to be horizontal for a photo, use your other hand (making sure it’s wet) to support the rest of the body weight.

7. Hold the bass firmly. You don’t want to drop it onto anything that will harm it, and this is especially true of dropping it onto boat carpeting. That’s almost guaranteed to remove some slime coat. So it follows that you never want to swing the bass over the side of the boat and let it drop onto the carpet, as many tournament pros seem to do. The bass should remain in the water until you can bring it to hand and hold it securely. If you are uneasy about lipping a bass with treble hooks swinging around, use a net.

Personally I don’t use a net. On small bass hooked on multi-treble hook lures, I lift the fish out of the water, or at least its head, and if there isn’t a clear place to grab the lip, I wait until it is temporarily still, and then very quickly and VERY firmly grasp the body of the lure, then drop the rod so that I can use my other hand to grasp the fish, either by the lip if possible or gently around the middle of the body (again, making sure that hand is wet, first).

8. If you’re freaked out about grasping any fish with hooks threatening your hand, you can use those Boca-grip things to lip it. Personally I don’t, but it’s a viable option. As for unhooking the fish, have forceps or pliers handy if you need them. If the fish is hooked deeply, you have to be patient and careful, but you can usually get hooks out of throat or gills with care. If the gills are bleeding, that does not automatically mean the fish is in serious trouble, as long as you can get the hooks out and the fish back in the water quickly. Fish blood will run like crazy in the air, but in the water it coagulates almost instantly. Having a pair of long forceps or needle nose pliers and going in through the gill opening to carefully work a hook out of the gills and up into the mouth area is usually doable.

If the fish is hooked all the way down into the throat, the usual advice is to cut the line. I don’t want to do this if there is ANY way to avoid it. One good way to handle this situation if it’s a small hook, you can usually grasp it with those long nose forceps or pliers and work it out. If it’s a big hook, another way to do it is to cut the line a few inches above the hook, push the remaining line down between the gill closest to the body and the body and out, and pull it tightly downwards along the fish’s body. You’re trying to bring the eye of the hook down toward the gill opening and thus expose some of the bend of the hook, so that you can go in through the mouth with your long nose pliers and grasp the bend and pop it out.

9. If you are going to photograph the fish, have the camera ready. Nothing is worse than holding the fish out of the water for a long period, with your attention elsewhere trying to get the camera out, probably losing your grip on the fish, etc. Waterproof point and shoot cameras are cheap…buy one and keep it in a handy pocket!

10. If you have somebody else around to photograph you with the fish, have them coached on your camera beforehand. Most people know how to use a camera, but may not be familiar with yours.

11. If you are by yourself, your photo options are somewhat limited. Holding the fish at arm’s length with one hand and trying to get a picture of it never turns out well–I’ve tried it too many times. The fish, no matter how big it is, looks small in that case. It’s better, probably, to lay the fish down with your rod or something lying next to it for scale. But be careful where you lay the fish. Never on dry land, be it sand, gravel, or rock. Never in the mud. I usually lay the fish down, if possible, in an inch or so of water on a clean gravel bar. WET grass is not too harmful as long as it’s clean. If you’re in a boat or canoe, lay it on something smooth and WET. In the canoe I usually lay mine on the paddle, in the boat I lay it next to a ruler I have stuck to the flat aluminum edge of the deck. But I always make sure to wet the aluminum first, and if it’s hot and sunny, I really splash a lot of water on that aluminum…you don’t want to burn the poor thing.

12. Now you’re ready to release it. Keep in mind that the whole time you have the fish out of the water, it’s not able to breathe. A good rule of thumb is to not hold it out of the water for much longer than you can hold your breath. So do all the other stuff quickly as possible. Then, don’t just drop it from a good height into the water, gently lower it until it’s at least pretty close to the surface, and if it’s a small fish, try to point its nose toward the water so that it enters head first. Don’t do this if you’re dropping it into shallow water, though! If shallow water, lower it all the way to the water and hold it horizontally before releasing it. If it’s a bigger fish, treat it even more gently, because dropping a heavier fish can cause more damage due to the greater impact with water or bottom. Plus, you’ve probably played a big fish longer and it may need to revive a bit and get its bearings. So lower it all the way to the water, hold it gently and horizontally, and let it swim out of your hand on its own. If in a river, point the nose upstream. If it’s not able to immediately swim away or hold itself in a normal position, you will need to move it gently forward and backward to force more water across its gills. Be patient, it will probably recover quickly.

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