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Captain John Kipp prepares to release a tarpon after reviving it in the water next to the boat. - Rusty Chinnis | Sun

How and Why to Release Fish Alive

By Rusty Chinnis – May 24, 2021

Catch and release used to be a relatively new concept in sport fishing, one that recognized that fish populations are vulnerable and not the endless resource that they were once thought to be. Now the concept is commonplace and has even spawned a sort of backlash, as the “I Kill Fish” sticker on the back of a truck I saw recently attests.

Fishermen who fish mostly for fun have been criticized because many see catching and releasing fish as playing with fish. Anglers, unlike hunters, can pursue their passion and release their prey. Both hunters and anglers are quite often great champions of their respective passions and invest their time and money in protecting the habitat and well-being of fish and animals.

Most anglers I know who practice catch and release have no problem with taking an occasional fish home for dinner. But for then it’s more about enjoying the sport and trying to be proactive in helping it to remain healthy and viable. Catch and release is not just about releasing fish that you don’t want, it’s also about safely releasing undersized fish or species that aren’t valued at the table. There are many species, notable among them tarpon, that anglers seldom, if ever, kill.

Unfortunately, however, many anglers don’t know how to properly handle fish so they aren’t hurt in the catch-and-release process.

When we get cut, bruised or battered we can head for the local drug store, or in more extreme cases the emergency room. Not so for fish. For them, it’s heal or die, and in their world, it’s the sick and wounded that first fall prey to predators. What a shame to do the right thing, releasing a big speckled trout full of roe, only to have it eaten by a shark, barracuda or other predator because it wasn’t handled properly.

The first step I would suggest is to make sure you match tackle to the task. Trying to land a big tarpon on 20-pound tackle might be OK if you’re experienced. But for novice anglers it’s like announcing a free meal to the sharks that ply local waters looking for weak or injured prey. Enjoy the action, but land the fish as quickly as possible. Once you have the fish subdued, the best course is to never take them out of the water. If you’ve been fighting them for a long time (think tarpon), make sure you revive them properly. If you can reach the water over the gunwale, slowly move the boat forward while holding the fish firmly but lightly. This forces oxygen-filled water through their gills and helps them recover from oxygen depletion. They’ll let you know when they’re ready to go.

The hook is probably the next most important consideration. Either a circle hook or a barbless hook is usually best for anglers and fish. The key to keeping fish on a barbless hook is to keep the line tight. Circle hooks are recommended for inexperienced anglers and for fish, such as speckled trout, that tend to swallow the hook. Whatever hook you use, a de-hooker tool also is a top consideration. It will keep your hands clean and safe from sharp fins and teeth and prevent you from inadvertently harming the fish’s protective slime coat, which acts as a defense against bacterial, parasitic and fungal pathogens. De-hookers come in various shapes, depending on how they’re used. The simplest is J-shaped and removes hooks in or near the jaw. A circular-shaped longer version allows anglers to remove hooks that are deep in the throat of a fish or in the jaws of a big fish like a barracuda.

Also, anglers who fish for reef fish such as snapper and grouper need to learn how to “vent” fish that have inflated swim bladders. Bringing the fish up fast from deep depths causes these bladders to expand, requiring them to be punctured to allow the fish to reach the bottom again. A good presentation on the process is available online.

Anglers who release a trophy-sized fish may want to take home a photo. Here are a few tips that will help you record your catch. Set your exposure in advance and have an idea where in the boat you want to take the picture. The best picture, for the fish, would be when it’s still in the water. But if you do boat the fish, hold it horizontally, with one hand near the head, and the other hand under the fish’s belly to support its weight. Holding a fish vertically puts a strain on the internal organs and can potentially dislocate its jaw. This is particularly important with large fish. Lastly, eliminate any extraneous objects, like rods, and focus in on the subject. By being prepared, we can get the fish back in the water fast, thus increasing its chances of survival.

Taking the time and having the tools and knowledge to release fish mindfully is a great way to help ensure we have a healthy population of fish now and into the future.