While emphasis is often placed on getting the right gear or heading out to the right spot to land that trophy catch to be grace your plate or your wall, it’s also important to emphasize the necessity of catch-and-release fishing and, in turn, the necessity of handling fish properly before and during release to increase their chances of survival.
Some readers may be thinking:
“But catch-and-release fishing is lame, there’s no such thing as a ‘proper way’ to handle a fish. All you’ve gotta do is throw it back if you’re not keeping it.”
Well, readers, have we got news for you. Catch-and-release fishing is a beneficial, often necessary means of maintaining healthy fishing stock. It’s also part of standard fishing regulation to release fish that are out of season or don’t meet certain size requirements. Live to Fish carries an assortment of charts & guides to help you identify local freshwater or saltwater species, as well as scales & rulers to determine the length and weight of your catch.
If you happen to have a fish that you do need to release back into the wild, you must do so correctly. Unfortunately, you can’t just throw it back and hope for the best. Fish are often stressed and exhausted by the time they reach the boat and don’t have the energy to just swim on their merry way after you cut the line or remove the hook.
How a Fish’s Anatomy Can Cause Serious Injury
Fish that are pulled in from deep marine waters often sustain additional injuries beyond mere exhaustion. Certain species, like snapper and grouper, have organs called swim bladders. The swim bladder allows the fish to maintain a certain depth by controlling its buoyancy. If a fish is pulled up too quickly, the change in the water pressure can cause a life-threatening disorder called barotrauma. When a fish experiences barotrauma, its swim bladder to take on too much gas and expand beyond normal size or even explode.
More About Barotrauma
Damage to a fish’s swim bladder or other internal organs from being pulled up too quickly from the deep is called barotrauma. Signs of barotrauma on fish may include the stomach coming out of the mouth, bulging eyes, a bloated belly, and distended intestines. Luckily enough, scientists and anglers have been working together to create venting tools and descending devices that allow fishermen to reverse the effects of barotrauma and safely release them back into the water. Check out this video from NOAA Fisheries that shows a few of these devices in action.
Barotrauma is a worrisome thing. But if you treat your catch with respect and handle them correctly before, during, and after capture, you can reduce the effects of stress on your catch prior to release. Check out the gallery below to help you identify the physical signs of barotrauma in your catch.
You should have an idea of which kinds of which fish you are going to keep and which ones you’re going to release before you ever hit the water. If you can, know each species size, weight, and bag limit regulations for the area that you are fishing in, and always obtain the appropriate fishing licensing for everyone in your party.
Use appropriate tackle that limits how long you are fighting the fish before you bring it in to the boat. Remember that fighting makes the fish exhausted and stressed out. Try not to use multi-hook rigs or lures unless you’re going after the appropriate types of fish for such equipment. If you’re using a treble hook, you can remove hooks and flatten barbs with pliers to cause less damage and make it easier to unhook the fish for release. If you know that you are going to be catch-and-release fishing, use a barbless hook or a circle hook because it will catch in the fish’s mouth and not in the gut, barbless hooks are also much easier to remove. Hook removal tools will also allow you to remove the hook safely from your boat with minimal handling of the fish. If you want to know more about the different types of hooks, head on over and take a look at our blog posts on hook anatomy and hook styles.
Bring larger fish, like sharks, to the boat in twenty minutes or less to cut down on stress and exhaustion. Again, use appropriate species-specific tackle. If you find that you’re fighting a fish longer than intended, use heavier tackle.
Fish Handling Tips & Techniques
For Smaller Fish: If you need to handle a catch, be sure to wet your hands first. Many fish are covered in a slimy substance that prevents infection and helps them move through the water. If you touch them with dry hands, the substance will come off and the fish will have a hard time swimming away. Try to handle fish with a net whenever possible rather than with your hands. We recommend rubber-coated nets because they can support a fish’s weight and will not remove the slimy protective coating.
For Larger Fish: If you’ve got a big fish, like a shark or a tarpon, keep it in the water. Dragging it over the gunwale or onboard your boat can damage its organs and lessen its chances of survival. If you’ve got a toothy fish, support its front with a gripping tool and put the other hand under its belly to support its weight. If your fish is agitated or too big and absolutely needs to be released, but you don’t have time to remove the hook properly, it’s fine to cut the line as close to the hook as possible before you set the fish free. If you do have time to remove the hook, use a de-hooking tool, like the Redbone Performance Hook Remover. Finally, don’t toss or throw your fish back. Release it head first so that water is forced back over the gills. This allows the fish to catch its breath faster and swim away.
You can opt to take a picture or capture a video of your catch instead of keeping it for a wall mount. Be sure to keep your fish horizontally supported and keep it in the water if it’s an especially large species. Let it go immediately after, especially if you are taking pictures of a species that is not in season.
Post-Release Care & Resuscitation
If you let your fish go and it doesn’t immediately swim away or it swims away and starts to float back to the surface, you can resuscitate it. Take hold of the fish and place it in the current with one hand under the belly and the other hand holding the bottom lip or the tail. Be sure to place the fish head-first to force the water through the mouth and over the gills. If you’re on a boat, but there is no current, you can nudge the motor into gear to create a current. Hold the fish alongside the boat and let the water move over it. If you are trying to revive a fish from a boat with no motor and there is no current present, move the fish in a figure eight pattern to get the water flowing through the gills. Don’t move the fish back and forth in the water because it prevents the water from properly flowing through the gills. Wounded and sick fish swim back and forth. Healthy fish do not.
Additional Information & Resources
In addition to following safe practices for catch-and-release fishing, take a moment to check out this brochure from the National Parks Service or watch this video on the conservation benefits of catch-and-release fishing from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
By practicing proper fish handling techniques in addition to catch-and-release fishing, you’re helping the environment and helping to improve everyone’s fishing experience more than you think!
Share Your Experiences
Finally, if you have any tips for proper fish handling or if you want to share your own experiences with catch-and-release fishing, do post them below or send us an email.