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Catch And Release: 6 Techniques for Keeping Fish Alive

It's good to encourage sustainable practices. And if your catch and release fish die, you can't eat them later when they're bigger.

We all love eating fish. But sometimes, either the fish are too small to eat, or we've already hit our limits, and don't want to let a little thing like good luck or successful technique end a day out on the water.

So we set the hook, enjoy the struggle, and release. It's a practice that keeps fish populations at sustainable levels, keeps everyone's catch and keep limits as high as they can be, and keeps us with a rod in our hand, as opposed to say, back at work.

It's a win/win.

Unfortunately, studies show that mortality rates for catch and release fish can be as high as 35%, depending on how the fish are handled. That's potentially 35% less fish that can get older, bigger, and tastier.

Good news: there are a couple simple techniques anglers can employ to help lower that percentage, and keep fish populations healthy and high. Here's how:

1. Use barbless circle hooks


Okay, so, this is an easy one. Technically speaking, there's a lot of research that says there's very little difference in how successful barbed and unbarbed hooks are at bringing in fish. Most show that there's no difference at all--having a barbed hook doesn't help you catch. It will, however, cause more damage to the fish by decreasing the chance it'll be gut-hooked.

If you're worried about your catch slipping away, circle hooks can actually increase catch rates.

And although experts go back and forth on the issue,  it's generally agreed upon that barbless hooks and circle hooks both yield more reliable catches, with less damage to the fish, and less chance of gut-hooking. So, if you're fishing in waters that may yield smaller fish, or better yet, know you're fishing beyond your limit for fun, use a barbless circle hook for your catches can not only increase your catch rate, but may help kill less fish unintentionally.

2. Bring Pliers

Use needle-nose pliers to remove the hook--don't just tear it out. This is especially important if the hook is embedded in a gill, or deeper in the mouth, although tearing out a hook even on the surface can lead to infection for the fish, and ultimately death.

3. Decide Quickly


The longer the fish is out of the water, on ice, or can't swim to oxygenate its gills, the likelier it is to suffer permanent damage. So quickly decide if you're going to keep it or not. Similarly, don't keep fish you might release out of the water for long after a catch- the fish has been fighting very hard, and keeping it out of the water is the equivalent of holding a plastic bag over a runner's head after a marathon. So if they're going back in, take your picture, and toss them back quickly.

4. Hold horizontally

Fish are built to live in a buoyant environment, and generally tend to stay horizontal in the water. Holding a fish by the tail or the gills can cause its internal organs to crush to one side, causing internal bleeding and damage. So measure and photograph the fish on it's side--only hold it vertically if it's a kill.

5. Wet your hands


Fish have a protective mucus (and algae) coating that keeps their skin and scales healthy. If you're going to handle a fish you intend to throw back, wet your hands--this will help to maintain this coating. Also, if you're having trouble controlling the fish, put a towel or covering over it's eyes, or roll it on its side. This tends to cause it to become docile, reducing the risk you'll drop it and injure or kill the fish in the process.

6. Vent the air bladder, but only for certain fish

For certain deep-dwelling fish, and certain ocean species (especially grouper), venting a distended air bladder can be the difference between survival and death for a catch-and-release fish. The air bladder is an organ the fish uses as ballast--it balances out the fish's buoyancy so the fish can travel at will into deeper or shallower water. If distended, the fish may be unable to dive back down into its habitat to feed, so you need to vent the bladder properly (which isn't just puncturing it).

How do you know if you need to vent your fish? Do the reading.

That's pretty much it--remember, sustainable fishing means fishing in the same great spots for the next 20 years, and fish are a lot tastier when they're older, bigger, and have spent years contemplating the kindness of the mysterious being that abducted it, poked it with strange metal objects, measured and tested it, then tossed it back out into the home it came from.

Huh. Hey, that actually explains a few things.

Any other techniques you use to ensure the well-being of your released catch? Let us know in the comments.

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Catch And Release: 6 Techniques for Keeping Fish Alive