A dead-weight tug on the end of my line signaled that the largemouth bass under the dock was indeed hungry. I swept the rod back and the four-pound fish rocketed up out of the water. She battled every foot of the way to my hand.
I reached down, tweaked the hook and felt it stick in the armor of the fish's cheek. Realizing the barb on the 3/0 Mustad Ultrapoint hook had done its job, I pulled out my pliers, crushed the barb flat and slid the hook out of the gaping mouth of the late-summer largemouth.
Catch and release is a fun and effective way of preserving the resource on any water. However, simply hooking and releasing fish is not the only facet of the practice. There are many other areas anglers should focus on for a successful experience. What follows are just a few tips to help anglers successfully practice catch and release.
1. Go barbless
A growing trend which originated in trout country is the use of barbless hooks. These hooks do little damage the mouth of a fish and make it much easier to release. If you can't find barbless hooks, smash the barb flat with your pliers. You will find that most fish still stay hooked when properly played and they swim off with far less pressure on their jaws and mouth.
2. Wash your hands
No, you don't need to use soap or scrub for 20 seconds, but before handling a fish or lifting it up for a photo, make sure you give your hands a quick dunk in the water. By doing so, you reduce the amount of friction that dry hands put on the slime coat of a vulnerable fish. If you don't plan to photograph the fish, unhook it while it is in the net or the water.
3. Needlenose power
Perhaps the most effective tool in catch-and-release fishing is the needlenose pliers. A decent model runs around five dollars and can last for seasons, presuming you don't drop it in the river. The long pliers can reach hooks that are back in the mouth and in other tough-to-reach places. Furthermore, the extra prying power is a welcome advantage when releasing fish. For smaller fish like bluegill, try a forceps or hemostat to aid in hook removal.
4. Limit your hooks
Lures with six or nine hooks running up and down them can pose a problem for releasing fish. Oftentimes hooks on the back of a minnowbait will land in the mouth, while the others will snag the eyes, gills and head. Not only do multiple hooks damage these vital organs, but also the removal of the trebles takes longer. That time out of the water poses a risk to the fish. Try using single hooked jigs or lures with fewer hooks when the situation allows for it; or eliminate one set of trebles, which also helps reduce snagging on bottom structure.
5. Cut ties, if necessary
When it comes to big fish like muskellunge and pike, bigger baits work best. Be prepared to part with some of your stickbait's hooks if the moment calls for it. If a hook is buried deep in the maw of a big esox, use a hook cutter to set the beast free. Cut the metal as close to the flesh as possible. The hook fragment will be forced out of the animal through time and the fish suffers less stress at boat side.
6. Check your net
When fish can't be lipped because of their teeth or must be landed with a net due to their size, make sure your net does little or no harm. Purchase a mesh cradle when pursuing big fish like muskies and use a rubberized net for other fish like walleyes, trout and bass. A good model is the Tangle Free Rubber Net from Frabill (www.frabill.com). The non-collapsing rubber net prevents unnecessary damage to the slime coat of a fish.
7. Pick your battles
Nothing is more exciting than a bulldogging pull of a bass or the drag-squealing run of a monster northern pike. But fighting a fish for too long can cause irreparable damage from lactic acid build up. Just as when your muscles ache the next day after a hard workout, fish suffer the same problem. But this acid build-up can kill fish. Limit the fight time to help the fish survive.
8. Know when to say when
Blood in the water is never a good sight. If a fish is gill hooked, bleeding or injured badly do not release it. There's no sense in wasting the resource be responsible and know when a fish should not be released.
9. The thirty second rule
Take a deep breath. How long can you hold it? Thirty seconds is about the average. Now imagine you're a fish. Along those lines, think of how long that fish can stay out of the water without oxygen. Try to limit the time a fish is exposed to the air and out of its natural environment. Have a buddy ready with a camera and keep the photo session brief.
10. See them off
When releasing a fish, be gentle, do not toss the fish back into the water. Cradle the fish in your hands and slowly move it forward in the water or hold it facing the current. This moves water over the gills and helps the fish recover. Feel for the fish attempting to swim off. Hold it near the tail until it pulls away. If you see the fish go belly up a few moments later, refer to tip number eight.
By following these points, C&R anglers can help ensure that their preferred method of fishing continues creating opportunities for others…in our outdoors.