Please Practice Catch and Release

by Bill Hasely

One of the best things we can do to ensure continued good fishing around the Pennsylvania Club is to release the fish we catch. None of us want the fish we release to die and be wasted after we put them back. Proper release methods can help maximize survival rates that, in turn, allow us to realize maximum benefit from catch and release fishing.

Very simply, the idea is to unhook the fish as quickly as possible and with the least amount of damage as possible. If you can, it is best to leave the fish in the water. If you must remove it from the water, avoid letting it thrash around in the boat and keep its time out of water as short as possible. Some guidelines say to keep the fish out of water no longer than you can hold your breath. I can't hold my breath very long. If the hook removal surgery takes more than 30 seconds or so I'll put the fish back in the water and let it catch its breath (so to speak) before trying again.

Probably the most important thing you can do to ensure a successful release is to be prepared. By that I mean to have certain tools with you and to have them available. My boat never leaves the dock without the following tools:

  1. Large net.
  2. Boga Grip or similar device.
  3. Extra long needle nose pliers.
  4. Hook-out tool.
  5. Jaw spreaders (3 sizes).
  6. Heavy-duty wire cutters and/or bolt cutters.

My net is stowed where it can be put into action quickly. The rest of the tools are always within easy reach in a rack I built on the boat's console. I have friends that keep their tools in holders on their tackle boxes or lure buckets. The important thing is to have them where you know where they are and can get to them quickly. Let me discuss each of these tools in more detail.

I personally use my net only on trophy size fish. On fish up to say the mid 40-inch class I prefer to not subject them to the stress of netting. On those trophy fish though, a big net is the way to go. They are just too big and strong to safely handle otherwise. Recent improvements in nets have made them much more convenient to use. We've probably all had the experience of netting a fish and then spending the next 15 minutes untangling the hooks from the net. Leading net manufacturers (Frabill, Beckman, Stowmaster) now have tangle-free knot-less nets. The net bag is dipped in some sort of rubber-like compound that keeps hooks from penetrating the mesh, thus greatly simplifying, if not eliminating, the tangles. Just as importantly, the coating and the knot-less construction is advertised as being much less abrasive to the fish. After I net a fish, I have my boat partner hold the net, keeping the fish in the water while I remove the hooks. The net becomes essentially a portable livewell allowing me to keep the fish in the water for most of the procedure. By the way, Frabill and Beckman sell replacement bags allowing you to replace your old knotted nylon net bag with a new tangle-free, knot-less bag for less than half the cost of a new net.

Catch & Release toolsBoga Grips and the similar Berkley Lip Grip and Rapala Lock ‘n Weigh are what I use to handle most of my fish these days. All have spring action jaws which lock around the lower jaw of the fish allowing you to control it while keeping your hands safely away from the teeth and hooks. (This last point is important. Before I started using my Boga I once had a thrashing 40 inch musky sink a 5/0 treble into my forearm just above the welding gloves I was wearing for protection.) I normally attach the Boga to the fish's lower jaw, then hold the fish in the water while I work to remove the hooks. (Hint: Be sure to wrap the lanyard around your wrist before reaching over the side of the boat. Better yet, clip it to a piece of cord that is tied to something solid in your boat. All of these tools are expensive!) I've used my Boga (actually mine is a Rapala Lock 'n Weigh) without problem on muskies to about 44 inches and wouldn't hesitate to use it on larger fish. I am impressed with these tools.

Extra-long needle nose pliers and hook-out tools such as the one made by Baker are what I use to actually grab the hook and work it out of the fish. I personally normally use the 9.5 inch Baker Hook-out tool but always have a pair of pliers nearby in case I need both. I have friends who prefer the pliers. One friend even attached 24 inch pieces of conduit to his plier handles to give him extra reach for water releases.

Jaw spreaders cost less than $5 and are probably the most important unhooking tool in the arsenal. They are nothing more than a piece of spring steel that holds the fish's mouth open. It is often amazing how easily you can unhook even a deeply hooked fish if you can make it open wide and say "ahhhhhh." Jaw spreaders come in at least 3 different sizes and I carry all 3. After all, the size needed to hold open the mouth of a 50 incher is probably going to injure that 18 inch pike with an attitude that just ate your jerkbait.

Catch & Release toolsHeavy duty wire cutters or small bolt cutters have saved many fish. When 2 or even all 3 hooks of a treble are buried into a fish, I will reach in with the cutters and snip off one or two of the hooks. Once each hook is not “locked in" by the other hooks, they are often easily removed. This is particularly true of deeply hooked fish. We've probably all had a pike take a bucktail spinner so far down its throat that any attempt at removing it resulted in damaged gills. Many times you can reach in and snip 2 hooks off the treble, easily remove the remaining one, then reach in through the gill flap and carefully back the remaining pieces out from there with little damage. I always carry split rings and extra trebles in the popular sizes for replacing hooks on my lures. Some of my favorite musky lures don't have an original hook left on them.

All of these tools can be purchased from any of the popular tackle catalogs such as Bass Pro Shops, Cabela's, and Rollie & Helen's Musky Shop. For $10 you can buy a Baker hook-out and a medium size jaw spreader and save a lot of fish.

When the hooks are on the outside of the mouth you can often unhook the fish without touching it. A quick twist with the hook-outs or pliers will simultaneously unhook and release the fish. Even fish hooked inside the mouth can be held with the Boga and don't have to be touched. If you do have to touch the fish, be sure to wet your hands first. Wet hands remove less of the fish's protective mucous coating (slime!) that helps protect the fish from disease. I have fishing buddies who keep an old pair of soft cotton gloves in the boat for handling fish, believing that the wet gloves are even less abrasive than wet hands.

Try to land fish as quickly as you can. The more time they spend fighting, the more lactic acid they build up. In fish, lactic acid is toxic. Fish also use up oxygen, become out of breath, if you will, during the exertion of the fight. Just like us, the shorter the time of exertion, the quicker they will recover. Landing the fish as quickly as you can becomes even more important as the water temperature rises.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, a fish turns belly up after we release it. If that happens, don't give up. Grasp the fish by the tail and hold it upright in the water. While there is some difference of opinion on this, I am a believer in slowly moving the fish back and forth in the water. I sometimes even hold the fish's jaws open just a little to make sure there is water flow over the gills. Do this for as long as it takes. I have worked on reviving fish for over ½ hour on several occasions. It's all worthwhile when you see that fish swim away. One tip is to have your boat partner move the boat to shallower water as you work to revive the fish. That way if you let go of it too soon and it turns belly up again, you can more easily recover it and start again.

Finally, a quick word about pictures. We all like to have bragging shots of our catches. Just remember to keep the fish out of the water for the shortest amount of time you can. Have your boat partner get the camera ready before you lift the fish out of the water. With pike and musky the body of the fish should be supported. Lately, in most of my pictures, I'm holding the fish horizontally with the Boga in one hand and the fish's body either supported by my other hand or cradled in the crook of my elbow. One or two quick shots and then back into the water it goes. Unless your wife steps on the camera (that's another story) the whole process should not take more than about 15 seconds.

If we play the fish quickly, have our unhooking tools handy, quickly and carefully remove the hooks, remember to keep the fish out of water for as little time as possible and work at reviving the fish that need it, we will be doing our part to ensure the fishing remains good at the Pennsylvania Club. I think that is something we all want.