Catch & Release Guidelines

By Capt Andy LoCascio - 12/17/2013 - Short URL: http://bit.ly/1enqc1z - Views: 41912
CNN's Chris Cuomo with the winning live release striper in the 2013 Manhattan Cup

CNN’s Chris Cuomo with largest striper in the live release division of the 2013 FCA Manhattan Cup

There are a myriad of suggestions and guidelines for releasing fish, very few of them take into account the realities of catch and release fishing. Every situation is different, but the following tips will ensure that every fish that is released will have the best chance of survival.

Put that Net Down!

If you are not planning to take a picture with your fish, there may be no need to net the fish. Leaving the fish in the water will shorten (or eliminate) the time required to revive the fish. Here are some tips:

  • Learn to use a fish-flipper or a de-hooking tool for fish where the hook(s) are easily visible. Learn more about fish-flipper tools here. However, these tools may not be effective when using some circle hooks.
  • Crush the barbs on your treble hooks when plugging. Aside from doing less damage to the fish, there is an added advantage that if you somehow manage to hook yourself (inevitable), it is easy to get the hook out.
  • Increase your chances of a visible hook placement (in the mouth) by using circle hooks for soft baits where a big hook-set is not needed to get the hook out of the bait into the fish. Circle hooks may have limited effectiveness when using large live baits such as bunker, mackerel, herring, or porgies (scup).
  • When targeting stripers (or other fish with no significant teeth), reaching into the water and grabbing the lip of the fish will subdue it and give you a chance to get the hook out.
  • If you really need to bring the fish into the boat or to the beach follow the instructions below.

Have Your Camera Ready

Too many times, the fish is brought into the boat and the photographer is simply to ready to take the picture. Every second the fish is out of the water reduces its chances of survival. The angler and the photographer should have a clear plan on the unhooking, measuring, photo, and release of the fish.

Use the Right Tackle

Light tackle can be a lot of fun. However, the fight will certainly be longer and the fish will be more tired by the time it gets to the boat. In addition, warmer water has less oxygen and creates additional stress. Anglers need to realize that there will be added urgency to release these fish and additional emphasis on a careful revival. All of the tips go from being suggestions to critical steps in ensuring a safe release.

You can also elect to swap out treble hooks for single hooks. This will reduce the time it takes to unhook the fish as well as damage to the fish. However, some lures simply do not work well with single hooks. If you need to use treble hooks you may want to crush the barbs. You might drop a fish or two, but if you keep your line tight you may not drop any.

Circle hooks will greatly increase your chances of a lip hookup and an easy release. Some anglers prefer to use traditional J-hooks especially when fishing with large live baits where it can be tough to get the hook out of the fish and into the bait. In these circumstances, a quick hook will decrease the chance that the fish will be gut-hooked.

Netting Fish (if you absolutely must)

If you plan on getting a picture and want to make sure your fish makes it into the boat, here are some tips:

  • Not all nets are the same. Some nets are specifically made for conservation (rubber or knotless nylon). The mesh is designed to minimize the damage to the protective coating of slime on the fish. Without this coating the fish is susceptible to parasites and disease.
  • Be sure to use a net with a large enough hoop size and basket depth. Multiple failed attempts at netting and keeping the fish in the net will certainly do some harm.
  • Net the fish head first. This ensures a single contact with the fish. Attempts to net the fish from behind usually result in the fish slipping out of the net.
  • Lift the net straight up and carefully bring it into the boat. Keep the fish suspended off the deck in the net.
  • Most fish will typically not struggle while in the net. Rather than transferring the fish to the deck, have someone unhook the fish while it is in the net. However, there are times when the fish will need to be removed from the net before the photo.
  • Never throw a fish on the deck. Either pick it up carefully (guidelines for handling fish below) or roll it gently onto a wet deck. Once the fish is on the deck, cover the eyes with a wet towel and restrain it from bouncing around.

Landing a Fish in the Surf

Striped Bass - Surf ReleaseAs you near the end of the fight, try to pick the right moment to work the fish into the shallows. Time the waves and try to avoid tumbling the fish. Get to the fish as quickly as possible and get it out of the surf. Avoid dragging it on the sand as this will quickly remove the critical slime covering. Use a small wet towel to cover the eyes and calm the fish. Pick up the fish and observe the handling tips below.

Unhooking a Deeply Hooked Fish

If the hook(s) is visible in the throat or inside the mouth use a pair a needle nose pliers or a de-hooking tool to get it out. Be quick about it, but do your very best because if you have to leave a hook in the inner mouth or throat you may want to take that fish for the table. If the hook is not visible (in the stomach) cut the line as far into the mouth as you can reach (also a fish that may end up on the table). Attempting to remove that hook will almost certainly do more damage. Hopefully the digestive juices will coat and/or dissolve that hook. This really comes down to doing the best you can within reason. Use your judgment. If you are repeatedly hooking fish in the stomach you need to rethink your choice of tackle and strategy for setting the hook.

Handling Fish

This 45lb+ striper needed to be supported on the author's knees for this picture

This 45lb+ striper needed to be supported on the author’s knees for this picture

You finally have your fish on the deck or in your hands on the beach. Your buddy is ready to take a quick picture and you need to present your fish to the camera. If the fish has teeth use a fish-gripping tool to avoid getting bitten and carefully support the belly of the fish with your other hand. This makes for a compelling head-up shot but studies have shown that vertical handling even with support can still damage larger fish. If you do not have a gripping tool, you can CAREFULLY slide your finger(s) beneath the gill closest to your body taking great care not to touch the gills (red part). This is not possible for smaller fish.

For the BEST possible shot, use one hand to gently grip the tail and hold it close to your body. Use your other hand to support the fish from bottom by placing it just behind the gills with the belly supported by your forearm. Point the head of the fish at the camera and smile! It is a good idea to use a wet cotton glove to hold the tail (and remove minimal slime) to ensure the fish does not slip from your hands onto the deck or sand. It is better to use a firmer grip and remove some slime that it is to allow the fish to flop onto the deck or sand.

When dealing with larger fish, at no time throughout the entire fish handling process, should the belly of the fish be unsupported. Several studies have proven conclusively that this can permanently damage the fish.

Releasing Fish

After your photo get the fish back into the water as quickly as possible and start the revival process. If you keep the fight short and minimize the time out of the water, the fish will be easier to revive and you will be able to get back to fishing.

If you are fishing from the surf, be sure to start the revival process as soon as it is reasonable when you get back in the water. Carefully move the fish into deeper water to reduce the chance that it will get tumbled in the surf.

Once the fish is in the water use your thumb or a gripping tool in the mouth and work the fish slowly forward in the water in a figure-eight pattern until it shows it can swim off on its own. Keep the fish upright at all times (use your other hand if you need to). Some fish such as striped bass raise their dorsal fin when they are ready to go and will bite down on your thumb (or the gripping tool). Be patient and once again use your judgment. Nothing is worse than seeing your released fish back on the beach or floating behind your boat a few moments later. Some fish just can’t be revived and may need to come home with you or a fellow angler if you have your limit.

The 1@32 Pledge

Anglers interested in striped bass conservation will want to learn about the 1@32 Pledge and the effect it is having in the angling community.


By Capt Andy LoCascio - Host of Northeast Angling TV
Share your comments on the Northeast Angling Facebook page

Tackle Direct Tackle Direct Tackle Direct Tackle Direct