By Rusty Chinnis
sun staff writer
Catch and release isn’t a new concept. Even in the early part of the twentieth century, far sighted anglers could see the potential for depleted fisheries. Over the last decade it should have become apparent to all but the comatose angler that there isn’t an inexhaustible well of fish in our waters. We’ve fought battles to limit netting and made a commitment to be better stewards by agreeing to reasonable restrictions on size and bag limits. We’re better educated in the press and at the docks about limiting our catch and being less concerned about catching our limit. As Lefty Kreh says, it’s only common sense, only common sense ain’t so common!
Even with the new "ethic,” an influx of anglers, loss of habitat and water quality issues will apply intense pressure on Florida’s fisheries in the future. This makes it more important to educate anglers about the marine environment, the importance of catch and release and proper release tools and techniques.
I hope this new "release ethic" reaches enough fisherman to make a difference, but even those who haven’t made the conservation leap need to be educated so they can release fish that are out of season, unwanted or undersized. Effective tools and techniques exist to assure that the majority of fish we release will survive to reproduce and fight again. All too often, even well meaning anglers harm a fish’s chance at survival due to ignorance of basic catch and release methods.
A fish’s chances of survival will be greatest if they are played to the boat and released quickly without removing them from the water. One of the easiest ways to assure a fish’s survival before ever hitting the water is to flatten the barb of the hook. If constant pressure is applied during a fight, the hook will not back out. Once the fish is in the water, at the side of the boat, it can be released without touching it by using a simple tool you can buy or make yourself. It consists of a heavy (stainless) wire, a simple loop handle, and a short shaft with a U shaped bend in the end. By holding the line near the fish, the angler has only to hook the wire over the bend in the hook, pulling down on the line and up with the tool.
Circle hooks are a great option for live bait anglers. Their design causes them to lodge in the fish’s mouth a majority of the time. Circle hooks are extremely effective, especially for novice anglers. All one has to do is let the line come tight when a fish hits and just start reeling.
Offshore anglers must employ another technique. Fish reeled to the surface from deep water reefs and wrecks do not have time to adjust to the pressure change. Their swim bladder expands with gasses, preventing them from returning to the bottom. The practice of "venting" releases these gases, limits organ damage, and increases their chances of survival.
To vent a fish the angler holds the fish gently on its side, inserting a venting tool (large hollow needle) at a 45 degree angle about one to two inches behind the base of the pectoral fin. Care should be taken to insert the tool only deep enough to vent the gas. When the tool is properly inserted the angler will hear a rush of escaping gas. If the fish is overly bloated, the angler can gently press the fish’s abdomen to assist in the deflation. The stomach may protrude from the mouth but should not be punctured.
Fish that need to be revived should be held in the water at boat-side and towed slowly through the water until it swims away under its own power. If a fish is removed from the water for a photo or measurement, care must be taken to avoid removing the viscous film that coats their scales. This is the fish’s first line of defense against disease and parasites. It helps them to move effortlessly through the water, and oddly enough makes them waterproof. A tool such as a "Boga Grip" can firmly hold the fish, minimizing contact. If a net is used it should be constructed of a soft pliable material.
Speedy pelagic species like kingfish, Spanish mackerel and bonito require a different approach if they are released after a long fight. They should be "launched" into the water head first like you would throw a spear. If the fish is deeply hooked, especially near the gill area, the best option is to cut the line as near the hook as possible. Research supported by scientists’ shows that fish can expel a hook in the same manner as a finger rids itself of a splinter.
Use proper tackle, de-barb hooks and be prepared to release fish quickly and efficiently using the proper tools and techniques. Fishing is a great experience and deserves to be passed along to future generations. Catch and release is a good investment in a prosperous fishing future.