Catch and release, carefully
Large or small, all fish will benefit from being revived
before released back into the wild.
Catch and release used to be a relatively new concept in sport fishing, one that recognized that fish populations are vulnerable and not the endless resource that they were once thought to be. Now the concept is commonplace and has even spawned a sort of a backlash as the "I Kill Fish" sticker on the back of a truck I saw recently attests. Fishermen who fish mostly for fun have been criticized because many see catching and releasing fish as playing with fish. Anglers, unlike hunters can pursue their passion and release their prey. Both hunters and anglers are quite often great champions of their perspective passions and invest their time and money in protecting the habitat and well being of fish and animals.
Most anglers I know who practice catch and release have no problem with taking an occasional fish home for dinner. It's more about enjoying the sport and trying to be proactive in helping it to remain healthy and viable. There are many species, notable among them tarpon, that anglers seldom if ever kill. Catch and release is not just about releasing fish that you don't want, it's also about releasing undersized fish or species that aren't valued at the table. Catch and release in any form is a wise use of the resource, but unfortunately many anglers don't know how to properly handle fish.
When we get cut, bruised or battered, we can head for the local drug store or in more extreme cases the Emergency Room. Not so for fish. For them it's heal or die and in their world it's the sick and wounded that first fall prey to predators. What a shame to do the right thing, releasing a big speckled trout full of roe, only to have it eaten by a shark, barracuda or other predator because it wasn't handled properly. Of course this leads to a discussion of how to release fish with a minimum of damage and applies to a 6- pound trout, a 150-pound tarpon and everything in between.
First, make sure you match tackle to the task. Trying to land a big tarpon on 20-pound tackle might be OK if you're experienced, but to the uninitiated it's like announcing a free meal to sharks that ply local waters looking for weak or injured prey. Enjoy the action, but land the fish as quickly as possible. Once you have the fish subdued, the best course is to never take them out of the water. If you've been fighting them for a long time (think tarpon) make sure you have revived them alongside the boat. If you can reach the water over the gunwale, slowly move the boat forward while holding the fish. This forces water and oxygen through their gills. They'll let you know when they're ready to go.
The hook is probably the next most important consideration. Either a circle hook or a barbless hook is usually best for anglers and their fish. The key to keeping fish on a barbless hook is to keep the line tight. Circle hooks are a must for fish that tend to swallow the hook, speckled trout are the best example. Whatever hook you use, a de-hooker will keep your hands clean and prevent you from inadvertently harming the fish's protective slime coat. Fish secrete a protective coating that covers the scales and skin. This slime coat acts as a defense against invasion by bacterial, parasitic, and fungal pathogens. De-hookers come in various shapes depending on how they're used. The simplest is J shaped and removes hooks in or near the jaw. A circular shaped longer version allows anglers to remove hooks that are deep in the throat of a fish.
Anglers who fish for reef fish like snapper and grouper need to learn how to "vent" fish with inflated swim bladders. Bringing the fish up from deep depths fast bloats the bladder, which has to be punctured to allow the fish to reach the bottom. A good presentation of the process is available at http://catchandrelease.org/Fish%20Venting%20Flash10/player.html.
Anglers that release a trophy sized fish may want to take home a picture. This is OK if a little forethought is used. Set your exposure in advance and have an idea where in the boat you want to take the picture. The best picture for the fish would be when it's still in the water, but if you do remove the fish, hold it horizontally, with one hand near the head, and the other hand under the fish's belly to support its weight. Holding a fish vertically puts a strain on the internal organs and can potentially dislocate its jaw. This is particularly important with large fish.
By being prepared we can get the fish back in the water fast thus insuring its chances of survival. Taking the time and having the tools and knowledge to release fish mindfully is a great way to help insure we have a healthy population of fish now and into the future.