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Reel Time: Catch and release redux

Catch and release is a term I haven’t heard much recently. I’ve actually seen postings on social media that make me wonder if maybe this important conservation tool needs to be revisited. Catch and release wasn’t commonly discussed in saltwater sport-fishing circles when I was growing up. It became prevalent when fish populations became stressed in the late 1980s and organizations like the Florida Conservation Association (now the Coastal Conservation Association) were being formed. Slowly, it caught on as an important tool to help flagging fisheries rebound.

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 that have little or no food value that anglers seldom intentionally kill. But catch and release is not just about releasing fish that you don’t want, it’s also about releasing undersized and unwanted species. Catch and release is a wise use of the resource and that’s why it’s important that anglers know how to handle fish properly from hook set to release.

When we get cut or bruised, we can head for the local drug store, or in more extreme cases the emergency room. Not so for fish. In their world, it’s the sick and wounded that fall prey to predators. Releasing fish with a minimum of damage is important with a 6-pound trout, a 150-pound tarpon and everything in between.

Start by making sure you’re using the right tackle for the species being pursued. Trying to land a 100-plus pound tarpon on 20-pound tackle might be okay 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. You want to enjoy the action but land the fish as quickly as possible. Once you have the fish under control, it’s best to never take them out of the water.

It might be necessary to revive big fish. That’s best accomplished by slowly motoring forward while holding the fish underwater. They’ll let you know when they’re ready to be released.

The hook is another important consideration. Some anglers don’t like to bend their barbs down because they’re afraid of losing the fish. The key to keeping fish on a barbless hook is keeping a tight line. When you’re ready to remove the hook, use a de-hooker.

De-hookers will prevent you from having to handle your catch, keep your hands clean, prevent you from inadvertently harming the fish’s protective mucus membrane and come in various shapes depending on use. 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. A set of pliers can also be used if the hook is easily accessible.

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 quickly bloats their bladder, which has to be punctured to allow the fish to return to the bottom. For bigger, hard-to-vent fish like Goliath grouper, new technology uses a descender device to get them back down in good shape. Visit the Return ‘Em Right project web page to learn how to use the device and get one for free.

By being prepared, anglers can use proper catch and release methods to increase a fish’s chance of survival. Taking the time and having the tools and knowledge to release fish properly is a great way to help ensure healthy fish populations both now and in the future. Catch and release is an important concept that needs to be practiced and discussed among anglers.

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