Francis Skalicky, Missouri Department of Conservation
“Catch and release” is a good way to sustain fishing resource, and is necessary when fishing minimum length limits and other restricted areas. Catch-and-release fishing works only if anglers know how to release the fish they catch. Unhooking a fish and getting it back in the water without doing any harm to the fish can be tricky. Improper handling does as much damage to a fish as the sharpest treble hook. Releasing a fish is a technique that involves several considerations.
Many people don’t think about is how to hold a fish. The more you handle a fish, the more likely you are to harm it. Fish are covered with mucus that reduces the friction with the water and increases the fish’s resistance to disease. Removal of this mucus, which can happen through rough or prolonged handling, can lead to infection and death for the fish.
Holding up a large fish by its gills may look good on television but, if you plan on releasing that fish back into the water, it’s not the best thing you could do for the fish. Gills are fragile and can be easily damaged. Damaged gills often results in excessive bleeding which can have fatal results for the fish. If you must hold a fish, hold it firm enough to measure it or remove the hook, but as gently as possible. Keep your hands behind the gill area and your fingers out of the gills.
Remove hooks as carefully as possible. Hooks on the edge of the mouth do little damage to the fish. Hooks in these locations can usually be removed with needle-nose pliers (and often with your fingers). Barbless hooks make the catch-and-release easier. Problems may arise when a fish is hooked deeper in its mouth or down in its throat. Trying to disengage these hooks sometimes does more harm than good. By the time you’ve wrestled the hook free, chances are you’ve done enough internal and external damage to the fish to severely hamper its chances of survival. When releasing deeply hooked fish, it is better to clip the line and leave the hook in the fish. Fish hooked deep in the throat have a better chance of survival if the hooks are left in the fish than if you try to pull the hooks out.
If you’re going to release a fish, do it quickly. Catch the fish, measure it (if you want to or need to) and put it back. This doesn’t mean you have to avoid photographs: They’re important — particularly if kids are the ones catching the fish. Your goal is for the fish to survive, the sooner you can accomplish all the out-of-the-water stuff and get the fish back into the water, the better the fish’s chances are of surviving.
As added insurance to fish that appear to be stunned, you can hold them for a few seconds in the water and gently move them back and forth. This moves water over the gills and allows more oxygen to enter the blood. Tips for releasing fish and other fishing information can be found in the 2017 “Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations”, available at www.missouriconservation.org