The practice of catch and release as a means of wildlife conservation has one catch -- ensuring that the released fish lives. Researchers have performed hundreds of controlled studies all over the world to determine which methods of hooking, landing, reeling the fish in and releasing are most likely to result in a healthy fish that can go on to reproduce. If improper techniques are used, and the released fish dies, then it defeats the purpose of releasing in the first place.
Studies on tarpon in Florida found that 26 out of 27 of the fish caught with a hook and line survived after they were released [source: Fish and Wildlife Research Institute]. The lone fish that died had been lifted from the water and photographed by the fishermen who caught it. Bonefish in the Florida Keys have a 95 percent survival rate upon release [source: Fish and Wildlife Research Institute]. Eighty-four percent of redfish in Georgia and 96 percent of redfish in Texas live after release. And in California, 95 percent of brown trout that are released survive [source: Dahlberg]. These numbers indicate that if an angler uses the proper technique for hooking, landing and releasing, then the fish has a great chance at surviving and ultimately reproducing.
So what's the proper technique? It starts before you even hook the fish. Using the proper tackle is key to the fish's survival, and it starts with the fishing line. A strong line is better because it helps to land the fish faster. Landing is simply the act of bringing a fish to land, or in some cases to a boat. A fast landing puts less physiological stress on the fish and helps its chances at survival. You can choose to fish with live bait or artificial bait -- man-made lures and flies with hooks attached. Fish caught with lures and flies have a higher survival rate than those caught with live bait because they're more likely to hook in the mouth area and not deeper into the body. There are also a few things to look for in the hook. First, it should be appropriately sized for the kind of fish you're trying to catch. There's also a choice to be made between J-hooks, circle hooks and barbed or barbless varieties.
J-hooks look like what you might think -- the letter 'J.' Circle hooks also look like a letter 'J,' but the bottom of the hook is a bit wider and the end of the 'J' curves back in toward the stem instead of extending straight up. The point of a circle hook is also curved even farther toward the stem. Studies show that circle hooks usually hook the fish by the jaw, the optimal place to hook a fish. This is what's known as a shallow hook. When the hook goes further into the body and attaches to the gills or internal organs, it's called a deep hook. Deep hooking often results in injury, so even though circle hooks are slightly more difficult to remove, they're recommended for catch and release.
Other tips for a successful fish release:
- Decide beforehand that you're going to release and make the catch-and-release process speedy.
- Don't remove the fish from the water. Or, if you do, limit its time out of the water to less than four minutes.
- Remove the hook by hand or with needle-nose pliers instead of a de-hooking device.
- Use barbless hooks or crimp the barbs with pliers to avoid tearing the fish's flesh.
- Wet your hands or gloves before handling the fish to avoid removing the outer mucous membrane layer that protects the fish's skin.
- Don't use a landing net.
- Reintroduce the fish into the water headfirst.
You can find out more about release techniques by reading How to Remove a Hook Without Injuring the Fish or by taking a look at the links on the next page.