Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Catch and Release: the Myth

To quote Kirk Deeter in his recent F&S article:

"How many fish are suffocated for photographs, put back in the water, only to die downstream?"

With so much information floating around out there about proper catch and release techniques, I wanted to echo some of the great information that I have found so educational and debunk the #1 myth about Catch and Release.

The three sources used in this post are Casselman (old and in-depth), Field and Stream  (the inspiration) and Michigan DNR (new and confirms technique).

This information answers many questions as to "why" catch and release fishing is still lethal to a percentage of fish, and what to do to limit fish fatalities if this is the method of fishing you prefer.

What? Limit fish fatalities with catch and release? That's right.

Myth: All fish "live to fight another day" when released.

That's right. A certain percentage of all fish released back into the wild die anyway due to causes directly related to your 45+ seconds of pleasure catching and handling them. Some studies suggest it is as much as 10%.

Here are some things to remember so that you can keep that percentage as absolutely close to 0% as you can, and become a more responsible catch-and-release fisherman or -woman.

1. Manage your "air-time"

One day, back when I flip and pitched more plastics than anything, I wanted to know how long I could hold a bass out of the water without "hurting it". I watched this video. (For your sake, start at 1:04)

Count the seconds he has it out of the water.

No, wait, I did for you. From beach to release, he held it for two minutes, forty seconds. That's 160 seconds.

According to Casselman, the amount of "air time" a fish receives adversely affects the internal organism of the fish, with the adverse affect compounding the longer it is held out of water. The periods of time in certain species that he cites tops out at about 90 seconds.

This guy held that bass out of the water for 160 seconds. Don't be that guy.

2. Reduce hook trauma

Hooks cause trauma. They break blood vessels, damage bone, reduce mucous covering, increase infections, reduce growth and otherwise hurt fish. They do this every time, to one extent or another.

This damage can be very drastically mitigated every time by simply mashing the barb of the hook down. 

Also, if you want to release what you catch, don't use live bait. Whether you do or not, a barbless hook is much less likely to cause long-term damage to the fish. 

Also, if you have a deeply hooked fish that you wish to release, cut the line. Survival percentages increase by doing so. Most fish shed a deep hook eventually, and they survive more often than forcing the hook out. I'm not making this stuff up. They test it in laboratories. (See Casselman.)

3. Use your hands, *not a net.

*If possible. A muskie or big pike will remove fingers if you don't use a net, unless you have one of these. If at all possible, use wet hands or moist cloth to handle a fish. They are coated in mucous that protects them from aquatic bacteria and infection. It's that stuff that makes your hands smell like fish.

Using dry hands or dry cloth will remove the coating and increase the fish's likelihood of premature bucket-kicking.

If you use a net, use only knotless or rubber coated nets, and never for a fish too big for the net. You will break fins.

4. If you fish deep... stop it. Unless you want to fish slow, or kill the fish.

Ever come up from 20ft down too quickly after normalizing pressure? Yeah, it hurts. It hurts fish, too. Actually, it kills them. Bring a fish up from 30 ft. down in too big of a hurry, and you will "pop" its buoyancy bladder and it will die eventually. Slow down, if you absolutely must fish deep, and plan on keeping it anyway.

This brings up another point. "Fizzing" deep caught fish kills them. Don't do it, unless you are keeping it.

5. Don't "throw fish back" or drop them.

Sure, they're still flopping around after hitting the ground, but what you can't see is the contusion on its brain or the fact that it can't see anymore out of the eye on the side it landed on. If you drop them, you decrease their survival rate.

If you throw them - literally, throw them - you are increasing "air time" as well as stressing the fish's muscles and physiology even more. I cringe about this, because I spent last night tossing bass fry back in the water at a local fishery. It will be that much less of a bass lake now that I irresponsibly handled those fish.

Closing thoughts

Read over those articles, and Google more. There are other great, useful, important tips to remember.

Now, all of the information brings up a great set of questions.

Is it right to fish at all if you're bound to kill at least some? 

Is it ethical to sell or promote fishing to others, especially children, knowing that they are damaging and ending life even while they enjoy themselves?

Yep, deep questions. Hope I didn't ruin the sport for you. The truth is, though, that you can properly and humanely reduce fish fatalities to 1% or less through education. 

That 1% will be the ones you keep and eat.

The occupy movement might like this post, although I think I'm talking about the survival of a different 99% than what they had it mind. They can keep their pickets, though. Give me my favorite fishing buddy and my 5w.


  1. Great write up on this and I try to follow a lot of the "Better C&R" philosophies. Sometimes its a battle just explaining why it is important to let the big fish go. Good stuff. Stumbled across your blog and now fiollowing.

    1. I appreciate the comment, and I appreciate the stumbling. Welcome!