By Nick Simonson
Spring is the time for big fish, and big fish have been coming up in good numbers throughout the last few seasons, thanks to increased practice of catch and release by conservation-minded anglers looking to continue the opportunities for trophy-sized fish and sustainable fisheries. The success of North Dakota’s continuous fishing season is sustained by responsible catch-and-release angling, particularly now in the pre-spawn and spawning seasons. This spring, follow these tips designed to decrease the mortality of released fish and let those great memories swim away to be caught again another day.
Lures Over Live Bait. While live bait is a surefire way of catching fish, artificial lures are often less damaging to fish, aren’t taken as deeply, and are usually easier to remove. This is due to the fact that fish will typically inhale a baitfish or crawler as if it were a wild piece of prey and an angler’s hookset is not usually as immediate as when a fish strikes a jig, soft plastic or crankbait. If using live bait rigs for walleyes while practicing catch and release, monitor bobbers or feel for that first bite and react quickly to prevent gill- or gut-hooking of fish that are to be returned to the water. Substitute a small jig or a long-shanked Aberdeen hook for a standard hook when fishing crappies or bluegills for fun to prevent deep-hooking of panfish species as well.
Less Hooks. Fewer hooks mean less damage to fish. Some stretches of trout waters in Montana or Minnesota require single-hooked lures and anglers often replace the standard trebles on Mepps or Worden’s in-line spinners with a single hook, as trout are more sensitive to handling and unhooking activities. While voluntary in waters of the Peace Garden State, such a modification can make for faster and cleaner releases. Beyond salmonids, lures with less hooks, or single hooks, prevent not only trauma to a fish but also your equipment. If you’ve ever hooked a pike with a three-trebled stickbait like a Rapala Husky Jerk, you know the nightmare of wrestling a slimy, twisting fish free of all nine hook points and whatever they might tangle in, be it your net, your clothes or your hand. In the end, fewer hooks means less work boatside or in the net for you and a quicker release for the fish.
Better Hooks. Modifying the hooks you use can reduce stress on fish and help with a clean release. When fishing live bait rigs, particularly for catfish, bass and walleye, try using circle hooks. These hooks are designed with a bent-in point and a rounded shaft which slides out of a fish’s throat and connects most often in the corner of the mouth. Remember to keep constant tension while reeling in to maintain a solid connection. For quick releases of trout or panfish, consider barbless hooks, or mashing the barb down on flies or jigs. The hook slides out cleaner and requires less twisting from a pliers to get it loose.
Net Notes. When landing a fish, a rubber or rubber-coated net, or one made out of soft mesh will be less abrasive on the fish’s protective slime coat. If possible, handle the fish in the net with wetted hands or keep the fish in the water while held in the net at boatside before letting it go.
Ply the Water. Have a pliers or forceps handy to help get tightly-stuck hooks out of fish you plan to catch and release. Gently turn hooks when they are stuck tight and avoid reefing on them to prevent unnecessary injury to the lips and jaws of fish. For bigger fish like pike or muskies, a hook cutter is a necessity when clipping portions of treble hooks that are deeply embedded or hooked further back in the mouth. The broken piece will eventually dislodge through the natural healing process and this split-second decision can limit the time out of the water and will cause less stress to these big fish.
Soft Hands. Gently handle fish when taking a quick photo or returning them to the water. Try to keep fingers and hands wet to prevent abrasion to the fish’s slime coat and avoid touching its gills or eyes to prevent damage to these sensitive areas. Only keep the fish out of the water as long as is necessary and avoid dropping them on the floor of the boat or on shore. A good guideline for upper-limit out of water time is 30 seconds (or about the time you can hold your breath underwater) as a maximum. Carefully set the fish in the water and cradle its midsection or hold it slightly in front of the tail while it revives and shows signs of being ready to swim off. Never throw or drop a fish back into the water when releasing it.
Follow these suggestions to help facilitate a successful release of all the fish you plan to put back this season and in the future. By doing so you’ll ensure the opportunity for other anglers down the road to tangle with the same fish, preserve a generation of yet-to-be created fish and in the process maintain a sustainable fishery for years to come.
(Featured Photo: Having the right tools will make the release of sensitive fish like trout – and big fish – much easier on your quarry and you. Simonson Photo)