By Jason Brooks
Regardless if you are a salmon and steelhead angler, bass chaser, walleye wrangler, trout fisherman, or any other water creature catcher, hooking into a fish and watching the leaps and jumps is exciting and exhilarating. It is what drives us to chase after our favorite fish, endure bad weather, rough waters and spend countless hours afield. But once the fight is over and it’s decided to release the fish, it is up to the angler to recondition the fish and allow it to recover. Anglers are often too quick to release a fish back into the water so they can try and catch another one. But making sure the fish is ready to be released not only is our duty but helps ensure that there are future fish to catch.
Reviving a fish starts before you catch it. Use the right gear so you don’t wear the fish out to exhaustion beyond recovery. For steelhead anglers this time of year it means upsizing mainlines and leaders so you can put more pressure on the fish and not lose it. The ability to pull a fish away from structure and keep it from making a long run; the drag on the reel helps tire the fish quickly. Hooks also play a very important role when it comes to releasing fish unharmed. Barbless are best and a single point makes it quick to remove but treble hooks aren’t always bad. When legal to do so, and using a larger size treble to keep it from going into the gills, it often pins the mouth closed so the fish tires fast but can be revived without haste. I often fish in Canada where you can still use barbless treble hooks in the saltwater for salmon. Large chinook have come to the boat relatively fast and then once unbuttoned they swim back down to the deep waters without stress. When pulling plugs in rivers a barbless treble often hooks the fish in the side of the face or under the jaw, again a non-mortal hookset, as the treble hook is hard to swallow. Where you can only use a single point hook it is always better to keep the size as large as possible to keep it from being swallowed and easy to remove.
Bait is not the best option when it comes to a catch and release fishery. This is why most waters that don’t allow harvest have a no bait rule. If you are fishing waters where you have a chance to encounter wild fish, such as native steelhead, then leave the bait at home. Use larger profile lures such as pink worms, or a lure that is likely not to be swallowed such as floating jigs or spoons. If you do decide to drift fish beads and yarnies then use the “set-back” rigging. This is where you use a bobber stop or some sort of way to peg the bead or yarnie a few inches from the hook. As the fish bites the attractor the hook sticks into the side of the fish’s mouth or jawbone. This keeps mortality down.
Once you hook that fish and the fight comes to an end then landing the fish is the next step to a healthy release. If the riverbank is mostly cobble or large rocks then gently pulling the fish onto rocks, keeping as much as the fish in the water as possible will work but is not ideal. If the riverbank is muddy or sandy then never pull the fish ashore. Instead of beaching a fish try using a soft sided knotless net, landing cradle or tailing the fish. These are much better ways to start the recovery process. Depending on the water conditions and safety for yourself can dictate which technique you use. Once the fish is landed be sure to remove the hook quickly. If the fish is still feisty and you can’t get the hook out safely simply keep the fish in the water and turn it upside down. This is a common technique to calm large sturgeon but it works with all fish. On a recent kokanee trip we held the fish upside down (belly up) and the fish never moved, easily removing the hook as the fish laid motionless in our hands. It works for larger fish too and makes it quick to get sharp hooks out and then turn the fish back over in the water.
Before grabbing the fish you should wet your hands. Anglers used to use a “fish mitt” or a glove that helped grip the fish but we soon learned that they can be detrimental to fish since they often remove the protective slime. Simply getting your hands wet helps the fish or wear latex gloves as they aren’t abrasive. Then point the fish upriver so the current flows through the gills. If in a lake or stagnant water slowly push the fish forward and backwater allowing oxygen to flow through the gills and help recover the fish.
Once the fish starts to regain its strength loosen your grip but continue to move the fish. Once the fish is ready to be release, let go of your grip and allow the fish to swim away. It is not a good idea to “shove” the fish into the water because if the fish isn’t ready then it can get away from you and die as it gets pinned by the current or sinks to the bottom. When you are holding the fish for recovery keep the fish upright.
Taking a photo of the fish is one of the most detrimental things anglers do because they often lift the fish up. Even for fisheries where you are not supposed to take the fish out of the water, such as for wild steelhead, there are ways to get that picture without hurting the fish. Never lift the fish with your hand under the pectoral fins as this will compress the heart and digestive tract and can cause internal injuries. Instead lay the fish on its side, gently holding it by the tail and have the person taking the photo get low to the water. This is a great way to capture the memory of the fish with a photo. Other poses include using an underwater camera housing, such as a “GoPro” or a waterproof case on your cellphone. Never grab the fish through the gill plate, even for species that can be lifted out of the water and held with one hand such as bass or walleye.
The fish gave us our fight and thrill, and when it is time to let it go be sure to treat them right.
Jason Brooks is an outdoor writer based in Washington and the Editor of The Tailout, an online magazine dedicated to all things Salmon & Steelhead related.