Dead Release

“ What’s the proper way to release a fish?”

It’s a great question and I get excited whenever someone asks me because I believe that person is asking because they truly want to protect the fish and the fisheries we all enjoy.

I’ve seen some mistakes in handling and releasing fish and I’ve even made a few of my own. However, making a mistake is correctable, but blatant disrespect and ignorance should be punished at the highest level. For example, throwing a fish as if you were throwing a baseball, holding a fish by the eyes, keeping a fish out of the water too long, and I’ve even seen a rainbow trout kicked back into the water off the shoreline as if they were kicking for a field goal. People that handle fish like this are ignorant and in no way should be referred to as anglers. I’ve seen people catch hammer handle pike and literally through them like they were throwing a baseball and in the next minute hold up a trophy pike with all the excitement of a little boy opening gifts on Christmas morning. That trophy pike they’re holding so proudly for a picture was once a small pike that managed to survive and make it to trophy size.

5 Basic Tips for Catching & Releasing Fish To Help Prevent a Dead Release

  1. The best nets, in my opinion, are Ego rubber nets. Yes, rubber nets are a little heavier and have more resistance in the water, but they are more fish-friendly than string nets. With string nets, lures often become tangled in the net and often when they are still in the fish’s mouth. Untangling lures in a net is dangerous to the angler and the fish and it requires the fish to be out of the water longer than need be. Rubber nets are more tangle-resistant and the soft rubber is less abrasive to the fish’s scales or protective slime.
  2. Ideally, once the hook is out of the fish’s mouth, leave the fish in the net and put them back in the water turning the net over in the water to allow the fish to swim away. Quick, clean, and safe and you never have to touch the fish. However, who doesn’t like a picture with their fish before it’s released? The first thing I do when I get to my fishing spot is get my camera out and ready so when the time comes I’m not fumbling with a lens cap or getting my camera out of the camera bag. If you’re using your cell phone, the same thing, have it out and ready.
  3. When holding a fish, make sure you place your fingers behind the fish’s gill plate, (Not in their gills). Damaged gills from improper finger placement is a sure way to release a fish, only to have it die later. Picking a fish up by the soft tissue of the gills would be like picking a human up by the inner long tissue. Also, my personal rule when handling a fish weighing 2-pounds or more is I never pick the fish up without supporting its midsection. That way all the weight isn’t supported by the fish’s gill plate. If you hold it under the belly, be sure not to squeeze too tightly as your thumb and fingers are now on each side of the fish’s body and in the perfect position to apply too much pressure on the fish’s internal organs.     
  4. When releasing a fish back into the water, I like to support the fish by the midsection and let it swim away under its own power. If need be, gently hold the fish by the tail once it’s in the water until it’s ready to swim away but I never dive bomb the fish into the water and I never move it back and forth in the water. Some believe moving the fish back and forth in the water forces water through its gills creating oxygen. However, many experts believe as you move the fish backwards through the water it forces water past the fish’s gills in the wrong direction damaging microscopic sensories within the fish’s gills.
  5. If a fish is throat hooked and the hook can’t be removed without hurting the fish, cut the line as close to the hook as possible and release the fish. Thousands of controlled studies have shown that fish with hooks left in their mouths and throat, including barbed hooks are free of the hook(s) in 48-hours or less and many of the hooked fish in the study continued to feed while they had a hook in their mouth. Anglers will often do more damage and even mistakenly kill a fish by trying to remove the hook(s) that are too deep. Also, as you struggle to remove the hook that is too deep, you mistakenly squeeze harder without realizing it, and often, the fish is out of the water much longer than you realize. Cut the line as close to the hook as possible and let the fish swim away.

There are thousands more great tips and tricks that anglers have to prevent a dead release that isn’t mentioned in this column. However, these are the five most basic ways to prevent a dead release.

Our fisheries are one of our greatest treasures, please show them the respect they deserve and please practice catch and release so future generations can enjoy.

Wes David