Our marine resources, and especially our fish, are far too valuable to be used just once. I heard that said many years ago. I was probably no older than 12, and I believe it was Joe Brooks who said it during a televised fishing show, but regardless, that message remains vivid in my mind. Catch and release allows other anglers the opportunity to enjoy the thrill and satisfaction that comes with catching a trophy gamefish, and many anglers have discovered that there is even more satisfaction in returning a fish to the water, than there is in catching one.
While the concept of catch and release is a good one, it is critical that it be practiced properly. Many anglers are under the mistaken impression that because a fish swims off in an apparently healthy state, that it will survive. The more a fish is handled and the more time that fish spends out of the water, the better the odds that you are impacting on the chance for that fish to fully recover.
I have witnessed many well-intentioned anglers return fish to the water that have little chance of survival. Not long ago, I watched from a distance as a surfcaster beached a striper well into the 30-pound class. The surf was up with a long wash, and by the time he took the fish back to his truck for weighing and snapping a series of photos, the fish had to be out of the water for a good five minutes. As he carried the fish back toward the water, I thought he intended to wash the sand off before placing the fish in his cooler. Instead, he walked halfway to the water as the wash receded and proceeded to drop the fish on the sand, expecting I guess that the next wave and subsequent wash would return the fish safely to sea. Needless to say, the fish was rolled around in the wash and was last seen drifting west in the crashing surf.
Regardless of whether you fish from a boat or the surf, there are some critical factors revolving around the release of all fish. Time out of water is probably the most critical and should be kept to an absolute minimum. There have been several studies done that reveal just how critical it is to return fish to the water as quickly as possible. A study done on trout by Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada revealed just how damaging subjecting fish to air (time out of water) can be. Trout in an exhausted state (caught on hook and line) saw only a 28% survival rate when exposed to air for 60 seconds. The survival rate jumped to 63% in fish that were out of the water for 30 seconds, and to 88% for those not removed from the water. Some saltwater species may have a higher tolerance, but these results provide a good barometer for the importance of getting fish back into the water quickly.
Obviously then, the ideal scenario for achieving optimum catch and release mortality is to keep fish in the water when unhooking them. In saltwater fishing situations, this is possible when wading, especially in calm back bay or inlet areas, and for those fishing from small boats, or boats with low enough freeboard to allow you to reach down to the fish while it is still in the water. Single hook lures such as bucktails and jigs dressed with soft plastic baits make unhooking a snap and there is usually no need to even touch the fish. Just slide your hand down your leader, grab the head of the lure and a quick twist will usually set your catch free. Every good fisherman should have a pair of pliers on them, or within easy reach. The leverage provided by pliers, as well as the protection they provide from toothy blues, and even weakfish, make them a valuable asset in unhooking fish quickly.