With the spring fishing season fully upon us we should all be concerned about keeping fish healthy and alive after catching them. By proper handling and releasing a caught fish safely back into the water we allow them the opportunity to flourish and give others the chance to catch them in the future.
Always land fish as quickly as possible, except when retrieving from depths of 20-feet or more. Fighting a fish to exhaustion increases mortality as does rapidly bringing up a fish through the changing water pressure and temperature gradients.
Keep fish intended for release in the water as much as possible. Plan ahead with tools and a camera. To bring a fish out of the water momentarily use a rubber net or one of knotless nylon. Handle the fish carefully. Wet your hands, your net and other materials that may come in contact with the fish. This reduces the removal of the mucus (protective slime layer) on the fish and lessens the possibility of bacterial infection.
Minimize physical injury. Do not touch gills or allow fish to flop around on deck. Fish gill filaments are very sensitive and can easily be injured.
Carefully remove hooks using a dehooker or needle-nose pliers. Use plain hooks, not stainless, to rust away quickly if one must be left in a gut-hooked fish. Cut this line close to the hook’s eyelet. It’s best to use circle hooks or barbless hooks. When it is not possible to remove the hook without harming the fish, cut the line. Only a small piece of line should be left on the hook to ease passage through the digestive system. Research has documented that cutting the line can greatly increase the survival of deeply hooked fish.
To revive lethargic fish hold in a normal, upright position. Move the fish forward in an “S” or figure-8 pattern so that water flows over the gills only from front to back.
Various fishes need to be handled differently. Bass are usually the easiest to handle. You can lift a bass with your thumb inside the lower lip and your index finger outside. This grip will help immobilize the fish so you can unhook it easier. But support the bass with both hands if it is big and you are planning to release it.
Some have sharp teeth and razor-edge gill plates like walleyes. Don’t ever try to lip a walleye. Grab it behind the head and across the back. Grip in front of the dorsal fin first, and then carefully slide your hand rearward to fold down the sharp dorsal spines with the heel of your hand. Sunfish and perch (biological relatives of walleye) also have sharp dorsal spines and can be handled the same.
Trout and salmon have small but sharp teeth and trout are especially slippery from their protective slime. Use a landing net to minimize touching the fish and wet your hands before touching them.
Catfish have sharp spines in their dorsal and pectoral fins. Grip from the front and slide your hand carefully toward the tail, pushing down the fins and sharp spines. Their barbels (whiskers) are not sharp and do not sting.
Carp are bigger than most anglers are used to catching. This presents a number of problems when landing and unhooking one. Heavy carp are more prone to injury when out of the water. Take precautions when landing and releasing them. Place carp back in the water as quickly as possible by supporting it in an upright position until it is ready to swim away.
A carp’s extra weight can lead to getting wounded in typical knotted nylon nets. Often times they will lose scales or split their fins after getting stuck in the wide holes of this kind of net. It can be a big hassle to untangle a fish’s fins and may disfigure them permanently. To avoid these problems, a lot of serious carpers use “micro mesh” nets similar to trout landing nets, but much bigger. Even if you have a safe net, a large carp is hard to hold while you unhook it. Flopping around on the ground will cause a big carp to get hurt.