10 Tips for Cleaner Catch & Release

With almost every species of New England food and game fish regulated by size and bag limits, it’s important, for conservation sake, to give any fish that needs to be released the best chance of survival. And while you don’t need a degree in fish biology to figure out what’s good or bad for a fish, here are some pointers on how to improve its post-release odds.

1. Land Them Fast:

The longer a fish is fought, the less chance it has of surviving after being released. If you’re serious about catch and release, try to land the fish as quickly as possible.

2. Don’t Go Too Light:

This goes hand-in-glove with tip Number One. Using tackle that’s too light for the species you’re targeting leads to prolonged fights and exhausted fish that are either unable to recover from the fight or end up as easy targets for predators. Also, light line is more likely to break during the fight, leaving the fish with a plug or hook in its mouth that may hamper its ability to survive in the wild.

3. Keep Them Wet:

Keeping a fish in the water while you remove the hook will improve its chances of survival. Not only does the water keep the fish’s skin moist and provide more oxygen to its gills, it provides support for the fish’s internal organs, which could be damaged if the fish (especially a big fish) is hefted onboard or accidentally dropped.

4. Minimize Handling Time:

If you must bring a fish onboard to measure it or remove the hook, do so as quickly as possible and get it back in the water. The longer you keep a fish out of water, the more stress it endures due to lack of oxygen and exhaustion. Also, handling a fish can remove its coating of mucous, which guards against parasites and disease.

5. Water Temperature Matters:

Generally speaking, New England species prefer colder water (save for tropical migrants such as false albacore and bonito), which holds more oxygen than colder water. When the water temperature climbs above 70 degrees, inshore species such as striped bass, bluefish and fluke have a harder time recovering from a fight, especially a long one. This makes it even more important to land the fish, remove the hook and release it as soon as possible.

6. Use Circle Hooks with Bait:

It is now widely recognized that circle hooks can reduce fish mortality when used with natural bait. Circle hooks feature a clever design that allows the hook to slide out of the fish’s throat and “lock” around the jaw hinge as the line tightens. Other hook styles tend to lodge more frequently in the fish’s stomach, throat or gills, especially if the fish is allowed to run with the bait for a long time. Circle hooks have proven to work well with all sorts of fish, including sea bass, fluke, and especially striped bass and bluefish. Circle hooks aren’t a guaranteed fix, of course, and some anglers feel that using them reduces the number of fish they catch; however, circles do work in terms of causing less damage to the fish. In fact, some states now mandate the use of circle hooks when fishing bait for certain species.

7. Use Single Hooks with Lures:

Rigging your artificial lures with single hooks also improves the odds of the fish recovering after release. Plugs armed with 2 or even 3 treble hooks often cause a lot of damage, especially if the dangling hooks lodge in the fish’s eyes or gills. And cuts on the fish’s body caused by the hooks can lead to infection. Using single hooks not only causes less damage to the fish, it also makes them easier to release, thus reducing the amount of time it spends out of the water.

8. Don’t Use a Net:

As mentioned, handling a fish can remove its protective mucous coating, as can a net. Nets made of stiff, scratchy material can also remove scales and tangle with the lure or line, further prolonging the amount of time the fish spends out of water. Some nets are made especially for catch-and-release. These nets feature a shallower “bag” and smooth, plastic-coated mesh that causes less damage to the fish and makes it harder for hooks to get caught in the material.

9. Different Techniques for Different Fish:

Not every fish should be released in the same way. For example, an exhausted striped bass or bluefish may need to be revived by holding it by the tail and “swimming” it back and forth to push oxygenated water across its gills. False albacore, bonito and similar tuna-type fish, on the other hand, do not respond well to this technique. If the fish is landed and unhooked quickly while being kept in the water, it will usually swim off just fine on its own power. However, if the fish has endured a long fight or has spent more than a minute out of the water, it should be released by dropping it headfirst into the water, giving it a sort of jumpstart. As for tautog and sea bass, these remarkably hardy species seem to have little trouble heading for the bottom, even after being kept out of the water for long periods.

10. Know When to Quit:

Don’t spend too much time trying to remove a hook that is hopelessly lodged in the throat or stomach of a fish. While an attempt should be made to remove the hook with special tools, it’s sometimes best to simply cut the line as close to the hook as possible and let the fish go, rather than stressing it further. It’s a gamble of course, but fish have been known to survive with deeply embedded hooks.