The whole idea of catch-and-release is returning fish to the water alive and able to resume normal activity, preferably without becoming immediate prey for other predators. The presumption, of course, is that the fish will be unharmed and that it is able to survive being hooked, played, landed, handled, unhooked, revived, andreleased. Each of these elements can be a factor in the two most important issues that affect a fish’s ability to survive: injury and stress.
Most aspects of these elements are pretty obvious, the effects well known, and the preventive measures generally well understood. To highlight the proper steps to accomplish them, here is a summary explanation of my Twelve Commandments for Catch-and-Release.
1. Do not freespool a fish that has struck live or dead bait, or lures that might be taken deep. Set the hook quickly to keep bait or lures from being swallowed.
Letting a fish run with bait may mean that the fish swallows it. Set the hook as soon as you get a solid strike. The longer you wait, the more likely the fish will be deeply hooked, which increases the chance of hooking-related injury or mortality.
2. Use a circle hook with bait whenever possible.
If you use a circle hook with live or dead bait, there’s a much greater chance of the fish being captured in the mouth when you strike -- especially if you also observe Commandment #1.
3. Play and land the fish quickly.
Playing the fish until it is exhausted, or “belly up,” may lead to lactic acid buildup and death.
The sooner you’re able to unhook it the sooner you can revive it, if necessary, and return it to the water.
4. Do not confine fish that will be released.
While there are some exceptions, for most people and in most circumstances, confining fish is seldom preferable to immediately reviving and releasing them.
5. Minimize handling; keep the fish in water whenever possible.
Releasing a fish without bringing it into the boat, into a net, or in hand, is the best way to minimize harm. Unhook and release a fish in the water whenever you can.
6. If you must hold the fish, do so firmly but gently; use a wet hand, glove, or towel. Snap a photo quickly.
Control the fish properly so you can quickly unhook it. If you’re taking a photograph, have your camera accessible and ready beforehand. Make it a quick shot.
7. Do not let the fish flop around.
It can harm you and harm the fish. Bring it under proper control the moment you capture it.
8. Keep fingers and objects out of the gills and eyes.
Grabbing fish by placing a hand in the gills is the biggest mistake anglers make in holding fish for unhooking or for photographs.
9. Use a long-nose pliers or other tool for extracting hooks.
It’s safer and more reliable than using your fingers.
10. If a fish is hooked in the esophagus or stomach, cut the line.
Don’t try to extricate a hook that is deep in these areas. This may not get the hook back and likely will cause further harm to the fish. Hooks are cheap, and most will rust out in a reasonable time, giving the fish a chance to survive.
11. Revive a tired fish by holding it upright and moving it forward or from side to side.
Oxygen reaches the fish through water that comes into the mouth and goes over the gill filaments. So moving the fish backwards and forwards is not as helpful as forward-only movement.
12. Return the fish to the water gently and headfirst.
There’s no need to literally “throw” it back. That’s lazy. Take the soft approach.