Sooner or later, for reasons ranging from fishing strictly for the fun of it to catching undersized crappies or out-of-season bass, there will come a time when you’ll want to release your catch. And while your actions might seem noble on the surface, they’ll amount to releasing dead fish swimming if you’re not careful.
One of the worst things you can do to a fish is to catch it on tackle that’s too light for its size. Battling trophy steelhead with four-pound tippets and keeper muskies with eight-pound test exhausts the quarry, often to the point where it can’t recover. Horsing it in on a strong line actually preserves its strength.
This is especially true in fast, shallow water like the Salmon River. Steelies, browns and salmon earned the status of game fish because of their brute strength and stamina. Streams are littered with boulders, logs and debris, and the longer the fish fight, the greater their risk of being injured by running into something or landing on it after leaping.
Worst still is if you hook one in mild weather. Salmonids are coldwater species with a low tolerance for high temperatures. Each June through August, the Salmon River carries away countless landlocked Atlantic salmon and Skamania cadavers that never recovered from “sporting” contests with man.
The heaviest losses come when anglers photograph their trophies. Incredibly, after the fish has just fought for its life and needs to catch its breath, it’s removed from the water, admired, photographed, tickled, kissed, whatever. It’s the equivalent of you running the marathon, and right when you cross the finish line having someone dunk your head underwater for a few minutes.
Given a chance to catch its breath, a fish generally calms down. It’ll squirm around a bit but eventually stops. If you have to have a hero shot, wet your hands, lift it gently and quickly, take your photo and put it back in the water. Better still take a shot of it in the water with you kneeling next to it.
Always wet your hands before touching fish, particularly members of the pike and salmonid families, species plated in soft, small scales. Their slime is like a second skin, protecting them from parasites and bacteria. A dry hand removes it, leaving the bare spot vulnerable to life threatening infections.
Never lift a northern pike by the eye sockets. All game fish are sight feeders–that’s why they hit lures and flies. Poking one in the eyes, then lifting it can damage its vision. Blinding one amounts to a death sentence.
Avoid holding a bass by jamming your thumb and index fingers into its mouth and lifting it by the lower jaw so it suspends horizontally. While that pose might look great in magazines and on-line, it can injure, even break the bass’s jaw–and that can’t be good.
Be gentle when you’re removing a hook. Don’t just rip it out; wiggle it around to work it out. If it’s deep, cut the leader and leave it in the fish. If it’s in the throat, the fish can sometimes work it out or it’ll rust away with time. If it’s in the gut, the fish’s stomach acids will eventually dissolve it.
Never hold a large fish in a vertical position. Made to swim, its internal organs are designed to sit horizontally. When you lift it vertically, it has no muscles to support its innards and they can break away from their proper positions.
Cold, slimy and generally silent (bullheads and sheepshead can make sounds) fish are often treated like inanimate objects. But they are alive and all life is delicate. By exercising a little care and gentleness in the handling of those we plan on releasing, we not only mitigate the pain and terror of being yanked out of their habitat, we increase their chances to thrive and fight another day–maybe even spawn.