By Frances Estes
“On a planned release, when I know the fish is mine, a terrible anxiety comes over me to get him unhooked and put back in the water as quickly as possible.
“I find myself talking to him, saying silly things like, ‘Take it easy, fellow, you’ll be free in a minute’ and ‘Okay, okay, hold still now.’ And on the release, ‘Go grow a little’ or ‘There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?’
“I feel like a mother sending a child out into the world, worrying about its safety. Mostly, though, I think, ‘Thank you for taking my fly and letting me see you in all your glory.’”
My fishing background prior to fly fishing has always been very limited due to the main reason that I do not like slimy, wiggly, live bait nor the idea of what you do with the fish that you do catch. Scaling, gutting, and head chopping are not my idea of a fun day fishing. My interest in fly fishing grew rapidly once I heard the concept of “Catch and Release”. Fishing with artificial flies just for the sake of fishing held much promise. Catching a fish and releasing it for others to catch and enjoy not only serves the interests of future generations but also meets my requirements of fishing for fun rather than food. Obviously, it’s much cheaper to run to the grocery store for fish priced around $5 a pound than the investment we have in our gear, time, and travel to go fishing.
Catch and release was first used in America in the 1950’s in the Michigan area to protect and cut down on the cost of stocked trout. Lee Wulff recognized the importance of C and R as the Atlantic salmon populations began to slide. Obviously, the novel idea caught on and has endured through the years. So much, that some waters are now strictly catch and release. Not only does C and R protect our fish populations, it ensures our personal involvement with conservation and makes you feel more connected and protective of our waters.
It is not enough to just toss your catch back into the water. You must use the proper techniques to up the odds that the fish will survive to bend a rod another day. Using barbless hooks or crimping the barb, you should try and land your fish in a timely manner so as not to cause additional stress to their systems. It is recommended to release the fish without removing it from the water, or at best, quickly return the fish to the water after it’s unhooked. There are several tools on the market that allow you to slide the tool down your line and disengage or back the hook from the fish’s mouth. Typically, you don’t have to touch your fish using this tool. You can perform this technique with the fish in the net at your side. This allows the fish’s protective, slime coating to remain undisturbed and intact thus shielding the fish from scale abrasions and bacterial infection. It may take a few tries to perfect this release. If you find that you need to remove the fish from the water, first wet your hands, (this protects the slime coating), and gently lift the fish from the water supporting the body. Some fish like large mouth bass can be “lipped” or raised by the lower lip. Some say you can turn a fish on its back to calm it when removing the hook (to me, this sounds like you might be on the verge of being a “fish whisperer”). Back the hook out of the fish either by hand or with your forceps. If you cannot remove the hook, simply cut the tippet or line at the hook eye. The hook will eventually rust out of the fish, or more typically, be shaken free from the fish’s mouth.
Fish that are large and take longer to land or have been “played” longer may require some resuscitation. With the fish in the water, point its mouth into the stream flow or up stream. This aerates the fish and helps to revive them. Hold them with the water flowing into their mouths until they recover enough to swim off by themselves.
When fishing on a dock, never bring the fish in and let it flop around on the dock or any other hard surface. This bruises the fish and can cause internal injuries, which can later kill the fish. Also never toss or throw a fish back into the water. Be gentle with your catch when handling and releasing, no squeezing.
Personal safety should also factor into catch and release. Know your fish and which ones need special handling, such as catfish. All fish have spines in their fins that can cause painful puncture wounds if you forcefully grab the fish.
If you want to photograph your catch, leave the fish in the water while you or the photographer can ready the camera. With wet hands, a quick removal from the water and back down should allow for a couple of shots. Cool shots can also be taken of the fish in the water or in your net. Cameras capable of underwater shots are also a great way to capture the moment.
Catch and Release has become my fishing creed. I feel responsible for the fish I catch and my active role in conserving the sport that brings me so much enjoyment. Additional C and R information can be found on the Internet for specific species of fish. It’s more challenging with larger saltwater fish. Big chomping teeth are another story for another day!