The term explains itself. An angler catches a fish and then lets it go, alive, back to the water.
At first, it was mostly fly fishermen and muskie enthusiasts who were doing it. But now there are more people picking up on it–serious anglers concerned with the future of fishing in North America.
They are the men and women willing to take action to preserve their sport and return keeper fish to the water.
The greatest cause of death in released fish is hook injuries. Research into hook mortality has sparked controversy but some conclusions are generally accepted. There is no argument, for instance, that a swallowed hook, or one taken fairly deep, is more likely to kill a fish than a hook in the lip will.
Just how deadly a swallowed hook can be depends on what study you read but it is safe to say a fish hooked deeply has about eight times greater chance of dying than one hooked in the lip or jaw.
So how does an angler keep a fish from swallowing the hook? Here’s where the controversy develops. Fish caught on natural baits are more likely to be deeply hooked than ones taken on artificial lures.
In essence, it means that a fish swallows a nightcrawler but only bites a crankbait.
A hook that is swallowed, or one you cannot easily remove, is less lethal when left in a fish than when removed forcibly. Nearly all experts agree it is better to cut the shank of the hook with a wire cutter, or snip the leader, than try to rip the hook out and leave the fish with a bleeding wound.
Stress kills fish, and nothing stresses a fish faster than suddenly being pulled in a direction it doesn’t want to go by a hook in its mouth. The longer a fish is kept fighting on a line, the more progressive the effect of the stress–and the greater chance it will die.
Part of the thrill of fishing is playing the fish skillfully, letting it tire itself out before you net it. If an angler wants to keep his catch, fighting the fish to exhaustion is fine. But if the fish is obviously smaller than keeper size or larger than a keeper, you are better off getting it in the boat as soon as possible so it can be released.
Some experts tell me it takes a fish somewhere between 20-40 minutes to recover from stress for each minute spent between being hooked and being released.
Fish that are going to be returned alive should be handled carefully. If possible, remove the hook without taking the fish out of the water. When it’s necessary to take the fish from the water, try to do it with a net to keep pressure off the hook.
Another benefit of netting is that it helps the angler control the fish’s movements. A hooked fish can injure itself flopping against the bottom or sides of a boat. It also may be damaged internally by the angler squeezing the fish too hard while holding it to remove the hook.
If a fish is simply lip hooked, the hook usually can be removed by hand. Most of the time, and especially with bigger fish, it’s better to use needle-nosed pliers or a commercial hook remover.
Wet your hands before handling a fish. If your hands are dry, you remove the slimy coat that envelops the fish, which serves as a barrier against fungus and bacteria
When a fish is out of the water, it cannot breathe so it’s important not to have it out in the air for too long. And avoid just tossing the fish back into the water if you want to catch that same one another day.
Instead, place the fish in the water, holding it gently in both hands, and move it forward and backward gently through the water. This artificial respiration forces water through the gills, giving the fish the oxygen it lacks.
Truly, the future of fishing rests in your hands. Only you can manage this great natural resource and allow those fish to fight another day.
Practice catch-and-release whenever possible, and the future will be bright for all generations to come.