Catch-and-release can play an important part in the maintenance program for any fishery. The striped bass has become one of the favorite quarry of the recreational fisherman and most striper fishermen are releasing fish because they are true sportsmen or are following laws that restrict both size and bag limits. Unfortunately, catch-and-release on the east coast from Maine to North Carolina has taken a hefty toll on the striper population. In 1999 recreational fishermen caught an estimated 14.2 million stripers, and they released about 90% of their catch. Sadly, of the 12.8 million stripers released, 1.02 million died from hooking or handling injuries. What can you do to improve the odds that the next striper you release will survive to be caught again or to continue its life cycle as a breeder? Below are some tips to help you answer this question. Please review these from time to time so they are fresh in your mind.
CRUSH BARBS ON ALL HOOKS. This applies to both lures and bait rigs. Hooks without barbs are much quicker to remove and cause less damage to the fishes flesh and a quicker release means less stress to the fish. Fishermen benefit as well as the fish. A quick release gets you back in the water quicker to get the next fish. Also, if you hook yourself by mistake the hook is easily removed. As far as losing fish because there is no barb, I have found by personal experience barbless hooks present very little risk. In fact I believe sometimes a barbless hook will penetrate better and the hook holds better because the fish is pulling against the bend in the hook. Try it you will like it.
MAKE A SPEEDY RELEASE. Don't waste time getting the fish back in the water. Have all tools required for the release handy. This would include such things as a net, pliers, measuring tape, tagging materials, and camera. Make sure cameras are loaded and ready to snap that picture. Time required to put film in the camera could result in a dead fish. Have a buddy help if it is a difficult release. Only tag fish in situations where it can be done very quickly, and only use tags that cause little trauma to the fish.
DEEPLY HOOKED FISH. Even with barbless hooks sometimes a fish gets deeply hooked. If the hook cannot be quickly and easily backed out, cut the leader as close to the hook as possible and get the fish back in the water immediately. The corrosive action of the fish's digestive juices and the salt water should get rid of the hook in a short time. Using bronze hooks is the best bet since they will deteriorate quickly.* Stainless steel hooks should not be used.
* This may not be a valid statement. There is concern that the dissolving metal may harm the fish. I am researching this problem. New
USE CIRCLE HOOKS. Recently the Maryland Department of Natural Resources made a study, which suggested that using non-offset circle hooks could sharply reduce mortality of released stripers. Stripers caught on conventional hooks were deep-hooked about 5 times as often as fish caught on non-offset circle hooks. Since deep-hooked fish are much more likely to die than lip-hooked fish, using circle hooks is highly recommended. The study indicated that 53% of fish deep-hooked on conventional hooks died, while the mortality rate of fish taken on circle hooks was 23.5%. Overall, 9.1% of stripers caught on conventional hooks died, as opposed to only .8% for fish taken on non-offset circle hooks. It is obvious that a wider use of circle hooks will benefit the striper population. 6/29/01 Update. This month I tried circle hooks bait fishing with sand eels and clams at Cape Cod. I prefer plugging for my fish but on occasion I will bait fish if the conditions so dictate. I caught about 30 bass on bait with small circle hooks with crushed barbs, and every one was hooked in the corner of the mouth making removal very simple. I missed only one fish that picked up a bait. You do not jerk the line to set a circle hook just start reeling when the fish take the bait. Sizing of circle hooks I have found to be confusing. A 10/0 hook is about the size of a regular 5/0 or 6/0 hook. Make sure you know what you are getting if you buy them mail order. The only drawback of the circle hooks I experienced was that putting on the sandeels or clams was more difficult. However the baits stayed on very well.
THE BEST RELEASE. Fishing in waders or from a small boat offers the best conditions for a safe release. Using single barbless hooked lures are preferred. Slide your hand down the leader to the lure and twist the hook out of the fish. If it is necessary to handle the fish, do so with the fish still in the water.
RELEASING IN THE SURF. If conditions permit, release fish without bringing them on the beach. If this is not possible because of rough surf or you are fishing without waders, bring the fish gently up on the beach avoiding the dry sand. Only bring up the fish far enough to unhook it quickly. Gently pick up the fish and return it to the area beyond the wash where the water is free of much suspended sand. If the fish is not in good shape swim it a little to help it gain oxygen by forcing some water through its gills.
Make sure the fish is swimming up right and has some strength before letting it go. Sometimes it takes a few minutes of swimming the fish before it is ready to swim away.
A little TLC can do the fish a lot of good, and it should make you feel good that you did the best you could to do a good release.
AVOID USING NETS. Using nets is not recommended unless you are in a large boat where reaching the fish is not possible. When netting fish to be released, put them gently on the deck where they can be unhooked quickly and return carefully to the water.
HANDLE FISH PROPERLY. No matter where you are landing a fish if you must handle the fish do it as gently as possible and keep it to a minimum. Sometimes putting a damp towel over it before handling can calm a wild fish. When holding a striper, support under its head with your thumb in its mouth and your other hand under its mid-section. There are no teeth to worry about though the inside of the mouth can be quit abrasive especially with the big fish. Try to avoid removing the slime from any fish since this can result in the fish becoming diseased.
AVOID FISHING IN HOT WEATHER. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources 1999 study verified that the mortality of fish released in very hot weather was very high. They found that when air temperatures were below 95 degrees, the death rate of hooked fish was just .8%, but when the temperature got over 95 degrees the death rate jumped to 17.2%. If you do a lot of catch-and-release fishing try to schedule your trip when the air temperatures are more favorable to the fish being released. Fishing the cooler weather is also more enjoyable for the fisherman. If it is hot when you are fishing, take extra precautions to make your releases as quickly as possible.
Please email me with any comments or additional tips on releasing fish.