Respect the fishery with catch-and-release best practices for trout and river
Fish deal with dozens of stressors after they’re caught, least of which is a hook in their mouths. Here are the seven top factors that impact fish survival after a catch:
1. Angling time (aka “fight time” the fish spends on a line)
2. Handling (how long and roughly the fish is touched)
3. Air exposure (how long the fish spends out of water)
4. Water temperature (the lower the temp, the higher the survival odds)
5. Last time the fish fed (when it last had food for the fight)
6. Last time the fish was caught and handled (when it last encountered another human)
7. Spawning (is the fish weakened by reproduction?)
Carol Northcut is first to admit she’s no fan of handling fish. But if it means the difference between life and death for her catch, the avid angler is also first to study up on the right — and wrong — ways to help local fish fight another day.
At the June meeting for Trout Unlimited in Frisco, Northcut, who’s vice president for the Gore Range chapter of the national nonprofit, gave a presentation on the latest catch-and-release techniques. Believe it or not, Northcut told the group of about 20, properly caring for a fish after it has been caught takes more than yanking a hook and tossing it back. It takes time, care, foresight and a little bit of affection for the local fishery, even if you’re no fan of fish slime.
Why, then, is catch-and-release fishing important? It comes down to the popularity of local waterways. From Lake Dillon to the Blue River, thousands of anglers fish these waters for thousands of fish, meaning they’re under much more stress than in less-populated areas, or the hatcheries where some of the larger, more mature local fish spent their early years.
Not only does releasing fish protect the population as it is now — it also protects future generations. That’s right: By properly catching and releasing a Summit County rainbow trout, you’re helping male fish stay healthy enough to attract healthy females, which in turn leads to a whole mess of fry after spawning season. It’s the circle of life.
Once a fish is on your line, the hook in its mouth is only one of its worries (see sidebar). If you’re lucky enough to bring it to shore, then boost your catch’s luck by keeping it in the water until you’re ready for the obligatory photo and to remove the lure. A mere 10 seconds outside of the water is enough to do physiologic damage to a fish, according to a 1992 study that Northcut cited, and survival rate dips as low as 20 percent after 60 seconds. Imagine going blow-for-blow with a prizefighter and then holding your breath for a minute (or more) between rounds, and you have a good idea what the fish is going through.
Northcut recommends a few simple tactics to protect fish from catch to release, beginning with proper angling technique. If you can, then avoid fighting the fish for long periods of time. Not only do the odds of reeling him in go down — you also weaken the fish to the point of serious fatigue.
Research shows the mortality rate is nearly 90 percent when a fish is exhausted from fighting an angler, so be sure to use tackle or lures appropriate for the largest fish you’re ready to catch.
Next comes the net. Northcut suggests rubber netting, not cloth, which can scour the fish’s scales and remove needed slime. The same thing happens when you handle him for too long with bare hands.
Speaking of bare hands, when it’s time for a photo, hold the fish as you would a human child. Seriously — squeezing the ribs, holding by the tail, yanking on the fins and dropping from height all can cause serious damage to a fish’s internal organs.
Of course, Northcut suggests always keeping forceps or a Ketchup Release tool handy to remove the hook.
And, of course, that hook really shouldn’t be barbed in the first place (these aren’t marlins or barracudas we’re catching).
Finally, you’ve got to release the fish with a real, legitimate chance of survival, and that goes beyond dumping her back in the drink. When reviving the fish, Northcut said, find slow-moving water (about 1 foot per second) and face the fish upstream to force water — and air — over her body. If water is still, then move her slowly in a figure-eight motion to get the same effect. If possible, release the fish near cover, such as rocks or grass, to let her catch her breath in peace.
Remember: You and that rainbow went 12 rounds. Respect her (or his) fight and give her a chance to fight another day.