Welcome to our annual Shallow Water issue. We know there are many digital and print publications from which to choose, so on behalf of our entire crew we’re truly grateful our most recent issue of Florida Sport Fishing is in your hands and we thank you for your continued support.
When fishing inshore across Florida’s many shallow water venues, we all release a vast majority of the game fish we catch. Maybe because the species has achieved trophy status like bonefish and tarpon, and are worth much more alive than dead. Maybe the fish is outside its slot limit or simply out of season, or maybe we don’t want to harvest more than we really need. You’d be surprised to learn how much fresh fish goes to waste because angler’s eyes and egos are bigger than their stomachs. In all of the above cases, every effort should be made to release fish quickly and unharmed, as anything else will result in post-release mortality. Whether it’s an extended fight, low oxygen levels or improper hook removal and release techniques, catch and release only benefits game fish populations when anglers take the necessary measures to maximize survival.
It’s important to keep in mind that just because you watch a fish swim away does not mean it will go on to live a healthy and meaningful life. If a large portion of the fish’s protective slime coat is jeopardized or if any damage is done to its eyes or gills, infection will set in. From there it’s a matter of time before it’s game over.
First and foremost, utilize the correct class equipment for the task at hand. Extended battles with powerful fish on light tackle could spell disaster. While it’s impossible for us to predict the size of every fish that may strike our bait or lure, we can certainly prepare accordingly for the target species.
Avoid touching the fish if you don’t have to. This is where a BogaGrip or similar lip-gripping device really shines. Touching any fish destined for release almost always seals its fate, especially with dry hands or worse yet, an abrasive hand towel. Think of it like road rash. You may not see it today, but within days the entire area may become infected and as you know, fish don’t have a primary physician or local emergency care center where they can receive antibiotics. Even a small infection puts any fish at huge risk against predation, as it may not be able to keep up with the rest of the pack and we all know what happens to the weak and wounded at the end of the line—adios amigo!
If you have no choice, do your best to avoid lifting the fish fully out of the water and make sure your hands are soaking wet. Support the fish horizontally to prevent injury to vital organs and get it back in the water as quickly as possible. Contrary to what you may believe, snook and bonefish cannot sustain a loss of oxygen for an extended period of time and continue on as if nothing happened. For many fish, the trauma doesn’t end with hook removal, as anglers often further exhaustion to get the perfect picture.
Stay away from treble hooks on stickbaits and plugs, which can easily be removed and replaced with single hooks. When fishing natural bait, circle-hooks should be a priority and if you aren’t already a firm believer in their effectiveness, you are missing the boat my good friend. In the hands of a skilled angler, not only do circle-hooks catch in the corner of the mouth 99 percent of the time, but they have also proven to increase hook up ratios by leaps and bounds. Barbless hooks are another option if you are certain the intended targets will be released. A time you might opt for such alternatives would be during a hot bluefish bite or full-on Spanish mackerel blitz where enough is enough. Fishing baits rigged with trebles, you could not only lose precious time unhooking fish rather than catching fish, but more importantly inflict unnecessary damage to fish intended for release.
When it comes to conservation, de-hooking devices are worth their weight in gold. Not only are they beneficial to the fish’s health and overall chance of survival, they are also easy to use and make short work of hook removal. Fishing pliers are a close second and should always be worn by every angler, inshore or off, novice or pro.
In any scenario, fish that are gaffed are not going to make it and should be harvested and appreciated on the grill or in the oven. If you had a severe stab wound and the injury was left unattended, what do you think would happen? When fishing inshore, a plastic coated landing net is the right tool for the job.
After a fight, especially a lengthy battle with heavy fish against light tackle, game fish overheat and can exhaust all of their energy fighting for their lives. You can’t just throw ‘em back and hope for the best. Sure, a juvenile mangrove snapper may scoot away unscathed, but that’s because it’s a brief encounter and the species is quite hardy. Large snook already exhausted from their spawn, over-slot reds and hefty tarpon all need time to regain their energy after a fight or flight scenario.
The benefits of proper catch and release tactics have proved vital to a number of important fisheries around the state, as it is a means of preserving and enhancing healthy fish populations. It is yet another way recreational anglers contribute to sport fishing’s long-standing commitment to conservation and preservation of our precious natural resources. As responsible stewards of the sea, it is our duty and in our best interest to make sure released fish are properly handled and cared for. By planning ahead and utilizing the appropriate tackle and release tactics, together we can make a difference.