Welcome to Eye of the Guide

Part Fourty-two

Mark Sosin's Guide To Releasing Fish

By Mark Sosin

We thank Mark Sossin for permission to share this information with our readers. For more good information check out his website at http://www.saltwaterjournal.com.

The jury reached its verdict a long time ago. Repeated tagging studies on a multitude of species from shark to striped bass and redfish to billfish demonstrate convincingly that the majority of fish can survive being caught if they are released correctly. Scientists confirm these findings. Jim Whittington, a state biologist in Florida who focuses his attention on the coveted snook, reports that there is only about a 3 percent mortality in a catch-and-release fishery for this species during the off season. A bleeding fish prompts the misconception that it will die anyway, so we might as well toss it in the fishbox. These animals don't suffer from hemophilia and don't bleed to death as readily as one would suspect. It's worth the effort to revive and release a bleeding fish. Tagging results show that many will survive.


Size, season, and bag regulations make the release of many fish species mandatory. Since you don't have an option, it's important that you become a fishery manager and make sure the fish survives. Even where regulations don't exist, a personal commitment to conservation through catch-and-release adds an extra measure of fun to a day on the water. Stressed fish populations (and that includes most of the popular recreational species) need your help to recover.


If you intend to release a fish, try to set the hook immediately so that your quarry does not swallow the bait or lure. Virtually any gamester can grab and swallow a bait in less than a single second. The idea that they must swim off with it, turn it around, mash it, or perform countless other operations is more speculation than reality. Sure there are times a fish will "mouth" a bait, but most swallow their prey instantly and try to grab another.

Once the fish is hooked, try to land it quickly. If you insist on playing your quarry to exhaustion, chances for survival diminish. If you are dragging a fish out of deep water, however, slow down so that the fish can adjust to the change in pressure and its swim bladder won't expand dramatically.

On lures with multiple treble hooks, it helps to remove one set of trebles or cut one hook off each set of trebles. I crush the barbs on my hooks (including trebles) primarily for easier penetration (one hooks more fish), but also to facilitate removing the hook.


Beginners often fall victim to captains who insist they must bring the dead fish back if the customer wants to have it mounted. The persuasive talk tries to convince you that you must kill the fish so that you will get YOUR fish back from the taxidermist. Today, almost all wall mounts are made from fiberglass molds and every part can be created to look as real as it did when the fish was alongside the boat. Don't let anyone tell you they need the bill and sail of a sailfish or the teeth of a barracuda. You can telephone any major taxidermist right now and order a fish mount of most popular species in whatever size you specify. They already have the molds. Even if you release a fish and later decide you want to hang a mount on the wall, make the phone call. That's all it really takes. The only exception is a rare and unusual species where they might want the whole fish to create the mold.


The first rule of release suggests you leave the fish in the water with its body just under the surface and don't handle it at all. Use a tool to remove the hook or, if the fish is hooked deeply, cut the leader as close to the mouth as practical. That creates the least amount of stress. A small gaff hook or a curved-end release tool enables you to engage the bend in the fishhook and pull it out against the barb while maintaining pressure on the leader. Once you learn this method, it's quick and easy.

Whether the fish is alongside the boat or in the surf, you want to keep it from thrashing and injuring itself. If necessary, use a net to land your quarry, remembering that the strands of the net help to remove the mucous body coating which protects the fish against infection. On larger animals, a short, release gaff slipped through the lower jaw helps to hold your quarry while you remove the hook. A tool called The Lipper holds the jaws of smaller fish without applying excessive pressure. Keep in mind that a tailer is another tool that enables you to handle a fish without injuring it. The tailer is slipped over the tail of the fish and pulled tight. You can then lift the fish out of the water backward and it usually does not struggle too much.

If you must handle a fish, use a wet glove or a towel to obtain a positive grip on the body. Sticking your fingers in the eyes of a fish or into the gills will seriously injure your quarry. You may certainly cover the eyes of the fish with a wet towel and turn it upside down. These moves tend to have a calming effect. Above all, get the fish back in the water as soon as possible.


Sharp teeth are not the only danger in handling a fish. Many species have spines on their fins or protruding from their bodies that can make nasty puncture wounds. Razor edges often trace along the gill plates and these can cut a hand easily. The key lies in knowing where to hold each species and to grip the fish firmly and securely without crushing it to death.

Sharks are one species you don't want to bring in the boat. If you can't remove the hook easily with a tool while the fish is in the water, cut the leader and let it swim off. Sharks have a cartilaginous skeleton instead of a bony one. This means they can just about bite their own tail. If you hold a shark improperly, the jaws will find your hand.

Other species such as dolphin or cobia will thrash around in a boat and may possibly injure themselves (or you) as well as destroy valuable equipment. If possible, deal with them in the water or use a tailer and a glove for more control.


No matter what material they are made from, hooks do not rust out in a couple of days. Rust requires oxygen and there isn't a lot of oxygen floating around underwater. It is true, however, that fish are often able to work a hook loose and, in many instances, they can feed normally with a hook in their mouth.

Having said that, it is important to remove the hook if you can do so without damaging vital organs of the fish. There are special tools that help remove hooks when they are imbedded deep in the throat. Needle-nose pliers, hemostats, hookouts and other devices often allow you to reach deeper in the mouth. It's a judgement call. If you are going to hurt the fish, leave the hook where it is and cut the leader as close to the jaw as possible.

Avoid jerking or popping the leader to break it with the hook in the fish. The hook tends to tear and often damages vital organs causing the fish to eventually die. Anglers fishing release tournaments for billfish sometimes resort to this practice. It can kill the fish even though the angler intended to release his catch.


If you want to estimate the weight of a fish before releasing it, there is a simple formula. All you need to do is measure the length and the girth of the fish. Square the girth, multiply it by the length and divide by 800 for the basic cylindrical fish shape. For a long, thin fish such as a barracuda, divide by 900 instead of 800.

A soft, sewing tape measure works best, but you have some options. The easiest is to measure with a piece of monofilament and then worry about the length of the mono after the fish has been released. You can make a tool to give you the length by attaching some parachute cord to a snap swivel. Mark the cord every 12 inches. When the fish is alongside the boat, snap the cord around your leader and let it stream back to the nose of the fish. You can then eyeball the length. The same cord can be wrapped around the fish quickly to give you the girth.


Sailfish and marlin rank as the offshore glamour species and most anglers choose to release them. Stocks of blue and white marlin in the Atlantic, for example, are at less than 25 percent of maximum sustainable yield. They're in serious trouble.

Follow the same procedures as you would with any other species. Try to control the fish at boatside and remove the hook if at all possible. With sailfish, white marlin, and smaller blue marlin, one can grab the bill and hold the head of the fish underwater (it remains calmer) while the hook is being removed. If you do grab the bill, make sure your thumbs face each other. That keeps the fish from jumping toward you, because your hands and arms will lead the fish clear automatically. There is a relatively new tool that can be slipped over the bill of a sailfish and marlin, enabling you to control the fish and hold the head underwater while the hook is removed and the fish is being tagged. This tool should be on the market about the time you read this.

If you are going to place a tag in a sail or marlin, try to get the fish alongside the boat first. Attempting to stab a fish with a long tag stick while it is airborne defeats the purpose. The tag must be planted in the shoulder of the fish well back from the head and gills. Those anglers and mates who jab at the fish often miss the target area and wind up puncturing the body cavity which causes the death of the billfish.


This is the critical moment. You don't want your quarry to turn belly up, sink, or ease off without enough strength to avoid a larger predator. The easiest method is to simply place the fish in the water facing into the current or any flow of water while you support its belly and hold the tail gently. If the fish needs resuscitation, work it back and forth gently, forcing water through its gills. You will sense when the fish regains strength. At that point, it will actually swim out of your hands.

With a billfish, hold your quarry by the bill and force the head underwater. Have someone kick the boat in gear and move forward very slowly. This pushes oxygen through the gills and the fish will eventually be ready to swim off.

If you release a fish and it turns over or doesn't swim off, try to get the fish again and resuscitate it until it is able to swim on its own. A fish taken from deep water usually has an expanded air bladder and cannot return to depth until the air is pushed out. The easiest way to handle this is with an ice pick or hook point. Puncture the air bladder, squeeze the air out, and release the fish. It should go down.

Although scientists recommend a gentle release without tossing the fish back unceremoniously, there are times when a more forceful water entry makes a difference. Sometimes with tunas and bonitos its best to push the fish into the water head first, driving it as deep as you can. The same approach works with other species that come up from deeper water such as amberjack.

If you handle a fish with care and release it correctly, your quarry stands an excellent chance of survival. To me, there's no greater sight on the water than to watch a proud gamefish swim off slowly with nothing hurt more than its pride. Try it; releasing fish becomes habit forming and makes you feel good in the process.~ Mark Sossin

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