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Thoughts on Releasing Fish

Blog by: David Coulson , Colorado 2/6/2017
Hunting and fishing have been part of my life as long as I can remember.  Both held equal status with me throughout my younger years, until I was in my thirties. 

I enjoy eating game, so what changed?  At some point in my marriage, I noticed that the only time we ate what I harvested was when I cooked it.  Sue was doing most of the cooking at the time. When I asked her why she wasnít selecting game for dinner, she admitted she wasnít overly fond of it. It wasnít something sheíd eaten before weíd married.

I enjoy hunting, but Iím not one to harvest something Iím not personally going to eat.  The thing about hunting is catch and release really isnít possible.  OK, a camera can be substituted for a gun, but the truth is, Iíd rather fish than take pictures.  So I gave up hunting and fished more. Fishing allows me to capture fish, take a photograph if I wish, and then release them to fight again another day.  

While Iíd like to believe every fish Iíve released has survived the encounter, Iíve read enough studies to realize that itís likely a few didnít.  No matter how carefully you release fish, some will die.  There are a number of reasons for this.  Exhausted fish may not recover or are too weak to avoid predation.  For example, bonefish are often targets of barracuda or sharks upon release, as they donít have the strength to get away. Damage due to poor handling, hook damage, and long exposure to air are a few more reasons the fish may perish after release.

Does that mean we shouldnít release fish?  No, it means we should recognize that catching fish has the potential to kill it.  If itís obvious the fish wonít likely survive, then, when legal to do so, the ethical thing to do is harvest the fish. For those fish we choose to release, we should take care to maximize its chances for survival.

Ask anyone whatís the best way to handle fish and youíll get a myriad of answers, some conflicting, but itís not difficult if we keep a few things in mind. First, remember fishís gills are like our lungs.  Never keep a fish out of the water any longer than you can hold your breath after running hard for as long as you fought the fish.  If youíre hurting for air, you know the fish likely will be too.  Second, itís best to leave the fish in the water while removing the hook.  While I donít see barbless hooks as a necessity, they do make removing them from the fish and you a whole lot easier. 

Third, minimize your handling of the fish and keep in mind fish live most of their lives supported by water.  Holding the fish in your hands puts the fish at risk in several ways.  One, you can remove or damage the protective ďslimeĒ coating, exposing the fish to infection.  Two, squeezing/gripping fish risks damaging internal organs. Three, fingers touching the gills can easily damage these delicate organs. Four, holding fish by the jaw, especially big fish, risks breaking the jaw or damaging internal organs. Point is, while fish may be relatively hardy creatures in the water, theyíre not designed to be out of water.

With spring just around the corner, fishing, and hopefully catching, will be in full swing.  While fish make excellent table fare, should you decide to release part or all of your catch, keeping them in the water and handling fish gently will go a long way to ensuring they survive to fight another day.

Published in Fort Coloradoan, Feb 5, 2017
Blog content © David Coulson
Blog Comments
Lloyd Tackitt, TX   2/6/2017 1:44:05 PM
Fishing, like hunting, is a blood sport. Even with C&R, it is still a blood sport. While I no longer hunt because I no longer care to kill game animals and don't care if others still enjoy it, good for them - I fish and primarily release. But I recognize as well that some of the released fish may die, and so it remains a blood sport. Which is okay by me.
bardkin, CO   2/6/2017 10:50:21 PM
I totally agree with everything here. Proper handling of fish doesnt guarantee survival, but that doesnt mean you gotta take them either. Those fish that do not survive the encounter and are tossed back will add to the biomass of the river or lake, which is probably better in most cases. It isn't really a morale situation, but a responsibility of the sportsman. And I am all in favor of keeping a few here and there, but C&R the rest of the time.
nlwreeds, CO   2/10/2017 2:55:04 PM
In my experience, I've noticed that different species can tolerate different amounts of handling. Bass and trout seem to handle the ordeal rather well, while yellow perch seem to be the most delicate.
David Coulson (Flyrodn), CO   2/10/2017 3:02:21 PM
There's no doubt different species have different tolerances to handling. Also, size, time of year, environmental factors (freezing air temps), and other factors also effect how any fish will tolerate being caught and released.
Dave Mauldin, TX   2/12/2017 6:10:42 PM
I also quit hunting for fishing for the exact same reasons. I agree with everything you have stated so well. I am a big supporter of catch and release, and also don't mind harvesting a few under the right circumstances.