The first few weeks of spring are the most magical time of year for anglers. As the days get longer and the mercury slowly makes its climb back in to an acceptable range, our minds are more often wandering to our favorite fishing holes. Even writing this I can picture my favorite stretch of creek, the trees that hang over the holes are budding and soon the schools of chubs will be tailed by the shadow of the predators we seek. As more and more of us make the first trips back out into the water, and with Tournament of Bronze just around the river bend, I thought this might be the best time to give a refresher on proper catch and release techniques to help ensure that the fighters we love are properly freed.
Keep em Wet: This one is deceptively simple. Fish live in water so they tend to do better when they stay there. The more we minimize a fish’s time out of water during unhooking and for the pictures that always follow a great catch, the better our populations will do both in numbers and size. Most fish are absolutely reliant on their protective slime coating. Consider it their immune system, helping to protect them from infection and parasites. The more this coating dries out or is rubbed off during landing the higher the chances that fish will die a slow death days later. Wetting your hands before handling fish, not beaching fish or placing them on the ground, and not grabbing them with gloves/towels/ or any other cloth is a super simple way to help ensure these fish will still be swimming the next time you visit your favorite hole.
Support Our Fish: A good old fashioned “Bass Thumb” is about the best indicator that someone has had a pretty damn good day. While bass are much tougher than trout, (by the way please don’t lip trout, it is almost always a dead fish) it is still quite possible to break a fishes jaw when lipped incorrectly. Always try to support the fishes body horizontally with a hand under the tail or body and and try to avoid wrenching the lip while unhooking fish. You should always be mindful of the locations of a trouts vital organs. Beware the infamous “Death Grip”. A rubber bag net is your new best friend.
Better for Fish and the Backs of Heads: I avoided barbless hooks for years in fear they would negatively affect my hook up rate. I was terrified I would hook up with the fish of a lifetime and not having a barb would be the reason that fish came unbuttoned. That all changed one day when I was casting a Clouser Minnow in my neighborhood pond on a very windy day and an errant cast sent my fly directly into my shoulder blade. Luckily the fly had stopped just past the barb and it only took me about 10 minutes to extricate myself from a fairly painful situation but it could have been worse. Since that day I’ve either bought barbless flies or always take the 30 seconds to pinch my barbs. Since then I’ve discovered that barbless flies not only make it unequivocally easier to unhook fish I’ve landed but actually give me better hookups and have made me better at fighting fish. A hook without a barb penetrates a fishes mouth like butter and in my opinion I get better hookups with less effort. Not having a barb to use as a crutch forced me to always be vigilant of my line tension and how I was playing fish. Plus, when you spend as much time as I do in no name, headwater creeks, a barbless fly can be the difference between spending a few seconds unhooking the 84th green sunfish of the day and spending the entire afternoon cursing at fish because HOW DID YOU GET THAT FLY SO DEEP IN YOUR TINY FACE?!
Gotta Go Fast: Speed is key in fishing. Whether is the speed of the water we are fishing or the speed of our retrieve it is always on our minds as we fish. One more place we should be thinking about speed is how we land fish. Fish played to exhaustion have a much lower survival rate due to lactic acid build up and stress than those that are played properly. Horse a fish as safely as you can without risking a break off and the fish will thank you for it. Sort of. They’re still fish.
Promote Conservation Correctly: If you have spent any amount of time on a Facebook fishing group you know exactly what I’m about to talk about. Someone posts a picture of a mishandled fish and the comments will almost inevitably turn into a dumpster fire. The angry catch and release guys fire the opening salvo of judgmental comments, the original poster just repeats that the fish swam away fine after some rough handling, the catch and eat guys start posting pictures of dead fish in retaliation, names are called, mothers are insulted and everyone walks away feeling superior while the moderators throw their phones at the wall and pour a drink. In reality, what happened in this situation is a great opportunity to educate a fellow angler was squandered. No one one ever learned anything by being dogpiled on the internet. Most people in that situation get much more defensive than if someone had come to them in a more positive tone. Talk to your fellow anglers as friends, we are all out here because we love to fish. You won’t be able to help everyone but you will sure educate a lot more if you follow the golden rule; Don’t be a jerk to strangers.
A Quick Note on Eating Fish: I haven’t kept a fish in a few years now. It’s just not why I fish and truth be told, I don’t particularly enjoy the taste of fish. There are certain fish to me that shouldn’t be kept because of the value they bring and because it’s my own personal belief. Smallmouth bass are a slow growing, hard fighting, native fish. It takes over a decade for these fish to reach a “trophy” size. They embody the spirit of not only fly fishing but of the Ozarks perfectly to me. Wild trout are such a relatively rare jewel in this state and one strain in particular is virtually nowhere else in the country. Both of these fish are so much more valuable alive and to me are too precious to simply be stuck on a stringer to be eaten But I was raised watching In-Fisherman. Doug Stange is (obviously) a much better angler than me and one of the things he preached is Selective Harvest. I ate a lot of fish growing up. I believe in my heart fishing and hunting is the most ethical means to procure meat for your table, and I believe that children should learn that for their dinner to be here something had to give it’s life. It’s an important lesson and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. They should just learn that lesson with a Walleye and not a Smallmouth.
Good catch and release grows just like every other skill in fishing. I have pictures that I couldn’t have been more proud of when I took them that I’m embarrassed to see now. Fish on the ground,covered in dirt, knowing that I had them out of water for too long because I didn’t know any better. I keep them around to remind myself that I’m better than I was then and I’ll be even better tomorrow. Proper fish handling and education is one of the easiest ways every angler can help their favorite rivers improve. We all want to see these waters stay as bountiful and beautiful as we can. So let’s do our part to make sure that happens.
Be good to each other. Tight Lines. Free. The. Fighter.