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Sportfishing Magazine: Feb 2006



A guide to properly releasing some of our most popular gamefish

By Capt. John McMurray


Every year, in more locations around the world, more anglers enjoy the pleasures of catch-and-release fishing. In addition to voluntarily freeing trophies, anglers release fish of all sizes. Some are let go because of size-limit regulations, but many survive because of angler ethics and peer pressure.

However, not all released fish do survive. To make sure catch-and-release fishing remains a viable conservation strategy, fish handling is crucial. Fishermen often debate the various methods and practices of proper release, so we asked a number of experts to explain the best current techniques for several popular species.



Although anglers like to pose with their defeated quarry, removing even a small billfish from the water can damage the animal. Dr. Eric Prince of NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center notes that bringing a billfish aboard stresses it, particularly if the fish starts thrashing.  Scraping the fish’s body along the gunwale can also strip away its protective coating of slime and subject it to the crippling effects of gravity. Large fish are particularly likely to sustain internal organ and skeletal damage when their weight is no longer supported by water.

To perform an in-water release, one deckhand should guide the fish to the side of the boat while the captain keeps the vessel moving ahead slowly. A second deckhand then removes the hook.

Traditionally, a mate would dehook the fish by reaching down and grabbing its bill then working the hook free. However, “billing” is losing popularity.  Today’s alternative involves using a “snooter,” a plastic PVC pipe with a rope running inside, connected to a stainless-steel cable loop.  The mate places the loop over the bill, then the cable is pulled tight by hand or by tying the rope off to a cleat.  Once the fish is under control, the hook can be easily removed. 

Some anglers cut the leader rather than attempt hook removal. However, scientists who have reviewed hundreds of tagged and recaptured billfish noted that about 25 percent of the time, hooks left in fish remained for more than a year, many causing infections. Thus, removing hooks – with a dehooking device -- is advisable if it wouldn’t further endanger the animal.

If you deeply hook a fish, cutting the leader as close to the hook as possible might be the best option. But deep-hooking can be avoided by using circle hooks, which are widely endorsed by fisheries scientists. Research has clearly demonstrated that circles minimize not only gut-hooked fish, but foul-hooked fish as well. 

Billfish often need to be resuscitated before release. Reviving a billfish can be as simple as keeping the fish secured with a snooter while towing it slowly. When the fish shows signs of regaining strength, the mate slackens the rope, loosening the wire and freeing the fish.

Mates also use heavy tackle outfitted with a nylon-cord leader. They tie the cord with a slipknot to the upper portion of the fish’s bill, then tow the animal slowly 40 to 50 yards behind the boat. As the fish regains  strength, it alters its position in the water column, decreasing the angle of the line. Once the angle drops to about 45 degrees, the crew can lead the fish back to the boat and release the slipknot. This approach tends to take the guesswork out of determining a fish’s recovery status. 

Attempting to release a “green” fish carries its own risks, to the crew and the fish. Frantic boatside thrashing can cause fatal injuries if the fish slams itself against the hull. 





Avoid Light Tackle

            Although we don’t like to hear their warnings, experts remind us that using inadequate tackle often extends a fish fight and may increase mortality rates. Over time and under stress, billfish suffer from lactic-acid and carbon-dioxide buildup, which can prove fatal. Longer fights also make billfish more susceptible to predators after release.

David Itano, researcher at the University of Hawaii Pelagic Fisheries Research Program, states that minimizing the stress of the fight, handling the fish properly and reducing its time out of the water are key to successfully releasing tuna. If you remove a tuna from the water, place it on a smooth, padded mattress wet with cool seawater. Such treatment reduces stress, mucous loss and potential mortality.





Tuna can literally fight themselves to death because they’re warm-blooded compared with other fishes. Tunas can “… maintain their body temperatures well above the temperature of the surrounding waters,” says David Itano, researcher at the University of Hawaii Pelagic Fisheries Research Program. “Their circulation system includes an amazing countercurrent heat exchanger that conserves heat generated by physical exertion. That gives them advantages in foraging in productive cool waters and speeds digestion to fuel their activities. Unfortunately, this system can backfire during an extended fight on sport tackle, causing the fish to overheat, causing lactic acid buildups -- a potentially fatal situation”

Dr. Gregory Skomal, with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, says that lactic acid can cause tunas to experience higher rates of physiological disturbance than other fishes – perhaps 10 times higher than striped bass or blue sharks. To improve a tuna’s chances, Skomal recommends anglers keep fight times under 15 minutes whenever possible and use appropriate tackle to match the quarry.

Because tuna lack a bill, they can’t be controlled in the water as easily as billfish. However, the basic technique of bringing a fish alongside a moving boat for release is the same. Lead the fish, keeping its head in the water as much as possible. If you must lift its head, do so quickly. If the hook must be worked out, periodically dunk the tuna’s head back in the water.

Reviving a tired fish is also important, since tuna, like billfish, are “obligate ram ventilators” that must move forward to breathe. For that reason, the hook should not be removed until a fish shows signs of being ready to move off on its own. 

Again, the use of circle hooks is strongly recommended. Dr. Carl Safina, president of the Blue Ocean Institute in Cold Spring Harbor, NY, finds that when “chunking” for tuna, leaving the reel in gear rather than in free-spool greatly reduces deep-hooking. Contrary to popular belief, such hooks can be easily removed with a little practice, either by gripping the hook and popping it out of the jaw by hand or by using a specially designed dehooker. 

Another method is to grab the curve of the hook inside the fish’s mouth and, rather than trying to back the hook out, pull the shank and eye of the hook through the hole in the fish’s jaw. With the line still running through the hole, you can guide the fish until it regains strength. When it’s ready to go, cut the line using a knife or scissors with one hand while holding the hook with the other.




Bombs Away

Tuna weighing less than 50 pounds prove hardier than their bigger brethren. To release a smaller fish properly, first lift the tuna out of the water by its tail and lay it on a soft surface such as a wet towel or mat. Cover the fish’s eyes with a damp rag and keep its body wet if you anticipate any delay. Remove the hook then “jump start” the fish’s breathing process by dropping it back into the water headfirst. 




When an angler reels a deep-water fish (snapper/grouper in the Atlantic or a rockfish in the Pacific) to the surface, the gas in its swim bladder expands. This happens because water pressure at depth is greater than pressure at the surface.

Sometimes the fish’s swim bladder can burst. Gases may escape into the body cavity, pushing the stomach out the fish’s mouth and causing the fish’s eyes to bulge. Sometimes the pressure even pushes the intestines out the anus. Such fish are poor candidates for release, unable to return to the bottom and likely to float at the surface until killed by exposure to light and air or discovered by a predator.

Anglers can increase these fishes’ chances for survival by puncturing the body cavity with a venting device, such as a hollow, 16-gauge stainless-steel needle mounted on a hollow wooden dowel or a modified hypodermic needle. Puncturing the body allows expanded gases to escape.

Dr. Karen Burns of the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, recommends holding the fish on its side and inserting a venting device at a 45-degree angle approximately 1 to 2 inches back from the base of the pectoral fin. The tool should be inserted just deep enough to release the gases, but not so deep that it skewers the fish. After a fish has been vented, it may require some resuscitation. According to Burns, a properly vented bottomfish has a very good chance of survival.  The punctured swim bladder will heal in a few days. Warning: The stomach protruding out of a fish’s mouth should not be punctured under any circumstances, as this will seriously injure the fish and will not correct the problem.

Another less-invasive method for releasing deep-water bottomfish involves using a rod and reel and a heavy weight. Attach the running line to the bend of a single barbless hook. Attach a lead weight – it may need to be as heavy as 3 pounds, depending on depth -- to the eye of the hook with a snap swivel.  Insert the hook into the membrane of the fish’s upper lip. Once the fish is lowered to the desired depth, a quick jerk on the rod should pull the barbless hook up and out of the fish’s lip. This method has not yet been tested to determine long-term fish survival, but  Burns and other biologists believe it to be highly effective.



According to Dr. Jerry Ault at the University of Miami, dragging a tarpon into the boat may be one of the primary causes of post-release mortality. He notes that “pulling a big fish out of the water can result in multiple fractures and bruising to the fish, particularly as it’s pulled over the gunwale and it flops around on the hard deck of a flats skiff. Furthermore, these fish can suffer internal organ damage under the weight of gravity.” The loss of slime can induce infections, and the violence of the struggle may expel body fluids through the anal cavity and sex glands.

            Doug Kelly, executive director of Bonefish and Tarpon Unlimited, has assisted in releasing hundreds of tarpon. He notes that most kinds of gaffs are relics of the past, but a lip gaff can assist in the release of larger fish by allowing the angler to raise the fish's head above water for hook removal.  Lip gaffs should only be used if absolutely necessary, as a puncture wound in the mouth can cause infection and lessens feeding ability.

Anglers can also use the leader to pull the tarpon close, then hold the bottom lip to control the head. Try to keep the head away from the side of the boat, so it doesn't make contact with the hull. If another person can grasp the tarpon’s tail with a gloved hand during hook removal, the tarpon's movement will be further restricted.  As with other species, handling a green fish should be avoided; it’s dangerous for fish and people.

Remove the hook with pliers, using a rolling motion to minimize tearing. If the hook is too firmly lodged, or at an angle that would require too much damage to remove, Kelly recommends cutting the hook with pliers, especially if the hook-point is barbed. If that isn’t possible, the leader should be cut just above the hook. A released tarpon may need reviving if it appears listless. In shallow water, an angler may step out of the boat and stand on the bottom, holding the tarpon horizontally with both hands under its body. In deeper water, hold the fish in the same position next to the boat. Suspend the tarpon’s head gently under water, but close enough to the surface that it could gulp air if it chooses. If the gills aren't moving, it may be necessary to rock the fish to get water flowing in and out of its mouth and gills. If the fish is extremely exhausted, the revival process may take more than 30 minutes.  Even after a tarpon swims away, the angler should watch it to assure that it doesn’t roll over, and to try to ward off any shark that might try to take advantage of the fish’s weakened condition.




No Souvenirs

            Before releasing a trophy tarpon, some anglers remove one of its platelike scales as a memento. But experts warn against such a move. The ’poon’s thick scales protect its softer skin. Exposing even a small area of skin makes the tarpon susceptible to infections.




Skomal notes that with sharks, the physical trauma associated with hook wounds and boat-side handling creates a much bigger problem than the physiological stress associated with the fight. His research on blue sharks found that most gut-hooked fish suffered massive infections and were emaciated. Avoiding deep-hooking, then, will help prevent post-release mortality. 

However, many anglers and captains feel that circle hooks don’t work well with sharks. Unlike billfish and tuna, sharks lack the clear jaw hinge where circle hooks usually lodge. Some also say that circle hooks won’t easily puncture a shark’s tough, raspy skin. On the other hand, researchers, including Skomal, Safina and Dr. Dean Grubbs of the Pelagic Fisheries Research Program at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, argue that circle hooks do work well in this fishery, if used properly, though they did acknowledge that J-hooks might effect more hookups because of the physical characteristics of a shark’s mouth.

Charles Witek, fisheries committee chair of the Coastal Conservation Association New York and an avid shark angler, says, “Most sharks will pick up a bait, move off a little, and then stop before taking off on a second long run. Set the hook right as the second run starts and you will hook them in the mouth 99 percent of the time.” Safina recommends fishing with circle hooks and leaving the reel in gear so the shark hooks itself when it turns on the bait.

When a shark is boat-side, the wire man should take control of the fish on the windward side of boat, so the drift holds the fish horizontal, just below the surface. Usually, a played-out shark will remain docile as long as it’s kept under water and the tension on the wire remains constant. Should he try to lift a shark’s head out of the water, the fish will often explode in a flurry of white water, flopping tail and flashing teeth. 

Toward the end of the fight, many sharks tend to spin and roll themselves in the leader when they can no longer pull line off the reel.  If this happens, the angler must unroll the shark prior to cutting the leader. Do that by pulling gently on the leader. Many anglers don’t take the trouble to untangle the line and just cut the leader near the swivel, leaving the wire wrapped around the fish. Such an irresponsible action will eventually cause the wire to bind tightly around the fish’s body, cutting into its skin. The resulting lesions make the shark susceptible to infection and parasites.

Cut the leader as close to the hook as possible, preferably at the loop where it attaches to the hook. With deeply hooked fish, the leader should be cut as close as possible to the shark’s mouth. Under no circumstances should a shark be tail-roped, gaffed or brought on deck prior to release.

Sharks, more than any other fish, suffer damage to internal organs if removed from the water. A shark’s organs are loosely held in place by connective tissue. In the ocean, water supports the fish’s organs; out of the water, the connective tissue can easily tear. The weight of gravity can also damage tendons that hold vertebrae in place.

Dehookers may be used with circle or J-hooks, but removing a hook from a shark’s mouth can often be very difficult, and at times impossible.  As a result, some anglers have moved away from using the expensive and difficult-to-remove hooks that are traditional in this fishery, instead using a larger, but slimmer, and cheaper hook. The thinner wire will straighten when the leader is secured to a cleat. The odds of losing a fish increase with this hook type, but getting a hook out of a shark is undoubtedly far better than leaving it in.



Many anglers believe that speckled trout and weakfish are fragile creatures that don’t do particularly well under the stress of being caught with hook and line. However, Dr. Greg Stunz, a biologist at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, recently completed a study that proved speckled trout to be quite a bit hardier than expected. According to Stunz, “Because weakfish are in the same genus (Cynoscion[ital]) and belong to the same family (Sciaenidae; the drums, trout, redfish, black drum, etc.), we could expect similar post-release survival rates. And for sure, release practices should be very similar.” 

Studies on weakfish in the Northeast also showed survival rates to be much higher than expected. Stunz noted, “I anticipated seeing about 40 to 50 percent mortality based on the general view from anecdotal info on speckled trout. However, our overall mortality rate was 10 percent.”

Stunz recommends limiting the stress on trout and other inshore fish by bringing them in as quickly as possible. As fish fight, their oxygen demand increases. So, once a fish comes boat-side, leave it in the water while removing the hook so it can more quickly recover. Stunz also points out that trout experience hypoxial stress -- a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching body tissues -- when removed from the water. Fish that can’t be released boat-side should be returned to the water quickly. Use this rule: Don’t keep a fish out of the water any longer than you can hold your breath. 

If you want to take a quick photo of a fish, Stunz recommends avoiding the use of a conventional landing net, which removes protective mucous and damages scales and fins. Rubberized nets work better. Better yet: Grab a fish with a BogaGrip-type tool, and pull it from the water, taking care to keep it off the deck. Handle the fish with wet hands, and always support it horizontally with one hand beneath its belly. Hanging a particularly large fish may be detrimental because of jaw damage, internal organ sagging and vertebrae separation.

Stunz strongly discourages using a towel when handling fish. The rough cloth removes scales and the protective slime layer. In studying post-release mortality with tournament-caught fish, Stunz noted that the one tournament wherein the weighmaster used a towel featured the highest mortality numbers. 

Needle-nose pliers or similar devices help remove hooks quickly. When a fish is gut-hooked, cut the line near the mouth. As with other fish, the use of circle hooks with live bait minimizes deep hooking.

Don’t release a trout until it can swim away on its own. If it can’t, revive it by supporting its body in the water and gently move it back and forth allowing water to flow through the gills. 



Some Don’t Like it Hot

High temperatures, low salinity and larger fish size translate to increased post-release mortality in striped bass, according to Dr. Rudy Lukacovic, a fishery biologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Water temps above 85 degrees also increase trout and weakfish mortality, says Dr. Greg Stunz, a biologist at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The simple moral: Be careful when catch-and-release fishing during the hottest times of the year. Keep releasable fish in the water at all times when removing the hooks.



Stunz’ recommendations for releasing speckled trout and weakfish also apply to redfish, striped bass or any other inshore sport fish. However, dealing with larger fish like striped bass and red drum provides additional problems. According to North Carolina trophy red drum guide and biologist Capt. George Beckwith, the gonads and ovaries of spawning-size fish may be enlarged and swollen, so it’s very important to support the fish’s weight at all times to avoid internal damage.

Beckwith agrees that taking a large fish out of the water for any reason is difficult to do without some kind of landing net. If you must remove a fish from the water, he highly recommends a rubber- or soft-mesh net. On the other hand, he does not recommend using a BogaGrip-type tool because it requires suspending the fish vertically, which causes internal organ damage in bigger fishes. Beckwith also notes that lip gaffing is both unnecessary and harmful. 

Beckwith and Stunz both point out that survival largely depends on hooking location. Because more than 90 percent of gut-hooking occurs when fishing with natural baits, Beckwith and conservation biologist Dr. Peter Rand of North Carolina State University embarked on a multi-year study to determine the best terminal rig for reducing deep-hooking. The study determined that large circle hooks, not small ones, reduced incidence of gut-hooked fish. It also found a significant reduction in deep-hooking among redfish when using short leaders and fixed weights.


Capt. John McMurray currently serves as the director of grants programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. The foundation has distributed more than $20 million in conservation grants since 1982, much of it directly targeting protection of marine fish and habitat. He also sits as the conservation officer of the New York Flyfishing and Light Tackle Guides Association. You can contact him at





Physical exertion from a particularly long fight causes an oxygen deficiency in a fish’s tissues. This forces the fish’s muscles to function without oxygen (anaerobically), which in turn causes lactic acid to build up in the muscle tissue and diffuse into the blood. This subsequently causes the blood pH to drop. Even slight changes in pH can cause disruptions of the metabolic processes that may ultimately kill the fish.

If an angler avoids handling the fish and releases it quickly, its blood pH usually returns to normal and the fish survives. But while fish may appear alive after a long fight, when released, the imbalance in the blood chemistry may kill them as much as three days after capture. This is why, with any species, it’s important to choose the right tackle for the job and get the fish in as quickly as possible.   



IGFA Release Records

If you think you may have that record fish, remember, you don’t have to kill it to make the IGFA book. Records by weight do not require the fish be killed. If the fish weighs less than 30 pounds, it can be weighed on a certified scale and released.

As previously discussed, weighing a particularly large fish may be detrimental because of jaw damage, internal organ sagging and vertebrae separation. Instead of hanging a fish by its jaw, IGFA Conservation Director Jason Schratwieser recommends netting the fish with a rubberized net, weighing the net with the fish in it, then subtracting the weight of the net. 

Currently, the IGFA is developing an entirely new way of recording meritorious catches based solely on length. All fish must be released in this category. This program, however, is still in the developmental stages but expect to hear more as it evolves.




Land the fish as quickly as possible. Use a soft, knotless small-mesh net to land salmon (reduces scale loss). If the hook is in the mouth, invert the hook using a hook-release device or long-nosed pliers so that the fish slides off the point. If the salmon is gut-hooked, cut the leader and leave the hook in the fish.

Although a high percentage of gut-hooked salmon die, a few sustain only minor internal injuries and may survive. Trying to remove the hook may actually cause additional internal damage.

If the salmon must be brought aboard for measuring or hook removal, put the fish inside a large, clear plastic bag. Handling the fish in the bag not only improves your control of the fish but also reduces abrasions, scale and slime loss and the chance of fish hitting the deck of the boat.

 Do not wear gloves. Use wet bare hands if you must touch the fish. Do not squeeze the fish to gain control. Keep fingers out of the gills.