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As an avid and dedicated Esox Angler, I will continually try to discover/discuss factors directly linked to incidental mortality of muskie and pike … the fish intended to be released effectively. Most of us have seen “floaters:” Dead muskie or pike with no obvious reason for death. In most cases, these wasted fish are the result of poor release practices. We will do what we can to point out those poor release practices, and hopefully all will do their best to avoid them.
The topic in this installment is the transporting of esocids. Should we be doing it? How much is too much and are there limits? Like most issues involving catch and release, there certainly is some gray area here. The most basic example of that is in the question: what kills these fish? My answer: stress. What causes stress? A variety of factors cause stress. Where too many or a severe example of one is present‹fish die.
To me, a factor that will add significantly to stressing of esocids, and especially larger ones, is the transport of these fish prior to release. It is done for a variety of reasons. In many cases it’s simply a matter of wanting to “show some one” before release. Unfortunately too, cases of transport without an adequate livewell or tank are still fairly common, the the extent that some travel on the floor of the boat results. These fish, of course, are almost certain to perish.
This is a rather timely topic too, considering the fact that tournament fishing for esocids is becoming increasingly popular, and many of these events require that judge boats or stations actually see or measure the fish for it to “count.” In most cases, that means some travel.
Now, before I go any further, I want to point out that I am not a scientist or biologist. I don’t write to try to impress people with my intellect. I write attempting to best get points across that have resulted from my experiences. Basically, what you’ll read here is IMHO (in my humble opinion). That’s important, because I really don’t want (nor does the Bite staff) a whole bunch of folks hollering: “Maina doesn’t have any “proof” of that.” Technically you’d be right. I don’t. Here at TNB, input is welcome, of course, and if you have contrary opinions, feel free to express them .
But, what I do have is a whole bunch of practical experience via the school of hard knocks (i.e. handling thousands fish). IMHO, these observations over time can be every bit as important as some studies. If you really love the fish (and I do), and one dies, or shows signs of extreme stress, you try to figure out what caused it, and avoid it next time.
By the way, one of the first signs of significant stress is the appearance of blood under the skin. This will usually start to show up around the head (around and especially below gill plates) and the tail. It’s been my experience, that when this is noted, all bets are off. We’re talking no more photos, no more time out of the water and no more transport. Let it go! If the blood spreads to the “body” of the fish and gets to the obvious stage, most likely, it’s too late.
There are two basic reasons why transport is bad for fish. First of all, it’s simply unnatural. Riding in a livewell or the floor of the boat is not something they experience with any regularity in their natural environment. Anything significantly abnormal stresses them … as it does you. Second, they fight it, if they have any steam at all left. A fish in a full livewell with a constant supply of fresh water, motionless, will rest. But start moving them around and they fight it. More stress.
A good example of this can be seen without transporting a fish at all, and I’m certain many of you have noted this. A fish is brought to boatside and netted, or just brought to boatside. Say the fish is able to lay horizontal in the water, upright and breathing. If it’s dead calm, they’ll relax, and actually regain some spunk. Now take the same scenario with any significant wave action. They don’t relax, because they can’t. They’re getting sloshed around, and have to constantly “work” to maintain their balance. The only way for them to avoid the “work” is to get back down below the surface to a natural environment.
Landing fish a very simple equation for me. With the exception of easy-to-unhook boatside releases, I exclusively use Frabill¹s Kwik Kradle, which, once the hooks are out, allows for the fish to sit in-water in a perfectly natural position, unless, of course, waves are crashing. If it’s calm, I’m not in a huge hurry once I get the hooks cut and the fish is upright. When the cameras are ready, it’s hurry to get the shots and get the fish back in the water. When it’s rough, it’s “hurry” all the way.
It’s simple: if the fish can’t relax while in a normal position, you’ll soon see the “red” mentioned above. I have transported esocids in a livewell before. I’ve become convinced that it’s something I don’t want to do, period. The only scenario in which I feel it would have minimal detrimental effects on the fish, would be very calm, cold water (more later), and at no faster than idle speed.
Even at idle speed, with any type of wave action, the fish is sloshing around. Now consider putting the boat on plane. Even in a calm situation, the fish is going to be banged into the end or sides of the livewell on take-off, but eventually may be able to settle down while running. But, even on those rare windless days, there’s usually that ever-increasing phenomenon of artificial waves created by a variety of crafts (at times, they’re constant). Simply put, if the water is rough, the fish just flat gets beat-up.
I’ll never forget my second trip to Lake of the Woods, Ontario over 12 years ago. It was a great trip overall, with one sour note. A friend caught a beautiful 47 1/2-inch muskie, which he fully intended to release alive. But, he wanted to get some “promo-shots” for a new camp owner. The fish was put in the livewell for an approximate one mile ride back to camp. The lake had only a light chop. The fish made it to camp for photos, but ended up at the taxidermist. This fish was easily releasable at the site of capture.
In my experiences in fresh water fishing, the muskie may be the biggest, the meanest, the toughest to catch and the most prized, but it’s also the most susceptible to stress-related expiration. And, we all know that adults are present in very low densities. These big fish just can’t take much handling, and very little time out of the water. Pike are notably tougher overall, but can certainly be killed via poor handling too, and should be treated with the same care as muskies. And as I mentioned earlier, with respect to all species, the bigger they are, the less they can take.
This brings us back to the water temperature issue. This too, is simple: warm or hot surface temps are bad. Fish should never be transported for any reason during the warm-water period. Every stress factor becomes much more deadly in warm water. Be extremely careful when temps above seventy persist. Anything above eighty is kind of scary to me. Once temps cross the eighty degree mark, it is getting to the point where I personally, am very uncomfortable fishing for muskies (I have little experience with large pike, since I catch very few big fish during the warm water period), because I’m not at all confident that I can successfully release the majority of these fish. Handling and heat equals death in my experience.
This is exactly the reason that natural resources personnel try to do any work that requires significant handling during the cold-water period. Does cold water mean fish will survive poor handling and transport? Realistically, in many cases the answer is yes. A cold-water fish can easily survive over-handling that would have killed them in the summer. But, this is another gray zone, and no one knows “exactly” where the point of “over-handling” is, in cold or warm water. Common sense tells us to be careful and efficient at all times, but especially so in warm water.
Have I fully answered or covered the question of transport? No. It’s an issue that I’m certain we will continue to touch-on from time-to-time. If we are able to uncover any “credible” research results on the issue, we will certainly pass it along.
I can tell you that everyone I know with a lot of experience handling muskie and pike would agree with my observations. Certainly, no one can rightfully answer whether or not it’s O.K. to do at times, or how much is too much with respect to transport. But, anyone that would look you in the eye and say that “it’s good for them,” or that “it doesn’t hurt them a bit” isn’t being honest with you or themselves. A final question: If we are putting the health and survivability of the fish first, should we be transporting esocids any distance before release? IMHO, NO!
The late spring time frame can vary, depending on the latitude of the fishery in question, but to get a little more specific, we’re talking about the post-spawn period (about a month) and generally surface temperature ranges in the 60’s to low 70’s. It’s a great time of year (other than the bugs) for catching *Esox”.
Muskie location is pretty predictable at this time. A good basic plan to follow is simply to fish the weeds. Any waters that offer good vegetation should have some well-developed weeds and edges by this time. If that is the case, concentrate on them, always checking edges as being a high-probability contact-zone and a good place to concentrate on for boat position. Check the flats too though, and inside edges where available, for a pattern.
Early Season Musky – It’s really tough to beat smaller, twitched cranks like the 6-inch Jake lure during this period. Erratic action with minnow baits would be the number one choice to produce, with smaller in-line spinners coming in second. Choose these spinners and cranks to run at the level of the top of the weeds, occasionally making contact. Diving cranks should be tried on the deeper edges, fished in parallel fashion and at angles in and out.
In a very basic sense, this is all that needs to be done to be relatively successful during this period. Keep doing it, and it will work. Shallow to midrange wood and rocks are great places to target also. On the other end of the spectrum, though, there are several tools (lures) and patterns (locations) that are just about never tried during this period that can be absolutely deadly.
This is a wonderful time of year to cast for suspended fish. Simply put, the world is high during this period. For those that don’t understand Maina-eze, this simply means that most fish enjoy the warmer temperature ranges – which are now in the upper level of the water column. Minnows can often be seen swimming around in schools – just under the surface. Considering how the food-chain-thing works … guess where the top of the chain will be when in the mood to dine.
It’s a fun, different way to fish – that can be hard on many folks who are used to “visual” fishing (structure they can see), but because of the tendencies for high suspension, fish are fairly concentrated at this time. On smaller waters, a simple plan of “fishing it all” can be taken with the open water in the system. However, since casting doesn’t allow the water coverage trolling does, narrowing things down to “confined” open water really increases your odds at this time.
Most fish will be quite scattered from the spawning period by now and be moved in to, or getting close to summer locations. However, simply concentrating on the deep water adjacent to spawning bays is the best plan. If the area features a feeder creek near by – so much the better. Also (and this should help explain “confined”), deeper zones between a couple of shallower food shelves tend to have higher concentrations of fish. The more shallow food stations available in the areas, the higher the concentrations of suspended fish there will be. Complex structure is a good thing.
Let’s say we have a weedy bay with fairly sharp-breaking shorelines on either side, with rock and wood. Out in front and to the sides, other individual shallow flats exist. The deep water between these elements is the area to concentrate. In bigger systems, this is generally much higher percentage deep water than just heading for “anywhere.” The thing is though, even with a bunch of good shallow structure around, at this time, there may actually be a higher percentage of fish suspended over deep water than there is in the shallow zones. And, because these fish see fewer lures, they are often far more triggerable.
It is possible, of course to check this pattern while working sharp breakline areas too. Just cast both ways; cover the shallow zone and the deep water nearby. Deep diving lures can work quite well, and do, but the funny thing I found out doing this, is that often it is more effective to run shallower presentations. The same stuff you would use over the weeds. The only difference is, often bigger is better out over the deep stuff.
One of my most effective lures for this is a weighted Burt jerkbait. It only runs about 5 to 6 feet on the average, but is a big, wounded-looking target that hangs on the pause. That’s a great general range to concentrate on. Spinners work quite well too, at times, as well as the cranks. Possibly the biggest sleepers though, are top waters and spoons. Both work well in open water. Erratic styles work best though, so try a glider topwater like the Doc. Believe it or not, it’s really tough to beat a big Daredevil spoon too … but it’s got to be twitched on the retrieve.
Muskies are truly different critters as fish go. No doubt about it! Those of us who fish for them are different critters as well; willing to put forth seemingly endless expenditure on tools of the trade, and endless hours in anguished expectancy of the next strike… and yet, we continue. Those long in the chase of these fish know: just when you think you’ve got the system to “consistency” figured out, these miserable fish will throw you a curve. They seem to disappear, shattering your ego and keeping you up at night, pondering their disappearance.
It is hard enough to try and keep up with a fish with such a peculiar personality, and one that is present in low densities… and then add seasonal change. But these seasonal changes are a fact of life that are another twist to fish location. Cold weather muskies are especially fickle. Let’s take a look at what those of us afflicted enough to endure the chilling weather of the late fall for chances at a trophy muskie are dealt. What are some of the key points to fishing during the period between turnover and hard water?
A few weeks after the fall turnover process mixes the different layers of water that stratified over the course of the summer months, the fish community starts to settle down into more predictable patterns again. The period during the turnover is a time of confusion and a lot of movement. It takes some time, but signs of the true start of the late fall period include forage fish “bunching-up.” Groups of baitfish, packed tightly together can be noted on electronics, where a few weeks earlier fish were scattered.
The real keys to success in the late fall include location and location. The location of your boat over prime areas with feeding muskie present-is very important. Locating your presentation in muskies’ faces is even more important. This may seem a little too basic; however, these two very basic considerations should constantly be considered during the cold weather period; they should be the basis behind every move made and every chosen presentation.
While theories of rampant feeding by muskie preparing for a long, cold winter are common, the truth is, as the water cools it makes for less overall activity and shorter feeding windows. While female fish must fatten-up a bit for winter to support their burden of eggs, the cooler water slows metabolisms, and these fish generally aren’t as willing to “chase.” It is very important to get that offering close.
Thinking “deeper” is a good general rule in fall location. Try to break a lake, river or reservoir down into prime sections by simply looking for the deepest water and main basins. Deep is, of course, relative to the body of water, but start by looking at the deeper zones and the surrounding area. Generally, unless long stretches of warmth or unique forage movements occur, large areas of shallow water can be written off as low percentage, however areas directly adjacent to basin are a different story. As usual, structure can be key; be it deeper wood, weeds or rock. Sharp breaklines to deep water are always a prime consideration; deeper secondary breaklines, where present, can be a major factor in fish location.
The deepest hard-bottomed areas are a key item to look for and to concentrate on. The edge between hard and soft bottom is often a magnet. All of these structural elements mentioned often attract the ultimate “structure”-the most important factor in muskie location: forage. Remember that the muskie you want to find is a “feeding” muskie. That fish isn’t going to be where there is no food. And remember that these fish really only have one job in life: eat. Nature dictates that they be as efficient as possible in going about their chores. They’re no different than your ol’ pal Rover; he may wander around for a while when he’s not hungry, but he’ll always be back to the location of the food dish he knows is always full.
What prime structures in deep water offer is a likely place to find the concentrations of forage-which will eventually attract the hungry predator you seek. Get in tune with the structures present in the body of water you will be fishing, and with the different forage types. Learn what species are most prevalent and what their locational habits are. Don’t forget some of the not-so-commonly-mentioned items such as crawfish and bullhead; if they are present, they can be a big factor.
Because slower-moving, precise presentations are often necessary to trigger fish, it doesn’t pay to just start fishing until you know you are working an area with quantities of forage. Generally, you will be much better off to take the time out from actually fishing, to check for food sources with your electronics before starting in; try to pinpoint a few prime areas that look good.
In a lake with very little structure, or “bowl-shaped” waters, shoreline-related breaks may be the only game in town. Deep shorelines may have fallen trees, and in a situation such as this, they are a major structural element. It stands to reason that many of the fish are relating to nothing other than open water, since that is all that is available. Check open water areas to see if there is a pattern to the level of the majority of the baitfish… wind can be a major factor on such lakes; several days (it takes time) of wind from one direction may stack baitfish on the windward side.
Some very overlooked structural elements that can be a big factor late in the season include: long, inside turns (or troughs) of deeper water. These are often magnets for forage in the fall. Distinct, deep holes can also be dynamite, especially if prime shallower feeding shelves are adjacent. Neck-down areas with deep water on both sides will always have great potential. Probably the most overlooked is the long stretch of “steep” shoreline, most of which have nothing that really stands out to the naked eye (no points or turns). Sharp-breaking shorelines are natural “underwater highways” for fish. Even if nothing stands out they are worth checking; in many cases there are slight points and turns where the break starts to level out to the deep basin. Usually this can only be noted by checking via electronics; there may also be a brushpile or an extension of hard bottom out to deeper water in a certain section. Little changes like these on a steep shoreline often “stop” forage and predator fish in their travels. Nothing like finding a hot spot on a visually ugly stretch of shore.
Muskie are a temperamental lot. You must have the confidence to locate contact areas (forage for certain and usually structure too) and fish them hard. Don’t give up on them if the one pass produces nothing; if an area is really stacked with forage give it another run later. Prime areas may be used by many feeding muskie; often several at the same time during a prime feeding window. If a spot scores once for you, it will score again.
Also consider changing your lure-type “fairly” often to check out the effectiveness of a different lure action (but changing too often wastes time). Preferences in lure speed and action are common; one day a tight-wobble crankbait is hot, and the next they may want a wide, lazy wobble. Because you are working these areas fairly slowly, there is time to show them a variety of lures. The good news is if you find something that is working, usually that will be a pattern; similar presentations will probably be effective the rest of the day and possibly several days if weather remains consistent.
Once a prime area is located with a good forage base present, it’s time to comb it. Work it over good. If quantities of food are present, chances are very good that muskie will be feeding there; at least at some point during the day. The key is in covering all levels, concentrating in and around the majority of the forage. One of the best ways to accomplish this is through a combination of boat control, vertical presentations and casting presentations. Remembering the second “location-factor” of getting close to that fish. Simply figure out a way to cover all levels as you work your way through. Where legal, using multiple lines with a combination of live and artificial bait is very effective.
Live bait run on quick-strike rigs can be used as a prime vertical presentation. As is for all predator fish, live bait is very effective on muskie, especially in cooler water. Using whatever weighting system you find necessary for the depth you will be fishing, try to work a bait near the bottom and a bait suspended. To add a jigging action to baits, move in bursts, allowing baits to settle in a vertical position before moving again. This is generally much more effective than steady movement which results in steady depth and a very relaxed bait. You want your live bait to be visible-and struggling-fighting the ups and downs. If the bottom is relatively clean, don’t be afraid to run the live baits into the bottom or breaklines; contact will arouse baits and any hungry muskies.
In addition to, or instead of live baits, a variety of artificials can be effective. Consider the depth you want to target as the main determining factor in lure choice for casting. Baits such as jerks and cranks can be very effective in the late season, but generally have their limits on effective running depth. Know these limits and fit the lure to target depth. Jigs or sinking lures are effective and can be worked very slow; they are perfect for “following” the break when working sharp edges.
A prime edge with forage should be worked parallel to the edge as well as perpendicular. Work the shallow and deep side. Consider that predators are most likely located on the edge of the forage bulk. (If they were right in the middle and actively feeding … the “bulk” wouldn’t be there.) Generally jerks and cranks are much more effective for casting out into open water than jigs. They simply cover water faster; the idea here is to search for fish suspended nearby; precise lure control is not as big a factor. Whatever the lure type, contacting bottom on edges and tops of bars can be a great trigger on neutral fish; many a muskie has been taken on crankbaits “ground” across rocks; choose a diving crank with a quality, rounded, plastic lip that will handle these collisions. The Ernie and Believer are classic examples. The great thing about all of these presentations when being used in addition to live bait is that even if a muskie is not intrigued enough to strike… they have that notorious propensity to follow. Often fish that are lead to the boat via “artificial” are unable to resist the “real thing” thing when they are brought right to it.
The other prime addition for ultimate deep-water control in artificials is vertical jigs and spoons. The ultimate lure control is vertical; you know where your presentation is at all times. Large sonar lures, weighted spoons and jig/live bait or jig/rubber combos work well. I am a great believer in those flashy lures like spoons and big blade baits like the Fuzzy Duzzit and Zip lure. I’ve plucked them from many a muskie’s face. Work these lures over the side of the boat, covering different depth ranges with lure and with the boat, remembering to maintain occasional bottom contact.
In a way, this discussion may be somewhat off-topic for a release column. At least I thought so at first and pondered it a little. But in reality it isn¹t at all. My concern was that the act of landing a fish alone technically doesn¹t stick strictly to the question of proper tactics to ensure ultimate survivability. For a variety of reasons, esox anglers should avoid fishing alone. These include the fun of companionship, the ability to take some good, quick photos, safety concerns and, most pertinent here, successful releases. The bottom line is, for the good of the fish, at least two folks should be present. In many cases, one person alone simply can’t release fish as efficiently as they can with help.
Still, the fact is a lot of people do fish alone, either due to lack of a partner, or because they simply enjoy the solitude. In this column, I’m going to discuss landing and release by the solitary esox angler. Many people who fish alone have asked me what methods are best for a solo release. Many have expressed the problems they’ve encountered, not only landing fish (trophies that got away), but getting a landed fish released in a timely manner.
The problems associated with solo releases are fairly obvious. With no help, it’s tougher to get the fish in a landing device. Then it has to be controlled, while getting to release tools, measured (maybe), possibly photographed, and very quickly released. All has to be done as fast as possible.
In the first issue of Esox Angler, I discussed the basics of C & R, which included the question of water release versus the use of landing devices. The call on this issue, is usually made considering a couple factors, the first being the angler’s perceived need to land the fish. A fish can usually be put in a landing device quicker than they can be handled in-water at boatside. Many marginally hooked fish have been landed via a device that would otherwise very likely have gotten off before they could have been grabbed. This is one of the reasons many guides choose to use landing devices.
Using a landing device often results in getting the hooks out and the fish back in the water faster than a release without. The other issue is safety. An apparently docile fish lying at boatside with a set or two of trebles dangling can be a dangerous proposition
The general guideline is if fish are hooked on lures with a single set of hooks, or the bait and position of the hooks are such that there is minimal risk of the fish snagging the angler, and especially if the hooks appear easy to pop out, and if no photos are desired, then water release is probably the way to go. In all other cases, landing devices are generally safer and quicker. The fish is subdued, its motion is limited, and loose hooks will hang in the mesh.
Soon, we’ll talk measuring, but I want to point out here that this is a major sticking point with fishing alone. EVERYTHING about releasing alone is harder to accomplish, and most importantly, slower.
Measuring is, well, unnecessary! So, unless it’s a very important fish, and you really feel you have to know the exact length, just estimate the length of the fish and accomplish the release faster.
In the case of water release, the solitary angler is basically on the same playing field as with partners. The only issue to be considered is that they don’t have a partner present to toss tools to them. This should be kept in mind while fighting the fish. Either land the fish near the tools or move them to a designated site during battle. Getting a hold on the fish only to realize the tools are on the other end of the boat is a real problem.
Whether it is safety concerns, getting the fish concerns, or simple comfort with use of landing devices, the single angler is disadvantaged. A standard cradle is nearly impossible to use with one hand, so a standard (large) hoop net or the Frabill Kwik Kradle are the most logical options.
The issue here is control, because one hand must handle the rod and the other the net. It can be done quite efficiently though. Keep in mind that it’s quite a bit harder to make a fast net-move with one hand (most of the got-away stories usually involve rushing things when alone). While a person with the use of two hands can often effectively stab a fairly green (still fresh) fish, when alone, wild stabs should be avoided.
First, learn to choke-up on the net, and then practice the push and lift movement with one hand before you get in a situation where you need to perform the maneuver when it counts. The fish should be led into the landing device head-first with the rod. Once the fish is a third to half-way in (be prepared to quickly pull back if the fish makes a wild move), move forward with the net to get the fish fully in and then continue smoothly with a lift and quickly get the rim of the net to the gunnel. It should be one motion: forward, up, to the gunnel.
The continued motion forward and up is key. Folks often tend to stop after the fish appears to be in, rather than continuing the upward motion which secures the fish. Many a fish has been lost after netters felt the fish was secure, only to have it jump back out again, often leaving the lure on the rim of the net.
After completing the motion of forward and up to the gunnel, simply kneel on the rim of the net and reach for the tools, popping out easy hooks with pliers and cutting all the rest (cut in multiple places, and as always, make certain pieces fall out). If the plan didn’t come together with respect to landing the fish near the tools, simply slide the net down the gunnel to the tools, taking care to keep the fish in the water as much as possible.
If measurement and some type of photo are a must, it gets more complicated. In the case of the Kwik Kradle, the fish can be measured right in the device, in the water. In the case of a large hoop net and smaller to moderate-sized esox, the same can be accomplished in the net. Larger specimens will need to be taken out to get a good length measurement. Most preferable for the welfare of the fish, is an in-water measurement. This can be done out of the net, over the side of the boat, although there is some potential here for the fish getting away before measurement.
Other options, if a measurement is very important to the angler, include a large livewell. Ideally, an angler that fishes alone regularly, and wants measurements, should have a ruler in place on the floor of the well, or increments marked off in the well. The fish’s head can be bumped against the wall and length checked at the other end. This can be done quickly, but make certain the well is full with fresh running water.
Photos are generally not an option when alone, although in some cases, a boat nearby may be called over during battle, and things can work out just fine if these folks cooperate. (As discussed in a previous article, transporting fish to get a photo is not in the best interest of the fish.) Leave the fish in water until the camera is handed over, the helpers know how to use it, and are ready.
If the solo angler is prepared, one pre-planned shot using a camera with an automatic timer can be taken. This should be practiced before getting out on the water. Have a pre-planned spot for the camera (a tripod is the best bet), and a spot for holding the fish. (Unfortunately, rough water makes this nearly impossible.) Get the camera ready, hit the timer, grab the fish and get in place. One shot is all that should be attempted. Multiple shots with this method just require too much time out of water for the fish.
Handling catch and release alone can be done quite efficiently, and with little harm to angler or fish. A little more planning is required though. Certainly, as stated earlier, fishing alone should be avoided if possible. And fishing alone should definitely be avoided completely by those new to the sport.
Once an angler is adept at handling and unhooking fish, and is prepared, catch and release alone is not a big problem. Realistically though, both measuring and photos are not absolutely necessary and definitely add to the time required. And therefore, they add to stress.
One final note: One of the main safety concerns when angling alone for esox is getting hooked. Especially bad is being hooked to a bait that’s still in a fish (I’ve been there, but fortunately never alone). No matter the level of experience, if you continue to handle numbers of muskie and pike, sooner or later, you will take a hook. If you take one past the barb alone, you’ve got real trouble. Therefore, going barbless while fishing alone is certainly recommended.
There are still folks out there, who it appears… will never learn… but the value and effectiveness of catch and release angling is continually becoming more evident and accepted as a valuable tool in maintaining or improving the quality of fishing. Whether it be voluntary, or mandatory via regulation, seemingly endless examples of rebounding fisheries with respect to a variety of species are available.
In the northern zone, musky fishers were the first to really practice release in force. And this was in part due to necessity, since fish at the top of the food chain are present in the lowest densities; evidence of over-harvest shows up quickly, while rebounding generally requires far more time than the damage period. Catch and release fishing with selective harvest is necessary for all species though, especially if any “quality” (larger fish) is to be maintained. Simply put, larger, adult fish need to be protected.
So catch and release is good… and necessary. Taking things a step further though, there’s the issue of whether or not release is actually effective all the time. Simply putting a fish back in the water… sometime following its capture, doesn’t assure survival. It’s a simple conclusion: if the fish doesn’t live, nothing is gained. Knowledge and execution of proper release practices is vital.
First realize the major handling factors that contribute to unintentional mortality: deep hooking or hooks in vital areas (stomach, throat, gills or eyes), slime removal, time out of water and stress. Stress is the final factor mentioned, and while the previously mentioned issues all contribute to it in some form, minimizing stress is ultimately the most important. The “fight time” is a huge contributing factor in stress; one that few fishers consider in the big picture. If release is the intention, it is of tremendous importance to minimize the period of time between strike and release.
Too many folks still like to have “fun” with the fish they are fighting, allowing it to flounder around far longer than is necessary to land and release it. It is also common for folks to use tackle that is basically too light to handle the target species, resulting in extended battles.
Switching topics here for a second, many folks go out angling without the necessary tools to properly handle releasing (a mere pittance in comparison to the price tag total on the other gear they tote). These tools are absolutely necessary to properly release large esocids (musky/pike): long-nose pliers and heavy-duty hook cutters are a must; not absolutely necessary but advisable are: spares of the aforementioned two, a “hookout” tool, a landing device, split-ring pliers and spare pre-sharpened hooks.
Pliers should be used when hooks are easily removable and not located in any vital area. When hooks are near vitals or deeply embedded (requiring time and possibly ripping/deforming), always use cutters to cut hooks away, making sure pieces fall out (cut in multiple pieces). Split-ring pliers and spare hooks are necessary for speedy hook replacement. A landing device is something some esox anglers don’t believe in, choosing rather, to handle all fish via water release…
This is because of good intentions-the idea being that the fish never comes out of the water at all, or very briefly. There are a select few (very experienced) who are able to handle water release well, but remember the importance of the “time” factor. In many cases, the release will be performed quicker using a landing device like a net or cradle. Fish can be subdued quicker by putting them in a net, and with a big net, the fish can be left over the side of the boat in water during the release process. The same is true of the cradle device, although these can be a little clumsier in landing and are nearly impossible to use alone.
To get a hold on an esox in the water generally requires tiring them out further; now add in the danger of getting hooked by a thrashing fish with a multiple hooked lure in its mouth, and more time is required. A net allows the quickest landing of a big fish. Loose hooks that may end up in a hand or back into the fish causing further damage, end up secured to meshing, basically out-of-play.
Nets have received a bad rap over the years as a landing device. A big reason is because many folks have gotten used to netting a fish and then bringing it into the boat… where it flops around, beating itself up, splitting fins and removing slime. And this is a disaster. Don’t do it.
Left over the side of the boat in the water, the net is an efficient tool. There is some potential for fin-splitting though, but this has been greatly reduced in recent years by use of knotless, treated mesh developed by Frabill for their big landing nets. The good points of a “quality” landing device easily outweigh the bad: the fish is quickly subdued, stays in the water, hook removal is safer for fish and fisher; with experience, it is accomplished quicker than water releases.
Frabill currently has a Power Catch net for esox and super-size net called the Big Kahuna for true trophy seekers. They also will likely be reintroducing the Kwik Kradle, which a cradle/net hybrid that is very fish friendly.
So net the fish head first and lift to secure it. But DON’T bring it in the boat. Just bring the rim of the net to the gunnel. Now the fish is still in the water, yet subdued, and it can stretch out its full length and breath properly. It’s easy and safe to either remove hooks via pliers or cut them free. Now the fish can be measured as it lays in the water with a floating ruler. From here the fish can be quickly held up over the water for a photo, or simply let out of the landing device to swim off … hopefully snapping a few release shots.
Having the proper tools and a gameplan is of the utmost importance. Everyone in the boat should know where the tools are and how to use them. Cameras should be ready to go too, so there are no delays. The importance of speed and efficiency can’t be stressed enough. To date, not enough emphasis on minimizing time has been offered. Of all the issues, this simple one is most important. The warmer the water temperature, the more fish are susceptible to stress-related mortality. Take extra care to be quick during the summer months.
Also consider, that the larger the fish is, the less resilient they are. No fish in the system is more valuable than adult females (the trophies we are all ultimately after). Remember the importance of getting these fish back alive. In these modern days of beautiful reproductions, keeping of these fish for mounting purposes is completely unnecessary. These big girls are the ones that consistently get overhandled, simply because most folks want to treasure the moment and maybe get a few extra photos. Ultimately, time out of the water should be limited to no more than 20 seconds and hopefully far less. It’s no problem with today’s cameras … have the tools-and a plan!
One of my favorite comments to hear from someone – is that catch and release – and handling information offered-up – has had positive effects… especially-so, if it resulted in saving a fish!
Something I’ve long wrestled with regarding catch and release; size limits and fish handling: Are we (me) pushing too hard – taking the fun out of this? Are we being elitist? I guess I still honestly don’t know the answers. Maybe we (i.e. those of us who promote total catch and release for muskies and limited, selective harvest for other species) are.