Catch & Release Basics for Toothy Critters

As esox anglers, we all know the importance of catch and release to the future of our sport. Good intentions alone don’t make for successful releases. If the esox doesn’t survive the release, wasted effort and fish flesh is the result. There is no complete substitute for experience. No doubt, the more fish you handle, the more efficient you’ll be at it. However, even beginners that have a plan can be successful releasers. Sacred as these fish are to some of us, they’re just fish. Realistically, it’s not entirely necessary that the release be “pretty” as long as it’s effective.

Release will usually be effective if you prepare for and practice the basics. The preparation part is the most important. Caring enough to prepare is the first step. Frankly, while out on the water, I still see an alarming number of blatantly mishandled releases. And these aren’t incidental catches; these are folks who are specifically fishing for pike or muskie, and in many cases appear to be quite adept, mechanically. For the future of our sport, we need to be adept at release too.

Let’s start with tools. Proper tools are an absolute necessity. I’ve handled over 3000 muskies and I’m not certain how many pike, but many. Take away my tools and I can’t even hope to do it properly. The list of absolute necessities includes long-nose pliers (the longer the better) and quality hook cutters. Don¹t even think about chasing esox without these items in the boat, at a minimum. Strongly suggested additional items include a large hookout tool, large landing device, jaw spreaders, split-ring pliers and pre-sharpened replacement hooks. Two of each of the absolutes is advisable, just in case they are unintentionally bathed during the course of the day’s angling.

A hookout tool is often real handy for getting into hard-to-reach spots (hooks that are well inside the mouth or even to the gullet). It can be hard to operate a standard pliers in such situations. The right type of large landing device would be strongly suggested to all but a few folks. Beginners definitely need one. There are a handful of folks like my good friend Doug Johnson (who has handled thousands of esox), who prefers to, and is successful in handling all personal releases at boatside without nets or cradles. For most though, a landing device is much safer and much quicker.

We’ll get more in depth in future articles on landing devices, but there are three basic types that I’m aware of (and I know that trophy pike anglers in Europe have some too). There are cradle devices (basically two long rods or splints, with mesh between), the standard hoop landing net, and a hybrid of the net and cradle, Frabill’s Kwik Kradle. The most important consideration for landing devices is size and depth. They must be big enough to hold large fish; they must have coated mesh to minimize tangling, slime removal, and fin damage, and to prevent hook penetration. The mesh MUST offer enough depth so that the fish can be left in the water over the side of the boat. As much as possible, hook removal and measurements need to be done with the fish¹s head in the water. Undersized nets with untreated mesh should never be used. Jaw spreaders can be very helpful in getting at hooks well inside a fish’s mouth. The jaw strength of larger esox is incredible. With their jaws clamped shut, it’s often tough to force them open with anything other than spreaders. I am aware that many pike enthusiasts are against spreader-use, because they often poke additional holes in fish’s jaws. But getting the job done quickly is often more critical than the potential for punctures that will eventually heal (input from the readership is welcomed).

Popping hooks with cutters is advisable, in many cases, to speed up releases and make them safer for angler and fish. I seem to go this route with increased regularity, and strongly suggest it. Quality cutters should easily handle cutting 5/0 hooks. The long-handled Knipex cutters I use are far superior to any I’ve found; they’re strong and get into tough-to-reach places best. Cutters should be used over pliers and hookouts in many cases. Split-ring pliers and pre-sharpened hooks in all standard sizes simply speed things up, and get that hot lure going again. O.K., now I’ll reveal a bombshell. The most important factor in survival (that many are unaware of or ignore) is that the head of the fish breathes in water. With few exceptions, stress is what kills esox. Stress is caused by several factors (including head out of water), but ultimately, minimizing the time between strike and release is most important, especially when water temperatures are high.

Even though I often hear stories of hooking causing death, with the exception of ingested live bait rigs (delayed expiration), mortality due to hooking itself is minute. Certainly eyes can be damaged, and fish will get hooked in the gills, and often bleed from the gills due to hooking and/or blows to the gill plate. None of these situations kill fish though. Quickly cut the hooks into pieces (make sure all pieces fall out), get the fish (including head) back in the water, and the bleeding will stop. As far back as I can remember, having all the tools mentioned, I’ve had only one fish die at the boat for every 400 muskies released.

On the downside, probably four fish per season experience eye damage, likely resulting in blinding in that eye (which won’t kill them, but they’ll likely never reach their growth potential). In many cases though, this is likely a direct result of excited anglers horsing fish. A combination of multiple-hook lures and excessive pressure on fish is often the cause of eye or gill hooking.

The way the battle with esox is handled can have a lot to do with the fish¹s survival. Realize that there is some gray area. But the goal is to land the fish as quickly as possible, yet avoid too much pressure, which would cause the fish to fight to its full potential for violence. An angler can have more control in battle than most realize.

Steady, but not excessive, pressure results in the fish tiring fairly quickly, yet not getting extremely violent. A violent fight results in much of the battle being waged out-of-water, which significantly ups the odds of fish getting off or snagging themselves in critical areas. Use tackle that will handle the fish you are after. Although some consider it sporting to use light tackle, simply put, that will significantly lengthen the fight. A battle with an esox should never last much longer than three minutes. Truth be known, many battles last less than a minute. And that’s good news for the fish.

Water Release vs. Landing Device – This is a touchy subject, and Esox Angler welcomes others’ thoughts… but here’s mine. Inexperienced folks should handle all fish with some type of proper landing device, mainly because it will definitely be quicker and safer. One mistake often made, is attempting to put the fish in the device too quickly. Don’t attempt this when a fish is still full of spunk, but just happens to be near boatside. It will be obvious when they start to tire; at this point lead them in head first and net or cradle them.

Leave the device and the fish in the water. The reason this is safer, is that free hooks (those not in the fish) will usually hang in the mesh. That’s actually good, because the hooks won’t be landing in hands or in other areas of the fish. Unless offending hooks are easily popped out via pliers, simply cut all hooks. If they are badly tangled in the mesh, in or near eyes or gills, or just buried deeply & cut ’em. If the fish’s head had been held out of the water by the mesh, at this point get it in the water and make certain the fish is upright. You are ready for release or photo and release.

Water release can be very effective and safe too… Debra Johannesson, good friend and great angler, recommends hand landing. This method has been very successful for her and some others; and she has some strong reasons to handle esox in this fashion. But it’s my feeling that, for most, it should not be an exclusive method (we will continue dialog on this issue with expert anglers and fisheries personnel). Whether the angler is experienced or not, multiple-hook lures offer strong potential for an unwanted connection between fish and angler. I’ve experienced it several times, and although it may help to boost the fish’s ego a little, it’s definitely an unpleasant experience for both.

Good guidelines for most to follow: Unless the fish is hooked on a single-hook lure, is intended to be released without photo, and it appears the single treble or single hook can easily be popped-out via pliers, a landing device may be the quickest and safest way to go. Remember that in consideration of all factors, faster is better.

Again, keep in mind that the head section breathes. Even though this fact may appear obvious, it seems to me it is largely ignored by many during release most notably with water releasers. I’ve witnessed many examples of folks who probably figure they are doing the noble thing, and it turns out much worse for the fish than a landing device would be.

First of all, the fish is fought significantly longer than it would take to get it in a landing device. Nearing the end of the fight, the fish’s head is held out of the water. Upward pressure continues (head out of water) while the angler searches for and grabs tools… head remains out for varying lengths of time for the unhooking. I’ve seen this stage last as long as three minutes. Often the fish is just badly hooked and the angler is skittish dodging hooks and teeth, and/or the fish shakes every time an attempt is made. A landing device immobilizes fish and usually pins the head to mesh. It’s just plain easier and safer to cut hooks. On the other hand, many folks using landing devices don’t seem to make certain the business end of the fish is in the water as much as possible either. It seems as though people are satisfied with 3/4 of the fish in the water, but if it’s the part that doesn’t breathe, it doesn’t matter.

I also occasionally see folks put fish in a landing device and then bring the whole mess into the boat. Never bring any fish you want to release to the floor of the boat. They will inevitably make a huge mess flopping around, beating themselves up and stressing themselves to the limit. A dead fish is likely to be the result. Don’t do it. The basic keys to success are: proper equipment to minimize fight time, land the fish as quickly as possible, get the hooks out as quickly as possible, get that fish’s head in the water immediately following hook removal. If photos are to be taken before release, keep the fish¹s head in the water until the camera person is ready. Then quickly lift for photos and release. Fifteen seconds is a good out-of-water rule for photos; don’t go beyond it. At least a 1/2 a dozen shots can be taken during that time frame.

Be prepared and it will go well! Have all the tools mentioned. Have a plan in mind for who does what once a fish is on. How will it be landed? Will you cut hooks on all but the easy ones or cut hooks period? Keep its head in the water! Are the cameras ready and does everyone in the boat know how to use them? Do you know how to hold your esox?

The final one is huge. Too many people get out there with no idea of how they are to go about holding one of these fish when they get one. There are a few different ways, and the options are increased with small fish, but anglers fishing for large esox need to know how to get a jaw hold on a big fish. Certainly, if you’ve never caught one it’s tough to practice, but know what you need to do when you get the opportunity. If at all unsure, have someone show you. Actually, a mounted fish is a great tool for this. It’s very important to have a plan from start to finish.

How exactly to pose with a fish is a very arguable subject too. The basics though, are to support the weight of the fish, as evenly as possible, with the other hand -whether it is a horizontal, vertical or semi-vertical hold. Most importantly though, obey the 15 second rule and get it done quick. This is a subject that will be hammered on in every issue of Esox Angler. In-depth looks at all aspects of release will be covered. Expect to hear more specific info on such topics as fighting fish, landing fish, holding fish, how/where exactly to release, live/dead bait use, solo landing and release, trolling, slime removal and split fins. Any new important info will be shared. We are all still learning.

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