Catch and Release Mortality (Part 2)

First, let’s break the causes of mortality into two broad categories: the hooking incident, and everything else that happens afterwards.

Toothy gator brown: Superficial hook-set in the lower jaw.Toothy gator brown: Superficial hook-set in the lower jaw.Where the hook impales the fish is an important factor with respect to the fish’s likelihood of dying after release. If the hook is taken deep enough to involve the gill structure, esophagus, gullet or tongue, that’s a very serious event to the trout. Excessive tissue and organ damage can result, as can severe bleeding. Mortality rates sky-rocket with a deep-hooking incident.

The good news for our sport is that this deep hooking is very seldom associated with artificial flies and streamers. It is MUCH more prevalent with natural bait and (although to a somewhat lesser extent) spinner fishing.

Flies and streamers are most often hooked in upper or lower jaw, the corner of the mouth or the very lip. These “superficial” hooking locations (in and of themselves) very seldom lead to a mortality situation. There may, in fact, be some scars left behind, lip abrasions from the leader, or even a ripped lip. But, these wounds very seldom prove fatal. It is interesting to note, too, that studies show that barbed hooks don’t cause mortality. What they do, however, is complicate the angler’s unhooking process after the fish comes to net. This brings us to the second broad category.

Chafed lip from leader: A superficial injuryChafed lip from leader: A superficial injuryWhat happens AFTER the hook imbeds in a trout’s jaw, has a major impact on whether or not the fish can be successfully released. For the catch and release fisherman, the two most important factors to consider are “playing time” and “time out of water”.

Trout that were brought to hand after being “played out” (on their sides) were the most vulnerable. An Ontario study shows that to hold a “played out” rainbow trout out of the water for SIXTY SECONDS, gives that fish a 28% chance at survival when released.

If that played out rainbow was held out of the water for 30 seconds, it would have had a 62% chance of survival. Even if that rainbow was kept completely submerged, and the hook carefully removed, it would still die 12% of the time.

The take home message is clear . . . Bring those fish in QUICKLY! Exhaustion kills!

Please note, that these studies monitored mortality by observing these fish for 48 hours to two weeks after catching and releasing. Mortality was not always immediately apparent. In many cases it took a while for the fish to succumb to physiological failure. The basic rule here, is rather than playing a fish “to hand”, bring it in quicker and use a landing net. To the maximum extent possible, bring that fish in quickly.

Even with fish that are netted quickly, it is important to minimize “time out of water”. This is probably where I, personally, have the greatest gains to be made. Here are two items I will personally be implementing for the 2010 season:

Tangled mesh net: Increases the fish's time out of water.Tangled mesh net: Increases the fish's time out of water.1. Use Lippa 4 Life or a Boga Grip (lip pliers) to hold my fish horizontally in the water while I remove the hook and my buddy pulls out the camera. I usually fish for trophy fish, so I don’t intend to switch to barbless hooks. It’s hard to hold a big fish securely, without squeezing, while you remove the hook. Lip pliers will be an important aid in my CPR efforts, and minimizing time out of water.

A WORD ABOUT BOGA GRIPS--There's no need to shell out $125 for the name brand item. Here's a grip that is very similar to the one I actually use, with a price tag that is much more affordable. I've been using mine for over 3 years, and I have not been disappointed.
EconoDigi 44 Lip Grip ScaleFish Scales)

2. I’m gong to throw away my nice soft mesh landing net, and replace it with a rubber version. Fishing with barbed hooks, and with multiple hook rigs (tandem nymphs and yarn flies), it’s very easy to get the barbed hook entangled in the mesh. A rubber net will cut down on snags, and reduce time out of water, while I’m trying to unhook a fish that is in turn hooked to a hook that is hooked to the net. See what I mean? Rubber rules!

I am personally convinced that the catch and release ethic is important for the long term viability of our sport. But, just having a catch and release “intent” is not enough. We have to back up our intent with procedures that maximize the chances of survival after the release. Tight lines.