Big Release: A Species-by-Species Guide to Releasing Big Gamefish

by Captain John McMurray

It was a spectacularly gorgeous morning, one of those rare summer days when there isn’t a touch of wind. Even better, we were the only boat around for miles, there were big bluefin tuna busting bait all over the place, and one was putting a serious bend in my spinning rod!

About twenty minutes prior, I had made my first cast into a pod of about a half-dozen fish that seemed committed to ignoring my popper, until a big bluefin smashed it about 10 feet from the boat. I beat the fish in relatively short time using appropriately sized tackle, a Van Staal 250 paired with a heavy-duty Tsunami spinning rod, and now I had it doing short circles around the boat. When I see color, my first impulse is to call for the gaff, as I imagine myself returning home a hero, supplying my entire block with sushi for a week… but this fish was in good shape, and my conscience intervened. Bluefin populations are in rough shape, and I recalled the words the late Lee Wulff: “A fish is too valuable to catch only once.” I decided to let that fish go.

Placing a damp towel over a tuna’s eyes has a calming effect on them and makes unhooking a whole easier.
Placing a damp towel over a tuna’s eyes has a calming effect on them and makes unhooking a whole easier.

I handed the rod off to my Second in Command, Captain Brendan Nelson. I hopped to the console and engaged the throttles, then quickly went back and grabbed the 60-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. With the boat moving forward and water moving across the fish’s gills, I reached down and twisted the back circle hook, which I had previously substituted for the popper’s original treble. The fish popped free, lumbered there stunned for a moment, then, with a big splash, darted back down to the deep, probably pretty exhausted but certainly able to recover. I felt pretty darn good about that. Brendan and I high-fived and went back to chase some more.

More and more anglers are enjoying the pleasures of catch-and-release fishing. In addition to voluntarily releasing many of their trophies (and quite a few fish of more modest size), anglers are also releasing many fish because the law, in the form of size limits, seasons or similar regulations, requires that they do so. With so many fish being released after capture, it is inevitable that some will not survive the experience; fisheries managers refer to such losses as “release mortality.” For catch and release to be a viable conservation strategy, the release must be done properly so that the great majority of fish survive. Fishermen may debate the merits of some release practices; however, what follows is a summary of the techniques recommended by a number of experts to release certain popular species.

BILLFISH

Although anglers like to pose with their defeated quarry, removing even a small billfish from the water is not recommended. Dr Eric Prince of NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center notes that bringing a billfish aboard stresses the animal, particularly if the action causes the fish to explode into a last burst of frantic activity. It can also strip away a fish’s 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.

Traditionally, dehooking a billfish was done by reaching down and getting a good grip on the fish’s bill. However, “billing” is losing popularity and a device called a “snooter” is becoming more common. The loop is placed over the bill then pulled tight. You can make one of these devices yourself using a plastic PVC pipe with a rope running inside, connected to a stainless-steel cable loop. You can also purchase one ready to go, such as the one above we found at billfishtacklesupply.com.
Traditionally, dehooking a billfish was done by reaching down and getting a good grip on the fish’s bill. However, “billing” is losing popularity and a device called a “snooter” is becoming more common. The loop is placed over the bill then pulled tight. You can make one of these devices yourself using a plastic PVC pipe with a rope running inside, connected to a stainless-steel cable loop. You can also purchase one ready to go, such as the one above we found at billfishtacklesupply.com.

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, dehooking was facilitated by reaching down and getting a good grip on the fish’s bill. However, “billing” is losing popularity. Today’s alternative to billing is using a “snooter,” a plastic PVC pipe with a rope running inside, connected to a stainless-steel cable loop. The loop is placed over the bill then pulled tight, either by hand or by tying the rope off to a cleat. Once the fish is under control, the hook is easily removed.

A review of hundreds of tagged and recaptured billfish revealed that about 25% of the hooks left in the fish remained in place more than a year after release, with many causing infections. Thus, removing the hook is advisable. There are numerous commercially available dehooking devices made, for both circle and J-hooks that make the process easier. Of course, if a fish is deeply hooked, cutting the leader and hoping for the best is the only option.

Such deep hooking can be largely avoided by using circle hooks, which are widely endorsed by fisheries scientists. Research has clearly demonstrated that such hooks minimize not only gut-hooked fish, but foul-hooked fish as well.

Billfish often need to be resuscitated after the hook is removed. 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 slacks the rope, releasing the wire and freeing the fish. It is also possible to use a heavy fishing outfit, employing a heavy nylon cord as the terminal leader. The cord is tied to the upper bill with a slipknot and the fish is towed slowly, 40 to 50 yards behind the boat. As the fish regains its strength and becomes more able to maintain its position in the water column, the angle of the line will decrease. Once this angle gets to around 45 degrees, the crew can lead the fish back to the boat and release the slipknot. Those using his approach believe that it takes the guesswork out of determining when a fish is revived.

Using adequate tackle also increases the chances for a successful release. Fighting big billfish on tackle too light for the job will do nothing but wear a fish down to the point of exhaustion, causing lactic acid and carbon dioxide build-up that can sometimes be fatal (see sidebar). Extended fights make billfish difficult to revive and susceptible to predators after release. However, attempting to release a “green” fish carries its own risks, both to the crew and to the fish, which may suffer fatal injuries from slamming itself against a boat’s hull.

TUNA

Dr. David Itano at the University of Hawaii states that minimizing hooking and fighting stress, as well as handling and time out of the water, are the keys to a successful release. Tuna can easily fight themselves to death and, as with billfish, appropriate tackle to match the quarry will reduce mortality. Dr. Gregory Skomal, biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, recommends keeping the fight times under 15 minutes whenever possible.

Most experts agree the the best thing you can do to help a released fish survive is to catch it on suitable tackle, and keep the fight time as short as possible.
Most experts agree the the best thing you can do to help a released fish survive is to catch it on suitable tackle, and keep the fight time as short as possible.

Because tuna lack a bill, they can’t be controlled in the water as easily as billfish. However, the basic technique of bringing them alongside a moving boat for release is the same. Reviving a tired fish is also important, since tuna, like billfish, are “obligate ram ventilators” that must move forward in order 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, finds that when “chunking” for tuna, leaving the reel in gear rather than in freespool greatly reduces the chance of a fish being deeply hooked. Contrary to popular belief, such hooks can be easily removed with a little practice, either by simply getting a grip on the hook and popping it out of the jaw by hand or by using a specially designed dehooker. Often, the curve of the hook may be grasped, and the entire hook pulled through the hole in the fish’s jaw, making the release as simple as clipping the line with one hand while holding the hook with the other. This approach also provides a unique method of reviving a tuna that is too tired to be release immediately; once the hook is pulled through the fish’s jaw, but before the line is clipped, the line may be used to tow the tuna through the water for a few minutes until it can swim on its own.

If tuna are small enough, though, release need not be so complicated. According to Dr. Skomal, tuna weighing less than 50 pounds are very hardy, and their survival rate after release is high. They may be lifted out of the water by their tails, and laid down on a soft surface. Then the hook may be very quickly removed (cover the fish’s eyes with a damp cloth and keep its body wet if any delay is anticipated) and then “jump start” the breathing process by dropping the fish back into the water headfirst.

SHARKS

Minimizing fighting stress as well as properly handling sharks at boatside are the keys to successfully releasing sharks in good condition.
Minimizing fighting stress as well as properly handling sharks at boatside are the keys to successfully releasing sharks in good condition.

Dr. Skomal notes that with sharks, physical trauma associated with hook wounds and handling at boatside is a much more important factor than physiological stress associated with the fight. He has done research on blue sharks that found that most gut-hooked fish had massive infections and were emaciated. Thus, avoiding deeply hooked fish will help prevent release mortality. Many anglers and captains that I spoke with felt that circle hooks did not work well for shark fishing, as sharks, unlike billfish and tuna, lack the clear jaw hinge where circle hooks usually lodge. Some also mentioned that circle hooks have difficulty puncturing sharks’ tough, raspy skin. Others, including Dr. Skomal, Dr. Safina and Dr. Dean Grubbs of the Pelagic Fisheries Research Program at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, argue that, if used properly, circle hooks did work well in this fishery, although they agreed that J-hooks might result in more hookups and fewer dropped fish because of the physical characteristics of a shark’s mouth.

Charles Witek, Fisheries Committee Chair of 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% of the time.” Dr. Carl 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 at boatside, the wireman 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 is kept under water and the tension on the wire remains constant. However, if someone tries to lift a shark’s head out of the water, the fish will often explode in a flurry of white water, flopping its tail and flashing teeth. Toward the end of the fight, many sharks have a tendency to spin and roll themselves up in the leader when they can no longer pull line off the reel. If this happens, the angler will have to unroll the shark prior to cutting the leader. That is done simply by pulling gently on the leader. Many people don’t take the trouble to do this and just cut the leader near the swivel, leaving the wire wrapped around the fish – an irresponsible action that will leave the fish wrapped in wire that will eventually bind tightly around its body and cut into its skin, making the shark susceptible to infection, disease and parasites. Instead, the leader should be cut as close to the hook as possible, preferably at the loop where it attaches the hook. With deeply hooked fish, the leader should be cut as close as possible to the shark’s mouth.

Under no circumstance should a shark be gaffed or brought on deck prior to release. Sharks, more than any other fish, are likely to suffer damage to internal organs if removed from the water.

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

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