Seven Tips for Successful Catch and Release

Seven Tips for Successful Catch and Release

@jtaylorfishing releasing a nice red! #RFD #redfishdistrict #fishing #redfish

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Autumn is peak season for some of the most popular gamefish species in the Lowcountry (check out our saltwater fishing trend updates). If you're heading out for some saltwater action soon, consider the following tips to improve the likelihood of survival for fish you catch and release. Follow these best practices and help ensure the future of fishing in South Carolina.


Imagine that you just ran a marathon, and that right as you finish, someone cuts off your air. Don’t lift large fish out of the water—don’t even touch the fish if you don’t have to.  Most fish can be released without ever touching them. However, if you do need to remove a large fish from the water, keep the fish in a horizontal position and support its body weight. Never hold a fish in a vertical position. This can tear internal organs and dislocate the spine. 


If you must handle the fish or take it out of the water, do it as quickly as possible. Fish have a slime coating that is designed to protect them from disease.  Always use wet hands or wet gloves to avoid removing this protective layer. Under no circumstance should you ever grab a fish by the eyes or gills.

Nets or cradles can limit your hands-on contact with the fish. If you do have to land a fish with a net or cradle, nets that are rubber, knotless or fine mesh are less abrasive to the fish’s skin and slime coating. 


A picture is a great way to preserve the memory of a trophy catch, but removing a large fish from the water in order to do so can be harmful to the fish. Instead, take photos of the angler reviving the fish. This way, the fish remains in the water and the angler is seen close enough to the fish to still document its size.  Also, be aware of fishery regulations that may prohibit certain species from being removed from the water.


While lip-gripping devices can be useful in handling fish with sharp teeth, recent studies have shown that these tools may actually injure a fish’s jaw, especially if the fish is thrashing around with the device in place. Avoid using lip-gripping devices on anything but the most toothy critters, and never use a lip grip to lift a fish vertically out of the water.


While there is much debate over whether to move the fish back and forth or just hold it gently in the water, the ultimate goal is to get water flowing across the gills until the fish is able to swim off on its own. If there is current present, hold the fish pointing into the current. If you have a partner and are fishing from a boat, idle slowly forward to create a current flow. 

Consider that larger predators (sharks) may be attracted to a distressed fish, and a fish that has not been revived properly can sometimes be an easy meal once released.


 Prime fishing for many of South Carolina’s larger saltwater game fish is during the warmer months, and water temperature plays a critical role in the survival of released fish. Warmer water contains less dissolved oxygen, and fish are under more stress in a warmer water environment. When you're fishing in the summer months, it's critical to use best handling practices -- to help ensure your released fish will survive to swim another day.


Fish that are caught from deep water (generally more than 60 feet) may suffer barotrauma, a condition in which a fish’s swim bladder balloons as it is reeled up through the water column. Signs of this condition include distended intestines, bulging eyes, and bloating of the abdomen. In some instances the stomach may be protruding from the mouth.  NEVER try to push the stomach back down the fish’s throat.

A descender device is an effective tool for returning a fish to deep waters, allowing it to recompress. Unlike venting, which requires puncturing the fish, most descending devices are attached to a fish’s mouth, causing little harm or injury. Pressure activated devices can be set to release a fish at a specified depth. If you regularly deepwater fish, a small investment  in a descender device can pay off big for fisheries and anglers.


About the author: Robert Wiggers is a fisheries biologist and public information director at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

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