Story by Shane Bonnot, CCA Texas Advocacy Director
Nearly four million finfish were killed during the 2021 Texas Winter Storm. Non-recreational species constituted 91 percent of the total mortality in numbers, and spotted seatrout dominated the remaining 9 percent of game species that were impacted by this historic event.
While TPWD explores management options to help impacted fisheries recover from this devastating event, there are actions recreational anglers can take to expediate the speed of this recovery. We are, after all, the original conservationists.
It is our responsibility to ensure that each fish we handle has the best opportunity to recover and survive upon release. As the former hatchery manager of Sea Center Texas, I have seen my fair share of mishandled fish, and unfortunately the resultant delayed infections and effects that often are not observed by the casual angler. I’ve also seen fish that were properly handled and easily incorporated into a hatchery broodstock program with no evidence of handling-related stress. A few small actions make a big difference in the fate of a released fish. The following are just a few techniques I would recommend.
GO BARBLESS | I’ve been on numerous broodstock collection trips. During these efforts, I’d encourage others on the boat to take their pliers and push down the barb(s) on their hooks. As long as you maintain adequate line tension during retrieval, you should be able to land your fish without issue. The obvious benefit to this simple trick is that you reduce physical harm to the fish during hook removal. The other, often unrealized, benefit is that your fish handling time is dramatically reduced.
REDUCE FIGHT TIME | This technique may be difficult to master and could reduce the joy of “fighting the fish.” Just remember, the longer you fight the fish, the longer it will take for it to recover. You want to avoid the fish running low on oxygen and building up lactic acid in their muscles as a result. This issue becomes exacerbated in warmer water temperatures or low dissolved oxygen conditions. The key here is finding a balance in an enjoyable fishing experience and a released fish that can swim away under its own power. If you have to spend excessive time reviving the fish to swim away then you need to take steps to reduce the fight time on the next catch.
MAINTAIN THE MUCUS | The mucus or slime coat on the fish serves as a physical barrier against pathogens, bacteria, fungi and parasites. It contains antibodies, enzymes and antimicrobial peptides that combat pathogens and reduce infections. Mucus also serves as a water barrier, helping the fish with osmoregulation. The best way to ensure you reduce impacts to the mucus layer are to 1) Use a net with rubber-coated mesh and 2) Keep your hands wet while handling the fish. Avoid using nylon nets, knotted nets, towels and any other material that would remove the mucus.
HORIZONTAL HOLD | I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen damaged jaws or mouths as a result of vertical hangs from a Boga, particularly on heavy trout. You wouldn’t notice this immediately after the catch or while you are taking that “trophy picture,” but rest assured, when you’re hanging that heavy fish from the soft tissue of its lower jaw, you run the risk of breaking the jaw and tearing tissue. Not to mention possible internal damage you are causing to internal organs and spinal cord. Think about it for a minute. Their bodies and internal organs are supported by the water around them as they have evolved in this near-weightless environment. When you pull them up vertically out of the water, the spine can separate, and internal organs can shift downward and possibly tear. When removing the fish from the water, utilize a horizontal hold with one hand under the pectoral fins and the other at the tail. Maintain minimum squeeze and be sure to keep your fingers out of the gills.
THINK LIKE A FISH | There are several other practices that you can employ while practicing catch and release. Reduce time out of water, revive fish facing the current, cut the line on a gut hook, use circle hooks, utilize pliers for hook removal and properly utilizing lip tools are all excellent additional ways to improve survivability. You may have your own tricks you could add to this list, but my favorite advice given to me by a former supervisor is to “think like a fish.” Imagine you are the fish that you are handling and do everything in your power to ensure that you will swim away to see another day.
IT STARTS WITH YOU | There are numerous resources for recreational anglers to learn more about catch and release practices. One of the most recognized and thorough sources for such information is ReleaSense.org Along with Shimano and Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, CCA is a founding partner of ReleaSense – an online platform for anglers, industry and resource managers to share information regarding the best catch and release practices. ReleaSense offers excellent safe-release practices, resources and the latest research on reducing moretality of released fish. From inshore to deep-water offshore species, ReleaSense provides detailed information on the latest release techniques and scientific literature supporting catch and release tactics.
As highlighted on the ReleaSense website – It starts with you. Anglers are the backbone of fisheries conservation and we have the power to make the difference in the speed of this fisheries recovery by employing safe handling techniques. Let’s all do our part – Fish today with tomorrow in mind.