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COLUMN: Proper catch-and-release techniques ensure fish survival

September marks the beginning of catch-and-release season for brook-trout anglers in most areas of Nova Scotia.

For some species, such as Atlantic salmon, catch and release is mandatory all season. Other species, such as striped bass, have a size limit, which means that smaller, and larger fish must be released.

Catch-and-release angling was popularized by the late American angler Lee Wulff, who is credited with coining the phrase, “A sport fish is too valuable to be caught only once.”

Today, more and more anglers are practising catch-and-release angling. There is no question catch-and-release can play a valuable role in sport fish management. When you consider that it can take up to five years to grow a nice brook trout it is important that as anglers we ensure that these large fish are preserved for the future.

Ensuring these valuable fish survive being caught, and then are released, is our responsibility as anglers. If the trout, salmon or striped bass we release are to survive to spawn there are some simple steps we can follow to ensure survival. If possible don’t handle the fish. Fish have a protective layer of slime that is easily removed by dry hands or if the fish is dragged up on the shore. Leave the fish in the water and remove the hook. Small pliers can aid in hook removal.

If you must handle the fish first wet your hand and gently cradle the fish as you remove the hook. Don’t squeeze the fish as it may damage the internal organs. A cotton glove makes it much easier to hang on to the tail of salmon or large trout. Just make sure it is wet before using it on a fish.

Fish depend on their gills to breathe and any damage to the gills certainly reduces the chances of survival. Avoid putting your fingers in the gills, and also avoid touching the eyes. They are easily damaged, especially if you use a landing net.

In some cases, if a fish has been played for a long time, or the water is warm, you may need to revive a fish before releasing it. Small trout are usually landed quickly and often don’t need to be revived but large trout or salmon that have fought for some time must be allowed to recover. Remove the hook and gently hold the fish upright in a gentle flow of water. This will allow water movement over the gills and the fish will obtain oxygen. When the fish recovers it will remain upright in the water and swim away on its own.

Using appropriate gear will aid in releasing fish, and improving survival. Trout often take bait such as worms and minnows deep in their mouth. This increases the difficulty in removing the hook and lowers the chances of survival. Some management areas do not allow the use of natural bait for this reason, necessitating use of flies or unbaited single hook lures. Trout caught on this type of gear can be released much easier. Striped bass anglers are required to use circle hooks for this reason.

Using proper equipment, along with the correct technique, anglers can enjoy their sport and also ensure the fish they release will survive for the future.


Don MacLean is an outdoors writer and biologist who lives in Pictou County.

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