A prolonged fight may take a heavy toll on fish, both immediately and in the future. As the clock ticks away, the likelihood that the fish will survive decreases. Hooks, lines or leaders may injure the fish during the fight and large fish caught on extremely light tackle may be stressed as the fight wears on. The best action for a fish destined for release is to bring it to the boat or beach as quickly as possible.
Single hooks do the least amount of damage. Many lures are rigged with treble hooks, some with three sets of trebles. I prefer not to use lures with treble hooks, but sometimes the trebles contribute to the lure's action and should not be replaced. If I can't easily replace the treble, I mash down the barbs on each hook with a pair of pliers.
Often, if the line is kept tight during the battle, the fish will stay connected. The idea may run aground with some fish that are prone to a lot of head-shaking during the battle, but it’s worth a try. If you are not keeping fish, does it really matter if you have him on for just a few jumps?
A relatively new style on the scene is a single hook made to replace treble hooks on lures. I know of two options sold by VMC and Owner, manufacturers of top quality fishing hooks. The hooks come in a variety of sizes and all have some distinct design features. The gap of the hook appears to be proportionally wider when compared to the short shank of the hook, but the most notable feature shows the oversized eye in line with the shank, rather than perpendicular. This allows the hook to track straight on the lure and provide the best opportunity for a good set when the fish strikes. I like 'em and have retrofitted several of my previously treble hooked lures with them.
What happens as the fight draws to a close? Fish are covered with a protective slime coating and when that coating is scraped off, the fish is more vulnerable to infection or parasites. If a fish must be handled, try using a wet rag or wet gloves. Ideally, the fish will not be handled at all, and remain in the water at boat side or in the surf while the hook is backed out.
A commercially made de-hooker, which is a length of heavy wire bent into a tight J-hook at one end, with a wooden grip or a T-bend at the opposite end, enables the angler to keep the fish in the water. The angler holds the line in front of the lure or hook, the de-hooker is pulled along the shank of the hook, into the bend of the hook and jerked sharply in the opposite direction. The fish pops off, untouched.
Careful Catch and Release
Sometimes a fish must be handled. When that happens, never put your fingers in the gills of a fish intended for release. Gills, which fish use for breathing, are very fragile and can be damaged easily. It’s not a good idea to put your fingers in the gills of any fish even if it's intended to go home with the angler for dinner. Several species of fish have very sharp gill rakers which are spines attached to the inside of the gills that will cut your finger like a razor. For your safety and the health of the fish, avoid the gills.
If you must handle a fish, try cradling it on its back, rather than with a tight grip around its belly, which might damage its internal organs. I’ve tried this tactic successfully with several fish including false albacore up to 15 pounds, a fish that will beat the deck of a boat frantically if left unchecked.
If a hook cannot be removed without injuring the fish, clip the line or leader as close as possible to the hook, and leave the hook in the fish. The fish may die, but certainly will have a better chance of survival with a hook in his tongue, than with half of its throat ripped out.
Try not to indiscriminately toss a fish back into the water, belly-flopping with a large splash. If you had to handle the fish, after the hook is removed hold it in the water until it flips its tail a time or two, or swims out of your hand. An exhausted fish is a an easy target for predators.
If you catch a fish of legal size and want to eat it, enjoy. I do the same. But if you choose not to keep a fish, release it carefully. A fish that swims away and makes a full recovery will continue to grow and reproduce and that’s the future of fishing.
When a fish is caught and released back into the wild, there's no guarantee the fish will live, even if it swims away apparently unharmed. For the fish to have the best chance of survival after the catch a careful release is planned before the fish is hooked.