Caring for your catch: Handling fish and releasing properly
By Steve Soule | www.ultimatedetailingllc.com
There are probably not many people reading this article or others in this magazine that don’t have a great respect of fish, wildlife and the great outdoors in general. I know that over many years of fishing and spending time on and around coastal waters, my appreciation of the natural beauty and numerous species it supports has only grown greater.
With the vast majority of us spending too many days in offices, stuck on highways, and staring at small screens, time spent outdoors only grows more precious. It has always felt like time well spent, whether fishing for fun or for money as a tournament angler or guide. Understanding the value of the natural resources we have and consciously working to ensure that we can continue to enjoy it for many generations to come is of paramount importance.
CHANGING OF THE BAY
For those that are younger, newer to an area, or just haven’t spent as much time along the coastal waters, change definitely won’t be so noticeable. For those who have been on and around the coast for 10, 20 or 30 more years, change is striking and often disturbing. Coastal development, land erosion, dredge work and many other factors affect the bays and waterways. Some of these factors are just a part of nature and will happen regardless of human impact. Others are a direct effect of our desire to be on or near the water and the need for infrastructure and transportation in and around waterways. Those of us on the upper Texas Coast utilize and enjoy one of the most heavily populated and heavily trafficked bays in Texas.
Galveston Bay has an uncanny ability to withstand catastrophic events and rebound amazingly well. With near constant dredge work, endless barge and ship traffic, an enormous amount of recreational users, run-off water that none of us want to know the content of, and an occasional spill or collision leaking hazardous chemicals into the system, its truly miraculous how abundant this fishery remains. Wildlife in and around Galveston Bay seems to somehow pull through many challenges. The diversity of the system plays a huge role in this; three major Gulf inlets(for the moment), numerous rivers, creeks and bayous that empty into it and vast satellite nursery areas around the bay provide habitat. Given these facts, plus the sheer size of the bay, fish and other sea creatures seem to thrive on their ability to move around the bay system under varying conditions.
Fish and their food sources move around the bay every year, for the reasons listed above and many others. Couple this fact with the not-always-great water conditions and the prospect of catching fish can become daunting. Kudos to those who have figured out how to consistently catch fish here or in any saltwater bay system, as it is often difficult.
Having fished the upper coast for a little over 30 years now, I’ve experienced good and bad. I’ve had more tough days of fishing than I care to admit or recall. I’ve found some great success, and always tried to keep track of how and why, so that I could hopefully repeat those days. I’ve seen some staggering changes and of course developed some very strong opinions based on years of observation.
Though I do eat fish from time to time, and killed more fish in the past for tournaments than I wish that I had, I have come to a point where I only take fish that I can eat that day. I have two primary reasons for this: first, I can assure you that fresh fish tastes much better than frozen. Second, for me, the enjoyment of fishing has always been about the chase and pleasure of fishing and catching them, rather than eating them.
There are laws in place designed to help control and maintain the fish populations that do a reasonably good job of ensuring that we will be able to enjoy the resource for many years to come. Each and every licensed fisher in the state is entitled to participate and enjoy consumption within those laws.
I’m not going to advocate change, though I was pleased when TPWD announced the reduction in speckled trout bag limit this year. I believe that decision will help overall populations. What I would really like to address isn’t the laws, changes to them or enforcement of them. I am of the opinion that those who most frequently use the resource, especially those who make their living from our fisheries, are the ones with the greatest responsibility to maintain the resource and teach future generations.
This group of people, in many cases, knows the condition of the habitat and fishery better than the politicians and lawmakers that govern over it. I have heard many different ideas and opinions about regulations and changes to them and how they will affect guides and commercial fishers. Probably the largest impact that can be controlled is that of the recreational fishing industry.
As a guide, I would say it is in your best interest to encourage that people only take the fish they plan to eat within a short period of time. Definitely, do not catch an additional limit and keep for your customers, since this has been a law for many years now. And as a steward of the fishery and in the interest of ensuring you have fish to catch in the future, encourage catch and release. Trust me, your customers book you because they enjoy fishing with you and respect your knowledge and want your guidance. They aren’t showing up because they have found the best way to feed their families. And yes, they will continue to come back to fish as long as there are fish to catch.
Now that we have jumped onto the catch and release train, we can start thinking about the impact we have there. I’ve spent a lot of years fishing primarily catch and release and have learned a lot about how to make sure fish survive and swim away healthy. I’m going to list some very basic rules to help make sure that are efforts are rewarded with a thriving population of fish.
TIPS FOR CATCH & RELEASE
- Fight fish quickly to help reduce stress and exhaustion effects
- Minimize the time fish are out of the water. They can’t breathe when there isn’t water passing their gills!
- Avoid putting fish in contact with dry surfaces. It removes their protective slime. (wet hands to grab, keep off of hot boat decks)
- If you can, release the fish without removing from the water.
- Hold fish horizontally when out of the water. They don’t have support for internal organs so holding vertically can cause damage.
- If possible, don’t hold fish by lips or jaws. ( Lipping and weighing devices that hold fish by lip or jaws can cause serious damage to connective tissue around the jaw.
- Always attempt to revive fish by holding in water by the tail until they can swim away strongly.
- If you’re going to measure a fish, wet the ruler.
- Don’t force the jaws of a fish to overextend with lipping tools
A FEW MORE THOUGHTS
Fish are fairly durable and can handle being caught and released, but limiting adverse effects helps to make sure our efforts aren’t in vain. Making the effort to encourage and practice catch and release among recreational anglers and guides will almost certainly have a bigger impact on fisheries than regulations. I’ve never been one to believe that government knows or can react fast enough to be the best steward of resources. I firmly believe that as recreational users of the fishery, we stand to lose the most so we should work to maintain it. Killing 30 fish for your customers may be your right, but posting pictures of dead fish in a cooler or on the deck of your boat probably isn’t the best way to market how you help to keep our fishery strong.
Just because you have the opportunity to fish every day, doesn’t mean you should kill fish every day. One day you may just run out of fish. Killing a big trout or redfish for food isn’t great; expect parasitic worms and mushy trout fillets. Plus, the giant rib cage of a bull red yields much less meat than expected. These fish are also important spawners and make future fish generations possible. The same does not apply to flounder fillets, but we do need to maintain a strong breed stock.
Short sided planning around your love of fishing will likely lead to long term disappointment in your catching.