Guest Editorial and Photos
by Dennis Randa
Watching a fish flounder before your eyes or watching them bleed out as a result of careless or inadvertently poor handling just isn’t a part of the Alaska fishing package as I’d like it to be. Thirty-plus years of guiding anglers on the Kenai River and other productive Alaska waters, both salt and fresh, has left me with some indelible learning experiences regarding catch-and-release methods. I hate it when I see a fish being treated badly, and most of the time it is just thoughtless behavior. I’d like to share some of these lessons with other anglers who find themselves releasing a fish they don’t want or legally cannot keep.
Just being aware of the fish’s needs is the first step to a successful release. This holds true for whatever species it may be. The longer one struggles with the fish to extract the hook or take that picture the more likely the fish is to suffer harm. And not one of us wants that. So the first thing is to be prepared for the chore. Have your pliers or tools at hand. Have the camera as ready as possible.
A really handy tool for releasing big fish like salmon or halibut is a hook extractor from one of the tackle-supply companies. These tools cost about $20 and are worth having a spare. They facilitate twisting the hook, being designed to grip and rotate the hook as the operator grasps the tool while engaging the hook, which more easily enables the hook to be removed from the fish. It only requires the hook be grasped in the right position and it is easily operated with a bit of practice. This tool even works on the circle hooks commonly used for halibut. It is really much easier to do the chore with a tool such as this rather than the more common pliers.
Of course the extractor is usually too big for trout and char so a good set of long-nose pliers is still often appropriate for that chore. The bent-wire loop device that I see being more commonly used is a good tool for releasing trout and char but I avoid the longer tool, preferring one that can be held near my hand; my reason for this is I believe this tool can be abusive of the fish’s flesh and I often cannot see how the hook is imbedded into the fish from afar. I believe that this tool is not always proper for removing a hook and that often one needs to use the forceps or needle-nose pliers. If these fish are worth being released they should be handled in the kindest manner possible; yanking or jerking on this tool means that the hook wasn’t in the loop properly and is just tearing out.
I also like to have needle-nose pliers with a cutting edge handy. I keep this tool on my belt next to my knife. I have experienced ‘bleed out’ on salmon, trout and char that are hooked deeply. Having a cutter available enables cutting the line close to the fish’s mouth and just letting the hook be. The fish will probably lose that hook and if it is removed the harm will be greater than leaving it be. I have seen big trout hooked in the large vein running just inside and under their lower jaw bleed out in a few short minutes while in the water at my feet. This gives me an absolutely horrible feeling. I cut all leaders on hooks imbedded in this area. I believe the fish survives this.
Over the years I have learned that the kind of net used to capture the fish makes a difference. I have observed the difference between the way a big rainbow trout behaves in a standard-type knotted nylon net as opposed to a knotless rubber net. More often than not with the rubber net, they just lay there, while in a standard net they tend to struggle and fight against being wrapped up in the nylon. I have often observed this with coho salmon as they struggle and lose their scales. I use the rubber-style net as often as I can. I believe that the fish respond better to handling if they don’t struggle and fight the net.
The fish’s behavior certainly influences the decision of how to handle that fish. Often the fish just plain fight the fact of their capture. I use a nylon commercial fisherman’s fish-picking glove to make controlling the fish easier. This glove worn on the strong hand makes holding the fish in the water possible most of the time. I have several of these gloves available for clients to handle their fish. I wear one. The fish cannot slip away most of the time. Just hold the tail firmly with the head facing into the net and lift the fish for that lifetime memory when the camera operator is ready. Return the fish to the water in preparation for the next shot or to be released.
Something I learned while helping out at the hatchery (got chewed out by the biologist) is to be careful while lifting a heavy fish by the tail, as often this action will stretch the fish’s vertebrae, rupturing small blood vessels. Lift the fish with both hands supporting the heart with the other hand while clasping the tail firmly. I have noticed on fish that have been handled by the tail and then subsequently filleted that there will be blood in the flesh near the spine. This type of damage will affect the long-term survival of the released fish.
Part of the preparation process is having an awareness of what you are going to do before being faced with the decision of what to do. Have a clear picture of what it is that you want to do and how you will accomplish the act(s). Accommodate the fish’s needs into this action plan. Leave the fish’s head submerged as long as possible while preparing for the release and/or picture. Be aware that the fish’s head needs to be facing upstream into the current. It is harmful to run water backwards through the fish’s gills. Strange but true, so when releasing the fish be on the side of the boat that keeps the water running into the mouth in case the fish isn’t ready to swim strongly from your hands. And it should do just that.
I have adopted a practice of, whenever physically possible, entering the water to hold the fish while preparing for the handling. I find that often a tired fish holds in the water quietly just using the line with the hook in the fish’s mouth as a tether; it’s something to think about, though certainly not always possible. Sometimes just holding the fish quietly (remember the glove) in the net is the best way. Have an open mind toward what is or what looks like it would be best for the fish.
Often entering the stream or river just isn’t possible, as the water can be too deep or too fast, or maybe there just isn’t a place to stop or pull-over. I see a lot of fishermen bring the fish into the boat. I have faced having to do this for years and just plain do not like doing so. But, that said, I stumbled onto a way of protecting the fish’s physical needs while having that fish out of the river and in the boat: I keep a plastic bucket in my boat to use for a trash can, kept inside a second bucket. If we need to bring a fish aboard the boat, I will fill the second bucket with water, hold it at a sideways angle and have the angler keep the head of the fish submerged.
Most of Alaska’s waters are very cold, making the success of releasing a fish back to the river very likely. But something to think about and be aware of is how warm some of our waters can get in the summer. Systems like the Kenai include large, turbid lakes that absorb a lot of heat and often get quite warm in midsummer, with water temps reaching into the high 60s. This condition increases the fish’s production of lactic acid as a byproduct of strenuous exercise; compounded by a longer time for the fish to eliminate this substance, the warm water significantly increases the stress on the fish, making the fighting time, handling time and stress of release even more critical to that fish’s well-being.
Again, preparation is most important. The fish just doesn’t have the luxury of being able to survive long out of the water without permanent damage to its nervous system. Being prepared, knowing just how you are to handle the fish whether it is a salmon or a trout, requires some forethought. And as you gain experience handling and releasing a fish back to the water you will become more adept and able to see the right thing to do. Yes, mistakes will be made, but learn from them and apply those lessons the next time. It is a wonderful thing to have the fish give a great kick of its tail and swim off as it gives you an icy-water face-wash, knowing it wasn’t much more than inconvenienced from its experience with you.
Dennis Randa is a veteran Kenai River guide with over 30 years as a professional guide in Alaska. Dennis shared that having lines in the water satiates his OCD. He is the owner of Randa's Guide Service and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org