Mike Ladle


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Tackle and Tactics.

THINK LIKE A FISH Part 22 Catch and release?

"Catch and release" - a relatively new phrase in the jargon of game fishing and almost totally alien territory to the sea angler - has been practised for many years by coarse fishermen. This is so much the case that we no longer think of doing anything else. Some trout fisheries are now trying to sell the idea of releasing fish and the associated use of barbless hooks. Even more recently the decline in salmon stocks has induced the powers that be to try and conserve spring fish by persuading anglers to put some of them back alive.

Of course the original reason for catching fish, in the dim and distant past, was to provide food. There can be no doubt that prehistoric man (and woman) used a wide range of methods, including hook and line, to supply the dinner table. In those times of course, since the object was to kill, cook and eat the catch; hooks, spears, nets, traps and poison were all suitable methods.

Only the use of traps and hooks allows the potential release of unwanted fish while they are still live and kicking. Even today, despite the need for conservation, release of small or inedible fish by fishermen is a rarity. Indeed, the bulk of our commercial catches are taken by nets, which inevitably result in the death and destruction of the byecatch. Even if you have never watched a gill net being hauled or a trawl catch being dumped on the deck you must have seen television pictures of small fish being swept back into their native element - all of them effectively dead or dying.

As coarse angler it's very easy to get that "holier than thou!" feeling about all this "slaughter". As I say, it is many years since coarse men "saw the light," and decided to return fish alive. But hold it right there! Before we label our saltwater and salmonid fishing brethren as barbarians perhaps it's worth taking a look at what happens to the fish we catch. Are they injured by being hooked? How many of them survive being caught? Does anybody know the answers?

Taking the third question first. There have been quite a few studies on "hooking mortality" (survival of hooked fish) and the effects of catch and release. Very little of this work was in Britain and most of the publications are from the USA.

Doctor Roger Barnhart of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service has reviewed ten years experience of catch and release fishing. The "put 'em back alive" approach was first tried in 1954 in the Great Smoky Mountains and is now widespread in most states and provinces. The first result shows that anglers are reasonable people (I know! I know! - we were all well aware of how reasonable we are!) and will obey 'Catch & Release' rules if given evidence to demonstrate the need for them. Many largemouth bass anglers now return their catches and even sea anglers in the USA are, at last, trying to preserve declining stocks by carefully handling unwanted fish and putting them back in the sea. British salt-water men please note.

A study on hooking mortality in walleyes (Fletcher) (similar to our own zander) showed that fish caught on lures and on worm baited hooks suffered death rates of only 1.1%. In both largemouth and smallmouth bass (Bennet et al.) hooking mortality was correlated with increasing water temperature and ranged from 0% to 16% (the latter at a water tempearature of 23 degrees). Quinn showed (with largemouths) that hooking or handling mortality did not negate the effects of catch and release and that voluntary catch and release can maintain or improve fishing quality. Beggs et al. looked at the effects of angling stress on muskies. 30% of the fish caught died. Bluegills caught on worms (88%) had higher mortalities than those on flies (32%), lures (28%) or in seine nets (12%). Fish hooked in the jaw or lip survived much better than those hooked in mouth, gill or eye. Muoneke looked at white crappies on livebait and spotted bass on spinners in the spring. 9.3 % of crappies and 8.5% of bass died after capture.

Of course a lot depends on the type of gear used and how the fish are handled. It seems likely that anglers in Britain (certainly freshwater anglers) are much more aware of the need to, mouth-hook fish, keep the bodies of banked fish wet, avoid abrasion of the skin, remove hooks swiftly and cleanly and to get fish back in the water as soon as possible (in fact to unhook them in the water if possible). In view of this the survival rates of our fish are likely to be much better than those quoted above. In fact for many years I have been involved in radio-tagging studies with dace and pike. Nearly all the fish tagged were caught on rod and line and despite the fact that it takes some time to attach tags, every fish caught was returned alive and well and almost all survived in good condition for at least the lifetime of the tag (up to two years in some cases).

Like many other sea anglers I like to eat some of the fish I catch and I see no problem with this. However, angling is a very selective way of catching fish and if we return all our unwanted fish with care not only will it help to conserve stocks for us but it should provide ammunition in our battle to reduce the impact of commercial fishing on our favourite species. Let no one think that commercial fishing does not matter to them.

We all know that cod stocks are already at the bottom of the slippery slope but equally important to sea anglers are the massive reductions in average sizes of the fish that we catch. I read recently that the average size of cod has reduced, over the years, from about 100 cm to only 40cm, plaice have suffered just as badly and we all know about the shift in bass sizes.

If you have any comments or questions about fish, methods, tactics or 'what have you.' get in touch with me by sending an E-MAIL to - docladle@hotmail.com


Think like a fish.

Catch and release?

A roach weighing 1kg from the Dorset River Frome.

Fine fish like this have been returned alive, as a matter of course, for many decades.

This 'stale' salmon took a spinnerbait intended for pike.

Salmon stocks are now so low that many anglers have resorted to catch and release fishing.

A small bass from the Frome estuary.

Undersized bass are all released but members of BASS now put back almost all their catches, whatever the size.