Fish Handling and Gear
Fishing is a favorite pastime of Florida’s residents and visitors. In 2016, Florida’s recreational anglers caught roughly 213 million marine fish, 125 million of which were released. Anglers can use various fish handling methods and gear to increase the survival of released fish.
What Causes Angling Mortality in Fish?
Fish may die after release for a variety of reasons. The most common causes of post-release mortality are physiological stress on the fish resulting from struggle during capture, injuries caused by the hook, and mishandling of the fish by the angler. Unfortunately, some fish may die after release even though they appear unharmed and despite efforts by the angler to revive the fish.
Fish that struggle intensely during capture are usually exhausted and stressed from the accumulation of excessive amounts of lactic acid in their muscles and blood. The stress of capture may be more severe for larger fish such as tarpon, therefore, using the proper weight-class tackle, landing your catch quickly, and releasing the fish as quickly as possible increases the fish’s chance of survival. Bringing an exhausted fish out of the water is like asking a triathlon winner to jump back in the water and hold their breath - they both need oxygen to recover!
If you have caught a fish that you do not intend to keep or that cannot be harvested, follow the steps below to increase the chances the fish you release will survive.
Know Before You Go
- Decide beforehand which fish are to be kept and immediately release all others.
- Do not engage in a prolonged debate over whether or not to release a fish after it has been landed.
- Make sure you can identify the fish in your area, specifically the fish you are targeting. Have a resource to help you identify fish you are not familiar with, such as the Fishing Lines guide or a saltwater fish field guide.
- Always be aware of current regulations and know how to measure the fish you target. This minimizes handling time when determining whether or not you can keep the fish you caught.
- Use tackle heavy enough to bring the fish in quickly and avoid using multi-hook rigs or lures.
- If you have a treble hook, you can remove some of the hooks and flatten the barbs. This makes it easier to remove the hooks from the fish and causes less damage.
- Make sure you have all the proper tools and gear on your vessel before heading out for the day.
Check out the Saltwater Fishing Checklist for items you can use for a successful day on the water!
Handling Fish Properly
- Handle fish as little as possible and only with wet hands. This reduces the removal of fish slime, which protects the fish from infection and aids in swimming.
- Match tackle to the targeted fish to land it quickly and minimize stress on the fish. Large species such as sharks, billfish and tarpon should be brought alongside the boat within 20 minutes of being hooked. If you are consistently landing exhausted fish that require extensive efforts to resuscitate, consider using heavier tackle.
- A knotless, rubber-coated landing net is ideal when handling a fish since it supports the fish’s body weight.
- Remember, fish swim horizontally! Never hold a fish by its jaw, gills or eyes.
- Large fish, such as tarpon, should not be boated or dragged over the gunwale of the boat because this could injure the internal organs of the fish.
- When holding a fish that has teeth, use a gripping tool to support the front of the fish, and use the other hand under the belly to evenly support the fish's weight.
- Never hold on to or tow a fish not allowed to be harvested to a different location to weigh or measure it.
- Carefully remove the hook if possible. If the fish is gut-hooked or especially large or agitated, cut the line as close to the hook as you can while the fish is still in the water.
- Reduce handling by using a dehooking tool. Dehooking tools allow anglers to quickly release their catch while minimizing injuries and handling time.
- Always release your fish head first into the water. This allows water to be forced through the mouth and over the gills, essentially giving it a “breath of fresh air.”
Photographs and Video
Capturing a catch on camera is a great way to share your experience with others and to create lasting memorabilia.
It is okay to take a picture of a fish that is not allowed to be harvested while it’s in the process of being released, but it still must be let go immediately after. A fish should not be held out of the water for long periods of time just for the purpose of taking a picture.
Remember, when taking a picture of your catch, hold the fish horizontally and support its weight with both hands. This decreases the possibility of damaging the fish internally.
It is best to designate someone on the boat as the photographer, that way when an angler hooks up with a fish, the photographer is ready to go.
Whenever possible, take pictures of the fish while in the water. Tarpon should always be left in the water if they are more than 40 inches long.
And remember, if you are releasing your catch… Practice CPR-Catch, Photo, Release!
Fishing Tackle and Gear to Help Released Fish Survive
Circle hooks are designed so the point is turned perpendicular to the shank to form a circular or oval shape. They are best used with natural bait (live or dead) and are 90% more likely to hook fish in the mouth instead of in the esophagus or stomach. Hooking a fish in the mouth reduces internal harm, decreases dehooking time, and lessens the chances of the angler needing to leave the hook in the fish. Fish hooked in the corner of the mouth also tend to fight less than fish that are hooked in the gut. Pictured is an example of a J-hook (left) and a circle hook (right).
If a fish is hooked deep in the throat or gut, research has shown that it is best to cut the leader as close to the hook as possible and leave the hook in the fish. Prolonged attempts to remove the hook often do more harm than good.
Circle Hook Tips! Try fishing with barbless hooks or crimp the barb down. Catch rates using barbed versus barbless hooks are not significantly different, but the advantage of using barbless hooks is that they are easier to remove from a fish or yourself! Also remember to not “set” the circle hook. After the fish takes the bait, allow the fish to run and then proceed to reel it in.
Non-Stainless Steel Hooks
Non-stainless steel hooks (steel and bronze) increase survival rates of fish. If these hooks cannot be removed from the fish, they will rust and deteriorate sooner than stainless steel and cadmium or nickel-plated hooks. They are also less toxic.
Dehooking tools are designed to remove a hook from a fish without the hook being re-engaged. Dehooking tools come in a variety of shapes and sizes to fit the need of the angler. Remember, even a pair of needle nose pliers is considered a dehooking tool.
Dehooking tools should match to the angler, the fish being targeted, and the vessel. If an angler is fishing from a boat with a high gunwale, the dehooking tool may need to have a longer “shaft”. If being used on a kayak, a shorter dehooking tool should be used.
If targeting fish with large teeth, spines or sharp barbs, use a long dehooking tool to keep hands and fingers out of harm’s way.
If a fish is gut hooked, cut the line as close to the hook as possible to avoid further damage to internal organs.
Photo courtesy of Florida Sea Grant
If the fish doesn't immediately swim away or it is lethargic or erratic, some "resuscitation" may be needed.
Revive exhausted but otherwise healthy fish by first placing the fish in the water, one hand under the belly, and the other hand holding the bottom lip or tail. If the vessel is anchored, point the fish head-first into the current to gently force water through the mouth and over the gills. If the vessel is not anchored or there isn’t a current, hold the fish in the water alongside the boat and gently nudge the boat into gear, forcing water through the gills of the fish. If an angler is fishing from a non-motorized vessel, such as a kayak, place the fish in the water, hold its front lip, (you can use a gripping tool if the fish has teeth), and move the fish in a figure “8” motion.
Never move the fish back and forth in the water. This will not allow water to flow properly through the gills of the fish!
Circle hooks are 90% more likely to hook fish in the mouth instead of in the esophagus or stomach, which reduces internal harm, decreases dehooking time, and lessens the chances of the angler needing to leave the hook in the fish.Watch Video
Barotrauma and Releasing Fish Caught from Deep Water
Fish that are caught in deep water and released may face additional challenges to survival. Some marine fish, such as snappers and groupers, have a gas-filled organ called a swim bladder that controls buoyancy and allows the fish to maintain a certain depth. When fish are pulled up from deep water (typically depths greater than 50 feet), the change in pressure can cause the gas in the swim bladder to expand and in some cases burst. Damage to the swim bladder or other internal organs that is caused by such change in pressure is called barotrauma.
When a fish suffering from barotrauma is released, it is unable to swim back down to capture depth making it difficult to survive the elements and avoid predators. If a fish needs to be released and shows any or all of these signs of barotrauma, venting tools and descending devices may increase the fish’s chance of survival after release.
If the stomach is protruding from the mouth of the fish, do not puncture or push the stomach back in. When the fish swims back down to depth it will re-ingest its stomach. Return the fish to the water as soon as possible and, if necessary, revive the fish by moving the fish forward in the water allowing water to pass over the gills.
Venting tools are sharpened, hollow instruments such as a hypodermic syringe with the plunger removed or a 16-gauge needle fixed to a hollow wooden dowel. These devices are used to treat barotrauma by releasing expanded gas from the fish body cavity, enabling fish to swim back to capture depth after release. A variety of venting tools are available in bait and tackle stores. Knives or an ice-pick are not venting tools because they do not allow the expanded gases to escape from inside the body.
How to Vent
Vent the fish as quickly as you can. Gently hold the fish on its side and insert the needle into the body cavity at a 45-degree angle under a scale. The area to insert the venting tool is approximately 1 to 2 inches behind the base of the pectoral fin. Insert the venting tool just deep enough to release the expanded gases. You may hear an audible release of this gas.
Venting helps release gases that may over-expand in the body cavity when fish are brought to the surface from deep water. Remember to only use a venting tool or descending device when one or all of the signs of barotrauma are present.
A descending device (recompression device) is a tool that is used to reverse the effects of barotrauma. The device descends fish back down to a depth where the increased pressure from the water will recompress the swim bladder gases and allow the fish to swim away. In recent years, a number of descending devices have been developed. The type of descending device to use is often based on individual angler preference.
Most devices are weighted and attached to fishing line (or rope) and clamp or hook on to the mouth of the fish. The angler lowers the device and fish back down to a depth where the fish can recover from barotrauma and then releases the fish. Another option is a fish elevator, a bottomless cage which allows the gases to recompress while the fish is brought down to capture depth.
Although more research is needed, there are indications that use of descending devices can increase survival of released fish. If you choose to use a descending device, follow the instructions on the package carefully to ensure the device is used properly.
2017 FWC Citizen Science Descending Device Study Final Report - An Evaluation of Anglers' Barriers to Using Descending Devices
Mouth clamps are attached to a rod and reel and use a pressure sensor (releases fish automatically at a predetermined depth selected by the angler) or a weighted spring release mechanism (lets go of fish after the angler gives a sharp tug on the line).
Inverted hooks work similar to mouth clamp devices, but are inserted through the hole made by the hook. Once the fish is deep enough to reverse the effects of barotrauma, the angler reels up the line and the fish swims away. This method is fairly inexpensive, but takes practice.
A fish elevator, such as an inverted milk crate with a rope attached to the top and weights at each corner, creates a bottomless cage which allows the gases to recompress while the fish is brought down to capture depth. Once the crate is pulled up the fish is able to swim away.
Other Ways to Conserve Fishery Resources
Many of our most popular recreationally targeted species are regulated and sometimes must be returned to the water. Most anglers would agree that anything we can do to minimize harm to fish being released will benefit the resource in the long term.
However, we don’t want to discourage the fun and excitement of catching fish and documenting the experience, whether for records or the personal satisfaction that comes from sharing the experience with friends and family. That’s why we want to inform the public about safe fish handling practices and the harm that can be caused to fish that are handled roughly or held out of the water too long.
Without ethical anglers following fisheries regulations, there would soon be little of value left to catch. Florida’s anglers should be proud of their conservation efforts. They have helped to restore or sustain several valuable fisheries, including snook, red drum and spotted seatrout. As the number of anglers continues to grow, it becomes more important than ever to release those fish that cannot be harvested in as good a condition as possible. The next angler will thank you for it.
The Ethical Angler
- Can identify most of the species commonly caught in their area and knows the current regulations for each.
- Understands the legal requirements for licenses and stamps.
- Appreciates the importance of habitat and a clean environment.
- Protects habitat and wildlife by following safe boating practices such as knowing the waterways, keeping a slow wake when necessary, and poling through seagrass beds.
- Keeps trash out of the water, disposing of monofilament fishing line, napkins, food containers and other waste in a proper receptacle ashore.
- Knows how to fight and release fish in a way that gives the fish the best possible chance at survival after release.
- Abides by the law and is not afraid to report those who do not.
Practice and share these techniques! Teach your children and inexperienced anglers these few simple procedures to help ensure abundant fish populations for the future.