By Gritter Griffin
(The topic of this article may be a bit controversial but, with the popularity of redfish competition and the advent of an unprecedented number of events, it is a subject and discussion that is long past due.)
I have been catching, handling, and mis-handling redfish for a very long time. I was proud of my actions as a “catch and release” angler and thought I was being cognizant of our resource. I thought I was making a difference in the great scheme of things by releasing these fish to live, breed, and continue the legacy of our incredible sport fishery.
I was wrong.
Sadly, I have been ignorantly guilty of killing many of those “released” fish.
As most you are already aware, I am a strong advocate for the study of redfish in their natural habitat. I have learned a great deal about Sciaenops ocellatus, their life cycle, habitat, reproduction, and general behavior. I have also noted, with an increasing awareness, that our “catch and release” programs are somewhat of a farce.
That last sentence is, without a doubt, going to be a very unpopular statement but I can assure you - it is truth!
Oh yes, we pat ourselves on the back and talk about what a great job we are doing for the conservation of redfish by holding catch and release tournaments, but I would submit to you that we aren’t doing nearly as well as we may think. It all comes down to how the fish are handled. And that, my dear friends, is where we fail miserably.
Over the years I have paid attention to fish that suddenly “decide to die” in my livewell for no apparent reason. I have spent many hours contemplating these fish and making suppositions as to why they just “decide to quit”. I have spent a great deal of time replaying in my mind the entire story from hookup to death (including transport, weigh-in, and release) to see if I could come up with a common thread to explain the death of these fish. My conclusions are simple, accurate, and backed by scientific study.
In no particular order some of the things I have noted to be detrimental to the survival of the fish are:
Hanging Fish Vertically
Fish are conceived, born, grow, and thrive in an environment that is, essentially, weightless and nearly free of friction - think outer space. Due to these conditions, they can to move about with minimal effort and are not subject to the vagaries of gravity and friction in an open-air habitat. In their world if something is dropped it gently floats downward (or upwards) and does not crash to the ground. This is, quite obviously, due to the difference in the density coefficient of water versus air. It is this very environment that allows them to live a “horizontal life”. Their bodies and internal organs are supported and protected by the surrounding water and when lifted from the water they are subject to the full effects of gravity.
If the fish is supported properly and maintained in a horizontal posture there is almost no risk of permanent damage as long as the slime coating is protected as well.
But, when lifted from the water or off the deck in a vertical posture, these fish are subjected to extreme and abnormal forces that can damage their internal organs as well as the ligamentous structures of the mouth, gills, and jaw. This abrupt change in body posture with the associated downward G-forces that are further accentuated by the upward raising of the fish causes a sudden and harmful change in position of the internal organs with a high potential for damage.
Hanging fish vertically, usually for weighing or photos, also dramatically increases the risk of them being dropped from a height that can easily cause a potentially lethal injury. Bear in mind that a human only needs to fall four feet to generate enough force to rupture the aorta and cause instant death. Imagine the potential damage to a redfish falling onto a hard deck or the ground from five or six feet. It behooves us to stay down on the deck when we are handling our fish. Furthermore, it is not difficult to devise an apparatus in which the fish can lie horizontally and be completely supported while being weighed and subsequently placed in the livewell or released.
Placing Fish on Hot or Dry Surface
This is a topic that shouldn’t even really have to be mentioned. Just place your hand on the hot eye of a stovetop (or even your hot boat deck) for a second or two and you can quickly feel what you are subjecting your fish to – for several minutes!! The slime layer literally cooks, the eye is damaged, the scales themselves are damaged, the filaments of the gills are damaged, and depending on the time and temperature the combined injuries sustained means that laying a fish on a hot surface can become a lethal action in less than one minute.
Always have a location on your boat that is both cool and wet where you can safely lay the fish while determining whether you will release or keep the fish.
Using a Cloth, Towel, or Dry Glove to Handle Fish
This is a universally damaging method of handling fish. If you use any of these methods, you are removing the important and protective slime coating of the fish. In many cases this allows bacteria, parasites, and viruses access to the fish through the damaged area.
If you have been chasing reds for any length of time you have caught fish that have dark areas of scales that appear to be “dried up” or oddly shaped. These are areas where they have lost their slime coating and been attacked by opportunistic infections. Although not immediately lethal, these infections can eventually kill the fish.
This is a truly simple fix. Keep the fish wet, keep your hands wet, and handle the fish as little as possible.
Keeping Fish Out of Water
How long can you hold your breath? Don’t guess. Try it. Time it. One minute? Two? A redfish can’t “hold its breath” any longer than that either. From the very second you lift that fish from the water you are causing it to hold its breath. How long do you keep fish out of the water for measuring, weighing, and pictures? It is doubtless much longer than the minute or two you timed for yourself. Not only that but the fish is already exhausted from the fight to resist being brought onto your boat in the first place.
It doesn’t take too many minutes for the fish to become irretrievably exhausted to the point that the gill structures simply cannot recover. Short fights, short hook removal time, proper handling, and early return to water (livewell or release) are the keys to avoiding damage to the fish.
Handling by the Lower Jaw Only
This is one of the primary causes of delayed death in redfish. It is also the maneuver that very few anglers are aware is damaging to the fish. Almost universally, anglers will hold redfish by the lower jaw with the thumb in the mouth and the knuckle of the index finger under the jaw. This causes the joint of the jaw to act as a lever with more than the full weight of the fish being supported at that joint. Remember the breath holding experiment we did a bit ago? This time imagine yourself being held in a similar posture with your entire body weight being levered upwards at the joint of your jaw. Unpleasant thought, right?
The ligamentous structures, joint capsule, and anatomy of the jaw simply cannot tolerate this pressure and universally (yes, that’s 100% of the time) there is damage to the jaw joint creating a disability of varying degree for the fish to use its mouth. These fish are released and appear to be “healthy and alive” but some are doomed to die a death of starvation if the damage is significant enough that the fish cannot use its lower jaw to catch and eat food.
Grabbing a Fish Through the Gill Plate
There is a proper and relatively safe method to perform this maneuver, but it is very rarely done properly.
Somehow this crazy practice became an alternative to picking a fish up by the jaw and it is worse, far worse. The damage potential when lifting a fish by putting fingers through the gill area is vastly higher than with any other method and the damage caused is far more permanent and disabling.
It doesn’t require a long explanation regarding why we shouldn’t use this method because the answer is far too obvious. If you damage the capability of the fish to breathe (the gills) you have damaged the ability of the fish to survive – period.
Simple solution – Just don’t do it.
Extended Fight Time
This is another area with a simple fix. Use tackle and line that will allow you to have an unfair advantage. Yes, I’m saying to make it an unfair fight. Of course, it already is but it needs to be made an ironclad, guaranteed win for you and therefore for the fish as well.
This makes a lot of sense in competition because you don’t want to be breaking off that winning fish. Neither do you want that fatty to be dying in your livewell. So, use heavier line, heavier rods, strong reels with excellent drag mechanisms, and get that fish to the boat, in the net, and to the livewell as rapidly as possible.
There are several very good studies indicating that the fatigue factor is a strong contributor to delayed death in fish that are subsequently released. If you add to that fatigue by further delaying returning the fish to the water the detrimental effects are compounded.
Always remove hooks as quickly and gently as possible. Fish that are hooked deep in the throat, back of the tongue, gills, and roof of the mouth require special care and a decision to perhaps leave the hook in place and cut the line as close to the eye as possible.
Hooks left in fish mouths, throats and tongues are not nearly as damaging as a poor removal. There is good evidence that a fish can dislodge a hook from its mouth in as little as one to three days and continue about its business whereas the damage sustained from a difficult removal may very well prove to be lethal.
I am amazed at how many people do not understand how important an appropriate livewell is for maintaining the health of the fish. Size of the well, water flow, temperature, frequent water change, and aeration are all of paramount importance.
Constant high-volume water flow and repetitive water changes are absolutely necessary to remove waste products that accumulate as well as to allow the fish adequate dissolved oxygen to “breathe” while in this confined environment. Keeping the water relatively cool and properly aerated are also extremely important aspects of maintaining healthy fish in the livewell.
Neglecting even one of these components can stress the fish enough to cause a delayed death. Be as studious about your livewell as you are about your tackle and gear and all will be well.
In the end, we can all improve our methods of handling fish and most especially those that we intend to release. If we are true to our beliefs and wish to honor our responsibility to be good stewards of the environment and our beloved fisheries, then we must try to give every released fish the very best chance of survival possible.
I have already confessed that I was indeed ignorant of the damage I was doing to our beloved redfish. But I have made, and continue to make, a concerted effort to treat my fish better in the hopes that I am truly respecting the animal and its environment.