Catch-and-release policy puts fishermen on the line


May 17, 1994|By PETER BAKER

The Department of Natural Resources' recent adoption of catch-and-release for rockfish in tidal waters of the state officially opens the way for sportsmen to enjoy and protect one of our most exciting fish.

And while catch-and-release for stripers is prohibited in spawning rivers from March 1 through June 30 and below the Conowingo Dam from June 15 through Sept. 15, overall the opportunity is sizable.

There is a catch, however. If DNR determines that catch-and-release is damaging to the rockfish population, the practice will be altered or eliminated.

The burden of ensuring continued catch-and-release falls on fishermen, who should follow a few rules to ensure that the rockfish caught are handled carefully and returned quickly to the water.

The first step starts with the fisherman's choice of tackle.

To be sporting, traditional thinking goes, use of a light rod, reel and line is necessary.

Sporting, yes. But recent studies show that a fish played too long on light tackle suffers from exhaustion, and an exhausted fish is less likely to recover from the stress of being hooked, handled and released than one brought quickly to the boat.

It is better for the fish to be overmatched. Use a rod, reel and line that will easily bring the fish under control.

Once the fish is to the boat, remove the hook while the fish is in the water.

If the fish must be brought into the boat, be prepared. Wear wet gloves of soft cloth, wet rags or wet your hands. Handling fish with bare hands can be damaging to the layer of mucous that covers fish. That layer of mucous is the fish's protection against infection from bacteria or diseases.

In the case of rockfish, lift with a steady grip on the lower jaw or by holding gently under the belly and tail. For fish with sharp teeth, compress the gill plates only enough to maintain control.

Do not grasp by inserting the fingers under the gill plate. The gills may be damaged and the fish's ability to survive reduced.

If the fish is sizable and must be laid on the deck while the hook is removed, covering its eyes with a wet rag or towel will quiet it quickly. For smaller, active fish, turning them onto their backs also has a calming effect.

Barbless hooks, or hooks on which the barbs have been filed off or crimped down, are perfect for catch-and-release situations because they are easily removed in most cases.

Think about altering or substituting the hooks on lures or rigs you will use for catch-and-release.

If a fish has taken the lure or bait deep, have a de-hooking device handy. There are several brands on the market, including some that will reach far down the gullet to remove even the most troublesome hook.

If the hook cannot be removed, cut the leader a few inches outside the fish's mouth, which should keep the hook from working its way deeper as the fish feeds after being released.

Once the hook is free, return the fish to the water in an upright position. Throwing fish over the transom or gunwale can cause injury.

If the fish is played out when it reaches the boat, take the time to resuscitate it.

Cradle it in the water, holding it with one gloved hand just ahead of the tail and the other loosely under the belly, and move it slowly back and forth. The water moving through its mouth and over its gills will restore lost oxygen.

When the fish begins to try to swim away, it is time to release it.

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