On The Hook: The ultimate catch and release trip

Bill Walsh

Thankfully, the days of the overflowing ice chest holding the day’s catch is just about a thing of the past; moderation, good judgement and, above all else, environmental impact concerns have replaced the quest to measure the success of a charter fishing trip with the number of “kills."

Fish hooks

More:On The Hook: Success in fishing — the salt is managing the tide

Now, I don’t mean to say that we’ve swung wildly from one extreme to the other; folks still like to take their catch home for dinner, but it’s almost always now a limited number: ”Just enough for dinner for the two of us.”

But, just like most all things these days, we have those who take parameters of life’s experiences to the limit. And that’s where our article for this week begins.

His name was Doug and he called me one late summer evening with the opening salvo of ”We’re down here for a late summer vacation and I really want to go fishing and couldn’t dare go without including my wife and two adult daughters. But the only way the girls will go is if I can absolutely guarantee them that all the fish we catch will live on after we release them. Would like to book you...but what sort of a guarantee can you give them?"

Admittedly, that would be a rather tall order. We can do all the things that enhance the chance of the creature’s survival, but we’re dealing with nature here. I made the suggestion that Doug could join another group I had going later in the week, and maybe the women would enjoy a trip to one of the malls. He dissented vehemently: “If I don’t take them on this trip, I’ll be living in the garage at home for the next couple of weeks”.

After an assurance to his family that all that could be done would be done, Doug called back and we booked the trip for the following week. I asked them to show up a bit early so I could go over the precautions we would take to meet their requirement that all hooked creatures would live on.

The crew was quite excited that morning, but you could sense the innate skepticism of the girls as they paraded past the hooks, gaffs and knives all along the charter docks.

I sat them down and reiterated the promise to do my very best to save every creature hooked that very morning, and then talked about the specific details we would be implementing.

The first feature was that we would exclusively use circle hooks on this trip. I demonstrated how the hook tilts when the fish lunges for the bait, and almost always lodges itself in the lip of the fish. Lip-hooked fish don’t suffer internal injury, and have a high level of survival. The girls were skeptically impressed: "How do you know they survive?"

“You will see then scurry away as they re-enter the salt water; from then on, they're on their own. This is nature and there’s no guarantees."

That was my rather tentative, but truthful, response. They just looked at one another. Doug looked the other way,

We moved on.

Next I covered the operation of the rod and especially the reel. To enhance survival, we needed to get the fish alongside the boat as quickly as possible; the longer the fish struggle, the more they tire and weaken.

I showed them how the drags on the reels are set to match the breaking strength of the line. Drag too loosely and the fish wears itself out and is a prime candidate for consumption by an anxious predator; reel too tightly and the line breaks, the fish tows the hook and line, and, again, becomes a target.

The girls were nodding and (I think) beginning to see the exacting detail of this thing called sportfishing.

Lastly, I showed them how we could engineer a safe release by holding the fish with a sea-soaked wet rag so as not to remove their mucous coating.

So now, after all that, we were ready to start our fishing excursion; Dad to go fishing and the girls to go “saving."

Our first stop was Capri Pass because it had been loaded with ladyfish lately, and with no thought of keeping any fish, what better excitement and action than that provided by the cavorting ladyfish?

It didn’t take five minutes for the non-stop action to start. They could hardly get their hook in the water without an acrobatic ladyfish making screaming runs in every direction. There were lots of shouts and flying ladyfish, with many of them able to slip the hook while airborne, which was just fine with the two “savers."

But the ones that came alongside and had to be manually (and carefully) released peppered the girls with fishy fluids and solids as we tried to successfully release them.

You can only take so much of that intense ladyfish blitz, and as we prepared to move on, Dad took a look at the girls' spots and smears, saying they looked like they belonged in “101 Dalmatians." But the two of them had hung in there, and all those crazy ladyfish had hopefully survived.

We moved on to more placid waters up in Hurricane Pass where we would switch the pitch to target some fast and furious Florida pompano. We adjusted the drags on the girls' reels as the pompano would be somewhat more powerful than the ladyfish, but still quite a challenge.

We were into catching and carefully releasing some nice pompano when the group stopped in its tracks; two dolphins had showed up in the Pass, cavorting about looking for a meal. The girls went gaga, setting down rods and grabbing cameras.

When they resumed fishing, I told them they had to be diligent in getting the hooked pompano to the boat ahead of the dolphins' hungry lunges. They hadn’t thought about that possibility, and appeared a bit stunned at the thought of their fishes' demise by another waterborne creature.

And then one of the daughters, who was tethering a hooked pompano alongside, had the surprise of her life when one of the dolphins broached right alongside the boat and just missed snatching the dangling pompano by inches. She was briefly dismayed and consoled by Doug reiterating how nature’s rules apply in wildlife’s game of survival.

With that, we pulled the gear in, moved off and headed home.

The day had proven that although there are no absolute guarantees on the survival of released fish, you can at least take some extra effort to give them every chance.