On the Hook: Catch and release (well almost)

Bill Walsh
File: As Osprey catches a ladyfish on Sanibel.

There were lots of past days when the success of a fishing trip was measured by the catch overflowing from huge coolers aboard. As was common, only when the “crew” reached the combined limits of all the day’s targets were the smiles and high fives of the happy crew rendered, usually while nursing a cool libation as the catch was prepared.

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Over the past few years, however there has been a noticeable and quite welcome change. Emanating from the trend of a “kinder and more sensitive” public, especially from the younger generation towards all living creatures, we’ve been able to sense a shift towards more limited “kill numbers” in the sportfishing venture. The usual comment now as to keeping that nice snapper is “we’ll keep just a couple for dinner this evening.”

Nothing is universal anymore and there are always exceptions BUT now we see the trend heading toward a total catch and release with emphasis on fish unharmed and swimming away.

So, our story this week is about the extreme ultimate example we experienced last fall of that trending mode.

We start with an inquiry phone call from a father and mother of a couple of teenage girls, who explained they were here for a late summer vacation and had a family hankering to enjoy a trip on the water some sport fishing but with special limitations. Dad explained that the only way the women would go if I could absolutely guarantee them that the fish we would catch would live on as we released them. No catch and keep.

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I admitted that was a tall order as we were in an open water environment where there is a lot of nature and most anything could happen. Offered to get Doug in with another charter group and suggested the “girls” making a separate trip to the “mall.”

Doug went ballistic … “you don’t understand, Captain, if I don’t take them on this fishing trip, I’ll be living in the garage at home for the next couple of weeks!

After a lengthy explanation as to what precautions and techniques we would be using to maximize the catch “recovery” for our fish and a suggestion that they show a half hour early and I would go through an explanation as to how we “save” the catch, they all agreed to the trip.

Our late summer morning dawned bright and rain free and everyone was glued to the equipment that we showed the crew detail on “life-saving fish” equipment. We went over circle hooks and the engineered release bend that would not injure the fish at all; we displayed the release equipment for depth release if we were to hook up a grouper or other deep water fish. We even went over the light line we would use that gives a bigger fish a chance for self-release. And lastly, we showed them the equipment that kept the fish wet as we engineered the release.

And then the final question, of course from the girls. “After you do all that, how do you know they survived” … you will see them scurry away as they enter the water.” And finally, they were nodding and (I think) beginning to see the exacting detail of this thing you call sportfishing.”

So now, after all that, we were ready to start our fishing excursion. Dad to go fishing. Mom as the official inspector and the girls to go saving. The first stop would be in Capri Pass which was usually loaded with ladyfish and, after all, with no thought of keeping fish what better excitement and action.

It didn’t take five minutes for the non-stop action to start. They could hardly get their hook in the water without a screaming ladyfish heading in all directions. Many of the “ladies” got loose which suited the two daughters just fine. The ones that came alongside would spray with fishy fluids and solids.

With a half hour of that activity and the girls sprayed with spots and smears Dad said they looked like they belonged in the “101 Dalmatians.”

We moved up into Hurricane Pass where our target would be the furious Florida pompano. We adjusted the drags and reset the baits. The pompano would be an increasing struggle. We had just begun the action when two huge Florida dolphins showed up in our wake. Explained to the girls that the dolphin had “eyes” for their pompano and they would have to stay aggressive to “save” the pompano. They looked surprised. They had not figured on that adversary.

We fished that spot for well over an hour and had endless action with the dolphin and mackerel.

And that’s when the inevitable occurred. We had acrobatic dolphin in hot pursuit of a nice size pompano; as the dolphin timed a leap just right and nailed the pompano, both girls screamed to high heavens; dropped rods and teared up.

The event was inevitable, but the girls were just barely able to constrain the tears. Mom and Dad were right there explaining that in the final moment, nature prevails regardless of what we want the outcome to be.

But that was a tough example that the two girls would long remember and factor into life’s realism.

More:On the Hook: Breaking point

Capt. Bill Walsh owns a charter fishing business and holds a U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments to dawnpatrolmarco@cs.com.