Catch and release fishing has been a pretty common practice for me most of my life. It seemed straightforward and I didn’t put much thought into how I was handling and releasing the fish I caught. Lately I have been listening to a podcast called Anchored, hosted by April Vokey, and episode 46 about the high mortality rates of fish that were released really opened my eyes. There are methods of handling our catch that give them a much better chance of survival and one group that is researching the topic and educating anglers is KeepEmWet.org.
There is no doubt that Alberta has a sustainable fishery thanks to catch and release practices, but how we care for those fish we just caught plays a big role in their survival. I’m a bit ashamed to admit there are a lot of catch and release factors I didn’t consider but thanks to programs like April’s and KeepEmWet.org I know I can do better.
Keep Em Wet outlines three basic principles to improve the survivability of our fish:
- Minimize air exposure
- Eliminate contact with dry surfaces
- Reduce Handling
Since it is ice fishing season I have been brainstorming ways to apply catch and release principles to our northern climate and I feel there are some things we can keep in mind as we are out angling this winter season.
Minimizing air exposure is pretty self explanatory, fish can’t breathe out of water and since fish don’t have lungs they can’t really “hold their breath” either, so it’s up to us to get them back in the water quickly. From what I’ve read on the KeepEmWet website, exposing them to air for no more than 10 seconds is the goal. There is a lot to do in 10 seconds, get the fish out of the hole, remove the hook, take a measurement, take a picture, and release the fish. 10 seconds might be asking for a lot but even being aware of how much time you are taking is a step in the right direction! I hope with practice and being prepared, I can get down to that 10 second number this season.
By eliminating contact with dry surfaces we can preserve that layer of fish slime and scales. I don’t typically use gloves when ice fishing and my hands are usually nice and wet from bringing the fish up, both of which help to protect that slime layer. If you can tolerate it I would recommend not wearing gloves but if it’s too cold try a pair that retain heat when wet, such as wool or fleece. The other thing I do when it’s true north cold is wear loose fitting gloves that I can quickly remove with my teeth in order to land the fish.
There are a variety of ways we can reduce the amount we handle the fish but I think the best place to start is by using barbless hooks. They are not required by law in Alberta anymore but I can see that changing again in the future. Also, remember to keep your hook removal tools handy, I keep a jaw spreader and a pair of pliers in my flasher bag so they are ready to go when I need them, right next to the hole. We also want to avoid lifting the fish up, especially a big fish, by the gills or head as it is very hard on a fish’s spine. One thing I learned from the podcast is that hoisting a fish up like that can actually separate their vertebrae and cause some serious damage. Now when I land a fish I hold their head just off the ice so I can remove the hook safely and when moving them for a measurement or a picture I keep one hand on their head and the other either on their belly or gripping their tail.
There is one more thing to consider that is unique to ice fishing and that’s the extreme temperature and wind chill factor. We have to protect the fish’s gills, eyes and fins from freezing as best we can. Since your hands are already wet from landing the fish you have a pretty good gauge of how cold that fish must be feeling so keep it in mind.
I would really encourage you to take a look around the Keep Em Wet website and keep these principles in mind the next time you are out. If you want to listen to an in depth discussion with a fisheries scientist check out April Vokey’s interview with Dr. Andy Danylchuk and the Keep Em Wet movement. Most importantly, spread the word, the best way to make sure our sport can continue tomorrow is to take care of it today.
Keep Em Wet:
April Vokey Podcast:
An older article by Gord Pyzer on ice fishing catch and release: