SIDNEY — When Scott Davis is not trap netting Arctic char or wild brook trout to gather data for the state, he’s guiding fishermen in pursuit of these and other species. Davis has worked for 30 years as a state fisheries biologist and, in his free time, guided as many as 80 fishermen a year. Sometimes when he goes out to fish by himself, he brings his clipboard to gather data.

Suffice it to say, Davis has seen it all when it comes to fishing.

And when it comes to catch and release – the practice of returning the fish to water rather than keeping it to eat – Davis said he often sees fishermen botch the job. Rather than saving the fish, the angler releases a stressed fish that will soon die.

“I’ve caught the same fish 13 times,” Davis said. “Catch and release does work if you don’t kick the fish.”

Other guides and biologists say catch and release has become more common, yet many don’t know how to do it properly.

“Like any activity, some are better informed. There are probably a range of skill levels,” said Francis Brautigam, director of fisheries for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife.

“With catch and release, most try to get it back as soon as they can, but all too many people like to take a photo. Sometimes taking a photo becomes more important than the best interests of the fish. Fish like to be in cold water. And fish do get stressed.”

Warmwater fish such as smallmouth bass and perch are more tolerant of extreme conditions and rugged handling than coldwater species such as brook trout or landlocked salmon. But all fish will suffer if they are kept out of water too long, or handled too much or too rigorously, including getting stepped on to get the hook out, which Davis has seen youth fishermen do.

“I’ve seen adults do it,” said Don Kleiner, a Registered Maine Guide for 35 years. “You don’t want to beat it up. If I’m releasing a fish, I’m intending it to be alive when I’m done.”

In 2012, the Professional Maine Guides Association made an instructional catch-and-release video to educate more fishermen on how to release a fish without killing it. Kleiner, the group’s director, said the biggest problem is many people who are not avid fishermen are afraid to handle a fish.

“I rarely let a client handle a fish,” Kleiner said. “You have to not be afraid of the hook. And you have to know how to deal with this critter that’s flopping around in the net or at the side of the boat.”

Step 1: Set the Hook

Most things in life require a balance. Fishing is surely no different.

Releasing a fish quickly is made easy if you set the hook immediately – but not so quickly that you spook the fish.

You want to hook it quick enough that it doesn’t swallow the hook down into its gullet.

“There’s a fine line,” Davis said.

Once you’ve hooked the fish, then you reel it in, but not too quickly. Make sure you play it a bit.

If you reel in a lively big bass too quickly, it will mean more work handling it – and that means your hands will rub the fish more and dry it out. And fish like to be wet.

Once the fish is a bit tired, reel it to the side of the boat or near your waders and leave out enough line so you can raise the rod and reach the fish. If you reel in so much line the fish is at the end the rod, you won’t reach it.

Step 2: Handle the fish

With the rod in one hand, reach into the water and grab the fish with the other by pinching its cheek with your index finger in its mouth and thumb on the outside of the mouth, or vice versa.

Scott Davis demonstrates how to catch and release a fish without killing it, while fishing for smallmouth bass on the Kennebec River.

Then, while holding the fish, put down your rod and support its belly with your other hand. This is particularly important with larger fish. And it’s where a lot of photo-happy fishermen go wrong.

“If you are not supporting the belly of a larger fish, you could dislocate the jaw,” Davis said.

This is where Davis’ mantra comes into play: Don’t baby the fish – handle it, and make quick work of getting the hook out so you can let it go.

It’s best to handle the fish in the water but if that’s not possible, simply work fast.

Step 3: Get out your pliers

Taking the hook out can be done in many different ways.

If the hook is just in the lip, it’s an easy pinch and it will pop out. But if the hook has gone into the gullet, you need to thread it out. And if it went down so far that by closing the fish’s mouth the entire lure disappears, you either need a good pair of long-nosed pliers or you may need to cut the line.

Regional fisheries biologist Scott Davis has simple advice for anyone using the catch-and-release technique: “Don’t baby the fish – handle it, and make quick work of getting the hook out so you can let it go.”

“A pair of needle-nosed pliers is worth their weight in gold,” Kleiner said. “I have a pair that costs $125. But you don’t need the fancy stuff. A pair costing $12 from the hardware store works fine.”

If the hook is down deep, hold the fish by the cheek, put the pliers in and grab the hook, and try to unhook it and pull it out.

Experienced fishermen can do this on a larger fish with their finger, but a pair of pliers will ensure that the fish will live.

Once the hook is out, put the fish back in the water, but continue to hold the belly as you wait for it to swim away.

Davis warns not to just let it go because the fish may go right down to the bottom and, as a result, breath mud into its gills.

 

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