Whenever a fish is caught, there is the unavoidable predicament as to whether it is better to keep, or release the fish. Above and beyond personal convictions and state regulations, there are other factors that come into play when making this decision.
There are many fly-fishermen that live by the “Catch, Release, Conserve” code, by which they make the choice to release all their catch. Although this is a noble plight, there are faults when the idea meets reality and one finds them-self with a battle wounded fish that, in all honesty, has no fighting chance. It is at this time when one must understand that their desire to not personally kill any fish, may, in fact, result in the waste of a fish.
To give a fish its best chance in returning to the water, there are a number of things that can be done to aid it, starting before you ever enter the water.
For those fishermen who wish to release their fish, it is wise to start by removing the barbs from the hooks, although it makes it more difficult to set the hook, and keep the fish on the line, de-barbing the hook will result in less injury to the fish, and will make removal quicker and less painful, limiting the time that fish is out of the water.
The next important thing to remember, which I have mentioned in the past, is to wet your hands in the river right before touching the fish. Fish have a slimy membrane that encompasses their entire body. This protective layer however, can be easily broken down from the oils on ones hands, thereby making the fish vulnerable to a number of bacteria and parasites.
Although all these factors are important leading up to the release of the fish, the release itself is very important. When releasing a fish, you must first determine it is releasable by visually inspecting to make sure it is not vitally bleeding out of its gill plates. Furthermore, it is necessary to ensure that all hooks are removed, especially those located in vital areas of the fish, primarily the gills or deep in the throat. The job is still not done.
When you have determined that the fish is healthy, and can be returned to the water, do not just throw it on in, like so many fishermen seem to do. Hold it, just before the tail, in the water, facing upstream, and allow a few moments for water to pass through its gills. This should be down in a place where, if the fish where to swim a small bit then die, it can easily be retrieved. Once the fish is revived and his regained its strength, it will free itself and return to the water. It is vital no to overlook this method, due to the importance of allowing the fish to regain the oxygen that it need to survive. Last and not least, never forget to remind it not to tell its friends!