Catch and release - Fish survivability- do your bit

Catch and release - Fish survivability- do your bit

Catch and Release

There is no better feeling than to catch your target species, take a few happy snaps and then watch them swim off to grow bigger and provide awesome sport for other anglers.

While there is plenty of info out there on catching your target species, perhaps it’s time for greater awareness on how to release your target species fit to fight another day.

Matty’s big day out/ Rhino Lures

There is no doubt that the awareness of catch and release fishing has increased ten fold in recent years. In fact in some circles, keeping fish seems to be frowned upon. While not a theory I subscribe to, we do release a lot more fish these days due to the awareness of catch and release. However, how many of us have actually looked at, and know how to, increase the survivability of the species we catch and then release? Let’s take a look.

Maximising fish survival after release

Generally there are a number of things that we all can do to increase the survivability of the fish we release. With a few simple tools, the correct techniques for handling our quarry we can give them a greater than 90% chance of survival after their ordeal, sounds like great odds huh?

Deep Hooking

First of all, the greatest risk to catching and releasing a fish is the method on how it was caught. Deep hooking fish is the number one cause of mortality in released fish. The use of bait is the number one cause for deeply or gut hooked fish. Mouth hooked fish, through the use of non offset circle hooks if you are bait fishing will greatly reduce the number of gut hooked fish. Why non-offset, simply because you want the hook to slide out of their gullet and lodge in the corner of the mouth, something that circle hooks do quite well A guide to using circle hooks. This will increase the number of mouth hooked fish if you are a bait fisherman.  

Use of lures

The use of lures however almost always results in a mouth hooked fish and are a popular choice for most catch and release fisherman, however occasionally our fish  take a great liking to a lure and inhale it right down.

Rhino lure caught dusky flathead

If you do gut hook a fish, the act of simply cutting off your line as close to their mouth, rather than trying to remove the hook, will increase short term survivability substantially. Do you really need the hook or soft plastic back that bad?

The NSW Department of Primary Industry (DPI) suggests that this simple act increases the survivability rate of most estuary fish like bream and jew from about 12% to greater than 85%, which is impressive.

What’s more impressive is that in a study they identified that about 76% of bream that were gut hooked and cut off as described above, shed the hook within 3 weeks through corrosive breakdown and the fish’s body ejecting the hook through natural process.

Fish Handling

Key to a successful release is minimizing the time the fish spends out of the water and how it is handled while you land unhook and take photos of your catch. Here’s a few tips to help you get a more successful release and increase the chances of survival of your catch.

  • Minimise the time you have your fish out of the water.  If need be, swim your fish in a good quality landing net (more on that in a bit) until you have all your dentistry equipment in order to extract the hooks with minimum fuss.
  • Ideally, if you can unhook them in the net, then this is a great option for those fish you do not intend to photograph or even bring on board.
  • Use a good quality pair of needle nose pliers to get the hooks out quicker and prevent you from becoming attached to one part of the lure with the big angry fish still attached to the other part of the lure. A degorging tool or hook extractor are worth their weight in gold at times, especially when trying to do this without stressing your fish. 
  • If you have to handle the fish for hook extraction or to pose for a quick pic, then it is important that you handle the fish with care. Meaning, be firm and careful, dropping them is not good and risks injury to you also. Wet your hands before handling them and avoid contact with hot aluminum or hard surfaces. This prevents skin damage and other fungal infections when they are released and adds to the survivability percentage.
  • Never hold the fish solely by its eye sockets, you would not like that done to you, so a little respect goes a long way. Eye damage will significantly reduce a predator’s survivability post release. If you need to hold a fish by the gills or head, always use at least two spots of support, meaning one to control the head (lip grips or clamps are good for this) if required and one on the body, preferably so support the belly and rest of the body. This ensures that the fish is not hung by only one point of contact, stretching gill rakers or damaging muscles, this ensures greater survivability.
  • Take your photos quickly and if required, take a break and swim your catch again to minimise time out of the water, this provides  ample opportunity for them to revive and survive and for you to get your photographic memory.

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Release technique

  • The less you touch the fish the better, so if you can release them in a net, all the better, however for those that you have been up close and personal with taking photos, you need to provide extra care with during release.
  • Using two hands to support the fish, place the fish into the water carefully and give them time to gain their bearings and to revive. Moving them through the water back and forth to promote water flow over their gills or pointing them upstream will ensure that they are oxygenated and ready to go. If they are unable to hold themselves upright or exhausted to the point they are not trying to swim away, give them more time, releasing them before they are ready may reduce their survivability.
  • A good sign that your fish is sufficiently revived is when they begin to bite down, shake their head or are getting extremely active.
  • Now in crocodile infested areas, do this in the boat in a large tank or bucket if possible and gently spear your fish into the water head first when they are revived to reduce your contact time in the danger zone.

Rhino Lures Skulldrag Industries

Selection and use of landing nets

Use of a good quality net is extremely important. As mentioned before, skin damage is a big issue for survivability, so a soft, wet net that provides lateral support for the fish (on their side) rather than meshed in on their head and tangled up. This will ensure less damage to skin, fins and eyes, which are extremely important for predators. 

If you can find one that does not have large mesh, this is also a bonus as it tangles hooks less. Check out this link for further information on correct use of the landing net.

For more on Quality landing nets, check out this link

    Short term storage

    If you are in a competition or are keeping your bag of fish alive to attempt to upgrade to larger models, then the use of a live well is quite important.

    A good flow of oxygenated water is required. When the fish are revived and they will be in an un-natural environment. When stressed, they will use greater amounts of oxygen and will tire quickly. So ensure there is sufficient water flow and oxygen in the system. Try to avoid storage on direct sunlight, water temperature in the live well will also be a factor if exposed to sunny and hot conditions without adequate flow. Increased water temperature can send the fish into shock.

    When retrieving fish for release from the live well, do so in a calm and deliberate manner as quick movements will panic the catch and they will stress unnecessarily. 

      What else can be done to help increase survival

      If you are serious about survivability as a recreational angler, then the use of barbless hooks is another way. While this may mean that you lose a fish or two, those that you land would have a greater chance of survival. You can create your own barbless hooks by just simply crimping your hook barb with a pair of pliers, this will crush the barb in and you are good to go.

      Being mindful of the use of all of these techniques will also go a long way to ensuring that you are doing your bit to contribute to the health of those fish that you catch so they can provide sport and sustainable to our kids and theirs that follow them.

       For more information go to:

        Till next time, have fun, fish responsibly and remember take only what you need and post the rest to social media.


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