How decades of practice, science, and concern have shifted the way anglers care for catch-and-release species.
[By Michael Adno]
Across remote atolls, backyard ponds, those far-flung bends in the river, and throughout the delta of islets and old-growth mangroves scattered in subtropical latitudes, there’s a thread of solidarity among all anglers, both conventional and fly. Sadly, no matter the subset, anglers improperly handle catch-and-release species from tarpon to salmon, largemouths to pike.
The leading motive often tends to be the “grip and grin” photo opportunity so many anglers vie for—the one that oftentimes upends those quiet in-between moments and instead becomes the goal. The instant gratification of social media beckons. Hence, a fish held high, dry, and plopped back into the water as though being thrust into some magical elixir has become the norm.
There’s no need to shame anyone mishandling fish. At the end of the day, all anglers sit at the same table, and we need to come together for other important conservation and environmental efforts.
But have you ever tried holding your breath for 120 seconds and then falling abruptly onto the ground. Good to go, right? In the last decade, with social media’s rising omnipresence, the currency of a good fish picture has risen exponentially.
“It created a demand for those types of images,” Bryan Huskey, the founder of the Keepemwet organization, explained. He believes the shift took a turn for the worse with the proliferation of Instagram content. “In the last year or so, I’ve seen the needle begin to move.”
When Huskey began adorning his posts with the hashtag #keepemwet, he thought it was a clever jab at all those anglers proselytizing catch-and-release fishing—yet they were the very anglers posting visual evidence of poor practices. Huskey’s sly play on words molted into an organization in 2013 after the growing outcry of concerned anglers criticizing those who’d purport conservation ethics but posted images of mishandled fish. Whether via public video or photos, it was evident anglers espoused conservation ethics but didn’t practice them.
Backed by a small team, Huskey rallied a litany of organizations, companies, and media outlets together to promote three simple tenets: First, minimize a fish’s exposure to air. Second, prevent fish from contact with dry surfaces. And last, handle fish as little as possible. Now it seems the movement, abetted by a number of other organizations, is becoming impossible to ignore. But Keepemwet isn’t the only band of voices advocating change.
In the Thick of It
Following its 20th anniversary, the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust (BTT) remains a poster child for organizations promoting sound conservation, fish release practices, and the overall value of fisheries throughout Florida and other international locales. They’ve undoubtedly flooded the field with research, and their work has immensely impacted the health of Florida’s fisheries and habitats, if not prevented their demise, alongside state agencies like the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). To think of the value of bonefish, tarpon, or permit without offering a nod to BTT’s role in protecting those species would be unthinkable.
Dr. Aaron Adams, the BTT’s director of science and conservation, said, “We’re making progress, but we need more,” when it comes to handling-practice awareness. In other words, anglers need more education.
“Our rule is that if the fish is out of the water and it’s not still dripping, it’s been out too long,” Adams said. In a similar tone, Huskey echoed the same sentiment as he explained that keeping fish in the water eliminates air exposure, and mitigates the likelihood of crushing or dropping it onto a dry surface, where it might incur additional injury.
Perhaps the most prevalent and overlooked misdeed anglers commit is handling a fish with dry hands, or worse yet, hands doused in sunscreen—the solution removes a fish’s slime membrane, which protects it from bacteria. Handle fish with clean, wet hands, and if possible, use rubber nets as opposed to nylon. From the moment you set a hook, the tools, location, and haste you take in releasing your catch are as important as how you handle it.
Within watersheds where both wild and hatchery fish are present, “It’s important to have a crystal clear ability to tell which is which and be able to adjust your behavior accordingly,” Huskey notes. For example, if there are wild brown trout about, be wary when you come tight and try to reduce the time it takes you to land said fish. Although some anglers disagree about the effects of hatchery fish on wild fish populations among different watersheds and species, being able to make those distinctions determines what additional precautions you might want to take. Inevitably, all anglers play a role in the future of any fishery, so take note.
It’s also important to take note of the fish’s environment. For example, warmer water temperatures make conditions less hospitable in tributaries, lakes, or on the flats, give a fish the chance to revive as depleted oxygen levels in the water come into play. Moreover, minimize the time spent fighting a fish to the point you’re not exhausting it. While some species have a greater tolerance for high water temperatures, it’s still a factor that affects fish across the board. When South Florida water temps creep above the 90-degree mark during the summer, bonefish and tarpon show increased signs of stress, though bonefish especially seem to be more vulnerable to high temps—more so than, say, a redfish or permit, as Adams explained. The maxim holds true for coldwater species like salmon, steelhead, and trout, as well. As temperatures increase, so does the stress on the fish.
Looking at the plethora of grip-and-grin photographs out there, it’s easy to see the common thread remains the mishandling of fish—they’re the lip-ripping, jawbreaking fish pics landing in everyone’s Instagram feed and Facebook timelines. Flippantly holding a large fish with one hand, hanging a fish by its lip so its body isn’t supported, or worse yet, holding a fish (like a bass) by its bottom lip and elevating it horizontally, damages its jaw in the latter case and can cripple it for good.
In 2008, Adams and Keepemwet’s science advisor, Andy Danylchuk, along with Steven Cooke and Cory Suskie, published a study about the effects of lip-gripping devices on bonefish and found that while no fish died within a 48-hour window, 80 percent of fish sustained mouth injuries. More troubling, 100 percent of the fish held in the air with a lip-gripping device were injured, and 40 percent of fish sustained “severe” wounds—injuries like split mandibles or separated tongues (from the floor of a fish’s mouth). Similar abuses plague largemouth bass, although snook and juvenile tarpon receive similar treatment when anglers hold a fish by its lip at awkward angles. According to the FWC, holding snook that way can damage their isthmus, a network of ligaments that connects their head to their body, an injury that ultimately leads to slow starvation.
With all that in mind, Adams said, “I do think there’s been a shift. You can see it on social media.” In the last few years, if anglers posted photographs improperly handling fish, they’d hear about it, and that’s curbed the trend significantly. A few years ago, Adams and a colleague drafted letters urging magazines to avoid publishing images that promoted or condoned the mishandling of fish, and they mailed them out en masse. Ultimately, both Adams and Huskey believed those outlets fashion the way anglers take photographs and handle fish, and if they’re unintentionally promoting pernicious practices, then they validate the behavior.
Even with increased awareness, Adams warns, “All this is going to be especially important as the amount of fishing pressure continues to increase,” stressing that catch-and-release fishing could become an unsustainable conservation tool if mortality rates rise. In order to protect those fisheries, Adams believes fisheriesmanagement agencies would be forced to implement additional regulations with more stringent, judicious measures. In theory, those measures could go so far as to severely limit the access anglers might have to recreational fisheries.
So what are we as anglers to do going forward? Adams stressed persistence— working collaboratively on educational outreach and advocating for practices that more effectively address the sustainability of catch-and-release fisheries. Still, with the groundswell of organizations like Keepemwet emerging, Adams is optimistic. “We just need to keep beating the drum,” he said.
There’s no need to shame anyone mishandling fish. At the end of the day, all anglers sit at the same table, and we need to come together for other important conservation and environmental efforts. Still, it’s undoubtedly our responsibility to lend a hand where we can. I implore you to practice some probity the next time you’re on the water, whether it’s with your own catch or by thoughtfully imparting some knowledge to a fellow angler. If you want a fish photo, take a knee, lean over the gunwale, or hop into the drink altogether to make sure your catch stays wet—barely raise it above the surface to snap a photo, hold it gently, and revive it properly. Huskey says anglers can create similar, if not better, images by thinking of a fish’s health first and their egos as anglers last.
Leave the BogaGrip at home. Crimp down your barbs. Speak up, take note, and plan accordingly the next time you come tight. As the venerated conservationist Lee Wulff mused, “Game fish are too valuable to be caught only once.”
In brief, the BTT and Keepemwet’s movement revolves around a slew of principles aimed at effective handling practices, but the paramount rule is to simply keep the fish in the water. Doing so inevitably reduces handling, and by proxy, increases the fish’s post-release chances for survival. To put it into perspective, a bonefish that cannot readily swim away at the time of release (called loss of equilibrium) is six times more likely to suffer predation after release.
WHO DOESN’T ENJOY the spotlight every once in a while—especially anglers? Most of us are not only set on catching the largest fish we’ve ever caught, but also capturing photographic evidence that such an event occurred, to be passed around later and celebrated. But all too often, working to snap that perfect image can cost your quarry valuable time and energy it could spend recuperating.
To aid a fish’s chances for survival, here are a few tips:
- IF YOU NEED to put on gloves to land a fish, use a net, or make any other accommodations to ease its stress as it comes to hand, do it ahead of time.
- IF YOU’RE TAKING a photograph, have the camera dialed to the appropriate setting, powered on, and ready to snap away before landing the fish.
- ASK A FISHING PARTNER or someone with a free hand to help, and talk through the photo you plan to take ahead of time—decide where you’ll each be situated and take a few test shots if you can. (It won’t jinx you from landing a fish, I promise.)
- AFTER SNAPPING a few photos, revive the fish as much as possible before releasing— make sure water flows completely through both gills. You’re not doing it any favors setting it free when it’s still feeling exhausted.
Michael Adno is a writer and artist based in New York City. His work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, Oxford American, and Outside, among other magazines.