Just when you thought you knew everything about fishing
  |  First Published: February 2016

Every issue of Fishing Monthly is filled with comprehensive articles that suggest tackle, bait, and locations for target species. This month we’re offering fresh information concerning fish handling as opposed to simply how to get them in the box. Welcome to the first instalment of a four-part series focused on caring for your catch. Releasing fish in a healthy condition is important for maintaining sustainable fish populations, and with this in mind I’ll include information on the many benefits associated with proper handling. I’ll also include an easy to follow guide on how to maximize the quality of catch you take home for the dinner table.

reasons to support proper handling technique

I’m not alone when it comes to hearing tales of a time not too long ago, when the local river, beach or home reef used to yield a plentiful bounty. These abundant times create a stark comparison to the meagre hauls of today. You may yourself have even experienced such a dilemma, with your favourite secret spot of yesteryear now not so secret and hardly worth the effort. With the creation of superior fishing and boating equipment, and more lines in the water, it comes as no surprise that we face an uncertain future regarding the endurance of our cherished, dwindling fish stocks.

There are many problems that can be blamed for this obvious decline: pro boats and half a century of insufficient quota controls, estuary netting and the decimation of the start of the food chain, trawlers and the annihilation of by-catch, pollution and the degradation of ecosystems, and the ever-present disaster of climate change. However, not everything is shrouded in doom and gloom. If each of us live up to our obligation to play our part to maintain our precious resource, we may indeed leave for future generations much more in the water than just plastic, garbage, and a perilous assortment of snagged and tangled fishing gear.

As responsible anglers, our obligation extends much further than just to stick to bag limits, return undersize catch and remove rubbish from our designated place of fishing. It is about respect. Many years on professional wetliners (not to be confused with longliners) in the Indian Ocean, under the guidance of a short-fused Trojan of a skipper, taught me about respect and completely changed the way I fished for the better. When we see a better way of doing things – a more streamlined, more sophisticated, superior way – we ultimately adapt, lest we be left behind.

Respect the fish

The first thing I learned was that contrary to popular belief, fish are uniquely fragile, and should be handled with extreme care and respect, whether alive or dead. Important things to keep in mind include the fact that a fish’s body has never experienced numerous things that our bodies do, and which we take for granted every day. The most significant of these is that fish have never experienced the full force of gravity, spending their whole lives suspended in water.

A fish has never experienced heat. I don’t mean the kind of heat they might experience with the change in temperature of a warm ocean current or sun bathing in the shallows. I’m talking about a human hand around 37°C, or the scorching bottom of an aluminium boat that burns like a hot poker on their delicate scales. Most anglers are completely unaware that highly sensitive layers of outer skin completely cover the exterior of a fish’s scales – rather than underneath them!

A fish has also never experienced anything hard or dry. Fish will often use rock or reef to scratch an itch, but they have never had to endure metal or fiberglass or wood or a bucket, and certainly have never experienced anything dry. Is it any wonder they flip about?

Fish have never experienced being held by their mouth or their tail. This practice is completely intolerable, no matter what the size of the fish, from a mullet to a marlin. Dead or alive, holding a fish vertically by the mouth or tail is an absolute no, no!

If the fish is alive, holding it by the mouth (using lip grippers or other alternatives) often results in vertebrae separation or tearing of the lip completely. And holding a live fish by the tail is similar to lifting a person off the ground by the head – it’s dangerous! This stretches the spinal discs and vertebrae of a live fish, which is dangerous to their health and quite probably the future of the animal.

If the fish is dead and set with rigor mortis, holding it by the tail can release toxins built up in the spine (once separated under the load of its own weight) and disperse them into the flesh. This can greatly affect the taste.

There is of course a correct way to hold fish, both dead and alive, and this simple technique will be explored in detail in part two of this series, ‘Landing Your Catch.’

Fish out of water

On the wetliner boat, the second requirement of the working deck was fundamental to success. Fish were to be sorted and processed swiftly and smartly, or once again I’d risk the wrath of the temperamental skipper. In any five-minute period, there could be up to 80 fish landed carefully on the kill tables. Predominately, the catch consisted of the target species, pink snapper, but among those there could be a 25kg amberjack, one or two spangled emperor, a cod that would only just fit in a sleeping bag, and a couple of crazed tailor as big as cricket bats just to keep things interesting. Throw a hyperactive yellowfin into the mix, and without keeping the fish calm and eliminating flipping around, this scenario would have been absolute chaos – not to mention so inefficient it probably would have been a complete waste of time.

How did we combat such a problem? We remembered that every second counts when a fish is out of the water. A study on released fish mortality found that an unfortunate 38% of fish held out of the water for just 30 seconds after a line fight to exhaustion died. The rate of death increased to 72% for fish held out of the water for just 60 seconds (Ferguson and Tufts 1992). Many of these died up to 12 hours later. That means when you see a fish swim off after release, you shouldn’t assume it’s unhurt. Try to hold your breath next time you land a fish, and only recommence breathing once the fish is released, as this is what the animal experiences.

This is the crux of the issue, and our first responsibility as anglers. If a fish isn’t a keeper, return it swiftly and carefully to its place of origin. Taking a photo means precious extra seconds out of the water, so if you want to take pics make sure you have a camera on standby so this time is kept to an absolute minimum. Based on the statistics from the above research, it is easy to see how detrimental poor handling can be to the environment, with a great proportion of throwbacks from recreational fishing alone simply ending up as berley. This is unsustainable.

Our second major responsibility is the respectful treatment of the product we keep. The way a fish is treated after landing affects the quality. A few simple and inexpensive techniques will result in the best possible eating product that can be achieved.

Moving forward, it’s essential to change our ways, and every one of us must be more responsible in the management of recreational fishing into the future. We must dismiss certain damaging fishing practices like fumbling around with a fish with bare hands. Such practice is completely unnecessary – not to mention the damaging, often irreversible air exposure the fish suffers as every second goes by. And we’ve all done it.

The good news is, there is a better, easier, and inexpensive way – with a one-time investment of less than $50 to set up. A way so very sophisticated you will actually be taking home export quality fish to your very own table and be wondering why you hadn’t implemented these techniques years ago. And above all, a way that will sustain fisheries for generations to enjoy.

Be sure to catch the following three parts of this series, as all will be revealed, arming everyone in the wider fishing community with the skills to become a more responsible, sophisticated angler.

Until then, see you in the soup!

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