Imagine for a minute you are out to sea, line wet, with about 150 feet of water separating boat from the bottom. You feel a tug. Instinct kicks in and you want to yank up to set the hook, but you remember that doesn't work with circle hooks, a required gear when fishing for reef fish like snapper and grouper in all Gulf of Mexico waters and in federal waters of the Atlantic south of 28 degrees north latitude. So you gently start reeling it in, hoping nothing eats your catch before you can get it to the boat.
Alas, the fish surfaces, but it is too small to keep and it seems to be experiencing barotrauma, a condition that occurs when the gases in the swim bladder expand after being brought to the surface from depth.
Stop! The choices you make from here on can greatly impact whether or not that fish you are about to release survives to be caught another day. Do you know what to do?
Post-release fish survival should be important to all anglers. The more fish that survive being caught and subsequently released, the more fish there will be in general. This can eventually mean extension of open seasons, increases in bag limits and more successful fishing trips.
While every situation is different, there are plenty of things you can do to help maximize the survival of fish you plan on releasing, from using wet hands when touching a fish to holding your catch horizontally. Matching your gear to the size fish you are targeting can help shorten the time it takes to get the fish to the boat, which can help a fish survive if released because it will be less exhausted.
If your fish is experiencing barotrauma, time is of the essence. Barotrauma can potentially cause injury to the internal organs as they are pushed out of the body (signs of this include stomach protruding from mouth, intestines protruding from the anus, eyes bulging out and bloated belly).
There are two main types of tools currently used to help relieve the effects of barotrauma. Venting tools are hollow, sharpened devices (think a syringe without the plunger) that can be used to release the expanded gases. Descending devices, which are used to send the fish back down to depth, also have promise.
Until recently, it has been required to have and use venting tools when fishing for reef fish in the Gulf, but this requirement was removed in federal waters last year and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) voted to remove the requirement in state waters last November. The rule change should go in effect around the end of the month.
The removal of this rule will give anglers the ability to choose the best method to maximize survival of released fish.
For example, on a hot summer day, using a descending device might be a better option because you are quickly returning the fish to the cooler water at the bottom.
And while venting, when done correctly can help, not all fish need to be vented.
Both tools have advantages and disadvantages.
Hit a hot spot? It is possible to vent and release several fish in the same amount of time it would take to descend a single fish. Then again, not everyone feels confident on when, where and how to vent. Going too deep or venting in the wrong place can cause more damage than good.
But you also need to know what you are doing when using a descending device. If done incorrectly, the fish may come loose too soon. Descending devices also can require the dedication of a rod, which is used to bring the descending device down and back up again.
While both devices can be homemade or purchased and while both are inexpensive, descending devices can cost, on average, slightly more than venting tools. Both devices also come in various sizes, but venting tools tend to generally be smaller than descending devices and do not take up a lot of space in an already-crowded tackle box.
Either way, the choice is yours. So shop around, be sure to read the instructions thoroughly and, hopefully, take home a keeper or two.
For more on how to make sure your fish survives release, visit MyFWC.com/Fishing and click on "Saltwater," "Recreational Regulations" and "Fish Handling."