How to let ‘em go with the best chance of survival
It starts with a couple of tugs. The first one by the fish as it takes the bait, lure, or fly, and the second by the angler as he sets the hook. Adrenaline kicks in, and the action begins. Soon it’s decision time. Keep it or let it go? Sport anglers release about 90 percent of the fish they catch because the fish are not a legal species or size or because of lack of desire to eat them. But many freed fish die anyway.
“You may release it and watch it swim away only for it to go belly up downstream,” says Mark Beaushesne, who coordinates fishing programs for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. A life-long angler, Beaushesne has been guiding and teaching fishing to all types of anglers for two decades.
“You can reduce the risk by playing the fish as little as possible rather than to exhaustion, so less lactic acid builds up,” advises Beaushesne. “Wet your hands or use a release glove. Cradle the fish in the water. Gently back out the hook, and then allow the fish to swim away.”
Beaushesne recommends having a release tool, such as pliers or hemostats (clamps), within reach and ready to use. He also urges anglers to keep fish in the water as much as possible, even when using a net. A knotless or rubber net — which lowers the chance of entanglement, thus allowing a quicker release — is best.
For warm water species such as bass and pike, Beaushesne often uses a lip-gripper tool but warns not to let the fish dangle long. “You’re holding the fish at a small point,” he says. “You don’t want all of its weight hanging on that one point.”
What about a photo? “Make sure the photographer is ready, not fiddling with exposure or other settings, before the fish comes to hand,” says Beaushesne. “Remove the hook and let the fish lie in a net in the water so it’s not stressed. Pick it up with wet hands for the shot, then release it. The whole process should take seconds.”
Most importantly, Beaushesne urges anglers to have a release plan before hooking the fish. “The biggest mistake is not being ready,” says Beaushesne. “The second biggest mistake is trying to deal with the fish out of the water — in the boat, on a dock, or on the shore. Releasing a fish should be seamless, but some anglers find it stressful when they’re under the gun time-wise and all jacked up after hooking the fish. Having a plan is better for both you and the fish.”
What to do if you or a fellow boater falls in the water
Every day, 10 people in the United States die from unintentional drowning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About 88 percent of those people are not wearing a personal flotation device (PFD). Even the strongest swimmer can succumb — and quickly if the water is cold.
Now that spring is here, boaters are eager to head onto open but chilly water. Wearing a PFD greatly increases the odds of survival if someone accidentally falls overboard.
Certainly a person who falls in the water wearing a life jacket can be injured or die, says Lieutenant Colin Fogarty, U.S. Coast Guard, Upper Mississippi Sector, “but in search-and-rescue cases, the victim almost always is not wearing one.”
They’re often intoxicated, too. Seventy percent of deaths associated with recreational activities on the water involve alcohol use. Drinking compromises one’s balance and judgment. Sun and heat exacerbate the effect. In other words, if you drink, you’re more apt to fall in the water, an especially dangerous situation if your life jacket is stored under the hull.
If you do go overboard, don’t panic, says Fogarty. Make your presence in the water known by waving your arms or yelling. On a calm lake, the rule of thumb is to stay with the boat. If you’re in a high-traffic area in moving water, Fogarty recommends swimming toward shore, away from boats. In moving water, even a stationary boat can generate bow suction, which can pull you under the boat. “Stay away from debris, barges, and docked boats,” he warns. “In a dynamic river environment, you can get drawn under. Water speed increases around objects.”
If someone else goes overboard, Fogarty offers this rescue plan:
- If the victim is not wearing a PFD, throw him one.
- If the victim is behind the boat, kill the engine.
- If the victim is to the side of the boat, steer the boat so that you can catch the person as the current brings the person toward the boat.
- Get the victim on board quickly without getting in the water yourself.
“Don’t jump in after the person,” emphasizes Fogarty. “Someone in trouble will instinctively try to stay afloat by grabbing onto the rescuer. Then the rescuer ends up drowning.”
Bottom line: Before getting in a boat, make sure everyone is wearing a PFD. “We often find drowning victims with PFDs on board their boats,” say Fogarty. “The law says they just need to be nearby, but wear ‘em! It’s not worth the risk not to.”