Any job needs right tools to get done properly. For anglers, having the right lure can be critical to catching fish; however, it is just as important to carry the tools and gear needed to properly catch and release fish. Improperly handled fish have a greater chance of post-release mortality, which ultimately damages our fisheries. The following is an overview of the tools you need to properly land and release fish.
Beyond matching your fishing tackle to suit your quarry of choice, landing gear is the first component in proper catch and release practices. Large or tenacious fish require nets or cradles, while smaller fish can often be hand-landed. Nets tend to be preferred overall when it comes to landing devices. They come in an assortment of sizes and models for different conditions and the varying sizes of fish. High-end nets have extra features that support catch-and-release fishing that older generation nets don't contain. First, high-quality nets today are coated or are made of rubber. They also tend to have netting without knots. Knotted nets can sometimes damage feisty fish struggling in the mesh. Coated and no-knot netting remove little, if any, of the protective slime from a fish when landed. The slime is a critical protective layer for fish and when removed they are more vulnerable to infection and post-release mortality.
High-end fishing nets also have other features, like tangle-free netting which is a real benefit when landing fish to ensure they don't injure themselves in the net. Sturdy nets that easily collapse with handles that lock into place (and in different positions) make landing fish easier, especially if you're fishing solo. Look for nets made with strong composite handles (like fiberglass) that won't bend like standard aluminum ones. When choosing a net, opt for one with dark-colored finish and netting; shiny finishes will reflect light and can spook fish.
Another popular landing device is a cradle. These troughs-like nets require a coordinated effort by two anglers to land fish and are a good tool for catch and release practices. Cradles hold and support fish in a horizontal position at all times, and can subdue energetic fish better than some lower-grade nets. Most cradle netting or mesh is coated and tangle-free as well. Cradle handles often double as a measuring device, making it easy for anglers to measure the length of a fish without removing it from the water — keeping fish in the water is key to them surviving the release.
For some anglers and their quarry, hand-landing is a simple and easy option. In the case of hand landing, a variety of gloves are specifically designed to make gripping fish easier without removing their slime; they should always be wet first, before grabbing a fish. Gloves also have the added bonus of protecting anglers from teeth, gill flaps and dorsal spines when handling fish.
One final type of landing device worth mentioning in this category are "lip grippers," like the Boga Grip, or Berkley's lip Grip. These clamping devices hold the lower jawbone of fish in place and steady the fish for hook removal. Most only require one free hand to operate and let you to keep the fish in the water when taking out hooks. The tool is a good choice for solo fishing anglers. Simple in design, anglers do not need to worry about tangling hooks in a net or cradle mesh when using a lip grip. Some models also include a scale in their handle as well.
Fishing Hook Removal
Once landed, anglers should quickly get the hooks out of a fish. Pliers are a critical tool in catch-and-release fishing. Pliers come in a vast array of designs with dozens of features, with basic stainless steel to floating plastic models available. For big-game anglers, heavy-duty pliers with a long reach are often needed to remove deeply hooked baits, as well as safely negotiate around a fish's mouth and teeth. Fly anglers regularly use a scaled down version of pliers, using forceps to remove hooks as forceps clip onto a fishing vest when not in use. In most freshwater fishing applications, a basic pair of needle-nose pliers is fine for quickly removing hooks from fish.
Cutters are also sometimes required for anglers fishing with big baits for toothy fish. In muskie fishing, it's often easier to quickly cut hooks, removing all the hook pieces, than it is to struggle with multiple hooked trebles. This method reduces the time it takes to release fish, lessening the chances of the fish dying after being released. Quickly removing hooks from the equation also reduces the changes of your landing gear being damaged by entangled hooks if a fish struggles once landed.
Only buy quality cutters.The last thing you want is to be fumbling with a low-end tool with your hand inches away from an angry fish with a mouthful of hooks (and teeth).Quality cutters should break hooks on the first attempt and require little effort.
Aside from pliers and cutters, products categorized as hook removers are also available and used by many anglers. Various models exist from small-scale tubular models for weight-conscious fisherman to large stainless steel ones. These products are excellent tools for removing deeply embedded hooks from fish and sometimes more beneficial than a standard pair of pliers, making the case to carry both models when fishing.
With any handheld tool near water, getting ones with anti-slip grips or a lanyard will reduce the chances of gear getting dropped overboard. Lanyards are simple to use, just strap the tool's lanyard around your wrist and you don't have to worry about it. Of course, making your own lanyard is as simple as getting some duct tape, thin rope and a clamp or bead. Simply loop the rope and tie and one end. Next, tape part of the rope to the tool's handle. Slip on the clamp or bead to make the loop adjustable and you're in business.
Recording the Catch
Many anglers practicing catch-and-release like to qualify their catches. Weight and length are often measured before releasing fish for personal records, or to keep tabs on their tournament status. If you need either of these measurements act quickly and carry the right tools on hand. High-quality fish weighing scale will give you a quick and accurate reading. Tape measures, measuring boards, and folding rulers can also help you get measurements. Regardless of what tool you choose, getting a floating model will probably save you a few pennies in the long run.
Photographing a catch is also a well-intended act of many anglers. Cameras are another topic all together, but investing in quality film and using a flash will generally produce decent photos. Just make sure you support the weight of the fish at all times, avoiding vertical holds as much as possible. Also, if practicing catch and release, why not go for a "release shot" keeping the fish in the water.
These are just some of the tools available to anglers to properly land and release fish. Invest the money in quality gear and take the time to learn how to properly release fish. The cost is minimal when you consider the payback we get from healthy fisheries.