Catch and Release and Managing Striped Bass

Catch and Release and Managing Striped Bass

The catch and release of fish is something that occurs in all fisheries whether we like it or not. There are almost no fisheries in the world that only catch the targeted species, and I’m yet to meet an angler who has fully mastered the ability to only catch keeper sized fish. Releasing fish is a part of fishing, and so is killing fish.

Fisheries managers call a release a discard. There are live and dead discards, and calculations or multipliers that help managers guess what level of mortality occurs within each fishery. For the coast wide recreational striped bass fishery the magic number is 9% ( up from 8% in recent years). No, that number doesn’t come from some magic fisheries manager dartboard, trust me, managers wish it could be that simple. The number is derived by studies and data that has been gathered through decades of hard work.

Catch and release mortality is one of those funny things that constantly comes up, especially as rules change. There’s no doubt that it is commonplace for fishermen to point the finger at folks that fish in a different fashion than they do. Maybe it’s just the competitive nature of fishermen, or maybe it’s the well noted concept that people would rather accept what they’re doing is right instead of either changing, or contemplating the idea that someone else could be right too, or even know better. You don’t have to look very far into social media, fishing forums, or down the dock to find fishermen arguing and right and wrong on just about any topic of the day. Trolling, jigging, bait fishing, and fly are all viable techniques for catching striped bass, and competition and arguing about which method is best is definitely commonplace.

You may recall that few years ago in Maryland we had a big discussion on gear restrictions that could lessen the catch effort, and catch and release mortality of the “pre-season” catch and release fishery. By “pre-season” I mean the time period between the close of the season in December, and the opening of the Spring “trophy” season in April. Yes, I’ve put “pre-season” in quotes because to a number of avid anglers in the region the fishing season never really ends, and their ability to keep a fish doesn’t change their desire to go fishing for striped bass.

The whole debate started after a picture of a bloody fish was shared on a popular online forum. After a number of meetings and countless hours of discussions, it was decided that a rod restriction and a few changes in tackle would be sufficient for limiting the effort and catch and release mortality during the “pre-season”. The subsequent regulations limited recreational vessels to using no more than 6 rods when trolling and require the smashing of barbs and prohibit the use of stinger hooks, a hook that increases the probability of deep hooking a fish. Striped bass, like many predatory fish are built to handle quite a bit of stress to their mouths. Think about what they eat throughout their lives, most things have pointy fins, spikes, claws, etc. It is because of their tough mouths that striped bass can handle being hooked and caught, yet be released to live time and time again.

Scientific studies have taught us that striped bass have a very low catch and release mortality rate when they are hooked in the mouth with single hook rigs. One study performed in the Chesapeake Bay tells us that shallow hooking mortality can be as low as 0.8% as long as the water is below 65 degrees and has a small amount of salinity. On the flip side, we know that hot summer conditions with limited oxygen in the water causes much higher discard mortality. With the overall catch effort and catch data, scientists, statisticians and fisheries managers have settled on 9% as a suitable estimate of discard mortality, so that’s where we stand.

With the new reduction in mortality that has been required by ASMFC, a number of anglers have expressed a concern with a high level of discard mortality by recreational fishermen. From a management standpoint, the 9% discard mortality number covers the estimated numbers of fish that will be caught, released, and then die. If we as fishermen want to try and make this number smaller, or at least stay within the same range then it’s up to us to change our techniques. Just like Maryland did back in 2009 with the spring “pre-season”, it’s probably time to start talking about ways to try and limit how many fish we gut hook, or kill accidentally.

The best option for limiting deep hooking is to use circle hooks when fishing with bait. If you’re a fisherman worth your salt, you already know what a circle hook is, but if not google it. Non-offset hooks are the ones that work the best and are the least likely to cause gut hooking. In fact, once you get the hang of using circle hooks you’ll never look back. They remove the big crazy “drive the steel home” hookset that many a bass fishing personality has made famous, and with a bit of gentle and constant pressure, the hook seats cleanly in the corner of the fishes mouth and allows for a quick and easy release either to the water, or your cooler if you have yet to catch your limit.

Naysayers will tell you that circle hooks are hard to use, or don’t work as well, but that’s just a sorry excuse from folks who haven’t tried them.   You might remember frustration that existed amongst the ranks of some of the worlds most avid and competitive offshore fishermen not too long ago.   It was tournaments that first started requiring circle hooks to be used for billfish.  It didn’t take long before fishermen revised their techniques, and now you’d be hard pressed to find a good marlin fisherman who doesn’t prefer a circle hook.  The same rings true for a number of other popular bait fisheries throughout the country.

If we really want to limit our impact on the fish, and lower catch and release mortality than smashing barbs, removing stinger hooks, and using circle hooks when fishing with bait is the way to go.

Join the ranks of the conservation minded angler and do what you can by making small changes in your gear type to lessen your negative impacts on the resource.

Check out this informative post from avid angler and CCA MD member Shawn Kimbro:  Circle Hook Confusion

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