Plus Guidance on Whether or Not to Leave a Hook in a Fish
Using a tool to unhook a fish keeps you safe and makes it less likely you’ll injure the fish. Photo © Ken Schultz
The general principles of proper catch and release are outlined in this article. One of the most important components, of course, is the actual act of unhooking a fish, which is easier with some species than others, and which varies depending on where and how the fish is hooked.
Take It Easy; Be Quick But Safe
In all instances, a hook should be removed carefully, not in a jerking or ripping manner that might cause injury.
Tugging at a hook could rip the flesh inside the mouth or on the cheek or other location, which could prompt bleeding or lead to infection. Ripping out a hook could also tear the jaw or the maxillary.
Hook removal is usually easier with barbless hooks than with barbed ones, and in both cases , it means backing the hook point out rather than just grabbing and pulling. Of course, hook removal should be done quickly for the sake of the fish, but also carefully to avoid hooking yourself.
If you are removing the point of a hook from a fish by using your fingers, be very careful; the potential for hooking yourself is great if the fish moves or slips from your grasp. A bad scenario is getting a finger stuck on a hook that is still connected to the fish; this is a possibility when a multi-hooked lure or a treble hook is involved. Whenever you’re unhooking a fish or otherwise handling it, be careful not to hurt yourself, since the gill covers, fin spines, and teeth are some of the body parts that can cause a nasty cut, which may become infected.
Use a Tool
Many tools for anglers serve a variety of purposes, one of which is hook removal. Long- or needle-nosed pliers, however, are simple and popular with freshwater anglers, and especially useful for midsized hooks and treble hooks on lures. With a tapered head, it fits well into a fish’s mouth, or fairly deep into the mouth.
For strictly small hooks and for flies, a standard or angled-head hemostat works fairly well.
These tools may not be adequate for fish with big mouths and large or sharp teeth, but other devices, usually with long arms and a trigger to secure the grip on a hook, are available. Jaw spreaders, which keep the mouth of toothy fish open for unhooking work, help a lone angler unhook fish, but you have to use the proper size for the circumstances and be careful not to rip the fish with the ends.
Hook In or Hook Out?
Perhaps the most contentious aspect of catch-and-release is whether to remove the hook from a fish that has been deeply impaled. This is primarily a bait fishing issue, and for a long time, the standard advice was to cut the line or leader off and leave the hook in the fish rather than try to remove it and risk causing internal injury and bleeding. Many studies have found greatly increased rates of survival—sometimes two and three times better—if the hook is left in.
However, hooks do corrode (depending on the type of hook, and they corrode faster in saltwater), and sometimes the hooks are passed through the anal vent. Although leaving a hook in a fish may indeed be preferable to pulling it out, nevertheless a deeply swallowed hook that is well into the stomach may puncture vital organs; even if the fish is released, the damage is done.
A hook left in the throat above the gills or the esophagus is not as serious. Whether or not to cut the line is usually a decision that anglers make based on circumstances at the exact moment and also based on such factors as the condition of the fish, the length of the fight, and the tools available for unhooking.
Sometimes the difficulty of unhooking a deeply caught fish is increased because of the size of the fish’s mouth, the strength of the fish, the presence of teeth, and other factors. If two anglers work on a fish, one holding and controlling the fish and/or keeping its mouth open and the other working to free the hook, the unhooking time can be shortened and the need for resuscitation lessened. So, where a difficult situation exists, an angler should try to involve an extra pair of hands.