Friday, December 13, 2019

Catch and Release Mortality

No question, more and more recreational striper fishermen are releasing their catch these days.  Yes, it could be those tons of schoolies that you have to release if you are fishing for them.  But, even those fishermen catching small keepers are releasing larger fish.  For the most part, the recreational fishing community has really embraced catch-and release striper fishing as a means of protecting what we have out there.
A keeper is "swished around" in the water
before being released. Studies indicate the catch-
and-release mortality rate for recreational
fishermen is 9 %. There are many things you
can do to reduce that.
However, is this working? The ASMFC (Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission) came out with a study that indicated the mortality rate of stripers released is 9%.  Yes, they are saying just about 1 in 10 stripers you release will die. Other mid Atlantic states have done similar studies that conclude everything from 6% to 8%, all pretty much in line with the ASMFC numbers. None of these studies tell how these numbers are reached.  I am just guessing they are looking at every fish caught, no matter how the means, putting it altogether and that's what comes out.
Here are a few facts that we do know. The survivability of released stripers depends on two factors, physical injury and stress.  I would also add mishandling.  Physical injury could be a deep hooked fish (swallowed the bait), hook in the gills, etc.  Stress could be caused by a number of factors including too long of a fight on light tackle, warm water, low salinity and fish out of the water for too long a period of time.
Most of these studies cite bait fishing as the major culprit.  Anyone who has fished with bait on standard hooks for stripers knows that stripers will generally swallow a bait, thus the deep hook problem. Studies cite mortality rate as high as 50% when using bait. That's one reason why we will all be using circle hooks in the coming years (next year in MA) when fishing bait. I can tell you that circle hooks are better for catch-and-release than traditional hooks, but you will still gut hook a number of fish if you let them really take the bait. Other culprits that some of these studies touch on are treble hooks especially small ones on small plugs.
I wanted to check out these mortality rates for myself, so I did my own informal study on my own catch-and-release practises.  Though my samples were small, they were revealing. Of the last 200 stripers I caught on a jig, I had one badly hooked bleeder, one fish that had some blood, but not much and one fish that I dropped into the jetty rocks when lifting it (hit water, but not sure it survived). All the other fish were not badly hooked and were released in good shape. So, using a jig, that mortality rate for me was 1% to 1.5%.  Makes sense since the jig is a lure that rides upright in the water and generally hooks the fish in the upper jaw or around the lip area.
I also kept track of my bait fishing (don't do this often, but did it for a period at the Canal).  I was using squid on an inline circle hook and hitting the fish as soon as they took the bait.  In a two day stint, I landed 25 stripers on squid. I had only one bad hook-up from a fish that came in on me that I let take the bait for too long. That fish swallowed the hook, and while I did get it out, there was considerable blood. I'm assuming that fish died. So, the mortality rate with my circle hook and a small sample of fish amounted to 1 fish in 25 or 4%.
Finally, I was keeping track of the fish I was catching in the Bay in September.  I was using at times a small plug, a Jumpin' Minnow with two sets of trebles in which I crushed the barbs. Of the 25 fish I landed in one week on this plug, I had two "bad" hook-ups in which the hooks were embedded in the gill which resulted in blood. I am assuming those two fish did not make it, although they swam away. So, the mortality rate on a small, treble hooked plug (again, a small sample) amounted to 2 in 25 or 8%.
My own informal study told me what many anglers already know.  Jigs are your best bet to use if you plan to release the fish you catch, circle hooks help, but will still account for higher mortality rates if you let the fish really take the bait, and small treble hooked plugs will do the most damage whether you crush the barbs or not.
As far as stress, I noted no stressed fish since I landed most of my fish in the colder water of spring and fall and released them quickly.  In addition, I generally unhooked my summer fish in the water, a good practice in the warmer months of the year.