Does “Catch & Release” = “Probably Dead”? (Pt. I)

Bleeding Bonefish

How much blood is too much?

It may be comforting in some circles to claim that modern catch-and-release fishing isn’t truly a bloodsport, but the facts don’t follow. Studies of release mortality range from around 4 percent to well past 40 percent. At the lower end are fish caught in cold water and properly released by experienced anglers using barbless hooks. At the upper are fish caught from warm water on barbed hooks and held aloft for the obligatory hero photograph. With catch-and-release, lack of knowledge quickly turns Probably Survive into Might Survive. Take a fish home for supper, though, and it always ends up dead.
~Via The New York Times


For the longest time I’ve lauded fly fishing for it’s low-impact on the species we chase in our silly little obsession. On the face of it there’s something to such a notion: fly fishing is often catch-and-release, the mechanics of it usually prevent gut-hooking fish, and (frankly) we often catch far less fish than other techniques, which limits the impact further. That’s all well and good but I can’t escape much of the scientific data coming to light about the actual impact that some of our so-called eco-friendly practices have on the fish we love. For example, those fish-gripper devices—like the Boga Grip®—were praised as a safe and clean way to handle fish. They prevented excess touching of the fish—which removed their protective slime coat—and kept the fish under control so the angler could quickly remove the hook and release it. Turns out they’re about the worst thing you can stick in a fish’s mouth. Worse than a hook.

No listen, that’s fact, man. Click and Read for yourself, but here’s one major find of a study (in which Aaron Adams of BTT had a part) [1]:

The lip-gripping device caused mouth injuries to 80% of bonefish restrained in the water and 100% of bonefish held in the air, always when fish thrashed while being held. Some of the injuries were severe (40%) and included separating the tongue from the floor of the mouth, creating tears and holes in the soft tissue of the lower jaw, and splitting the mandible.

And that’s just one example. Lipping fish has also been shown to be deadly to many species, even though it is standard practice with bass and snook and baby tarpon. Then there was that study that showed how bonefish that were held in the air were subject to lost equilibrium and subsequent predation in areas that sharks were common. (For more on this visit Bonefish & Tarpon Trust.) It seemed like everywhere I turned I saw the charade of my harmless little sport crumbling. Then I remembered an episode from my early bonefishing career, and episode that proves nothing conclusively but does offer me some hope and (more importantly) justification for continuing to practice my blood sport…

1 Funny story here: Before I knew who Aaron Adams was I found his little side project Tribal Bonefish which (among other things) highlights good catch-and-release practices. Well, if you’ve seen the site it’s pretty bare-bones (and, frankly, looks like a high-school kid’s website project—come on Aaron, what about an updated design, bro?) so perhaps I can be forgiven for my arrogance when I emailed him with my list of catch-and-release tips from a “professional” guide. It was a very long and thorough email and I even quoted the article Aaron had helped research and (presumably) author! Here I was, quoting his article back at him in a fairly haughty manner, as if I, as an actual guide, knew more than the author of a simple website ever could. To his credit he responded with amiable humility and never pointed out my horrible gaff. Not until later did I connect the names on the email and article. [back]

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  • Reply

    Hi; sorry about my english; wath fly rod do you recommended for baby tarpon?

  • Reply

    Thanks for the Tribal Bonefish link. It’s slowly catching on.
    Rather than put it all on you, I’ll put out a call to those 6.3 people who read your site, maybe they’ll ante up with a hot new web design.

  • Reply

    BTW, Aaron, you’ve got a permanent link under “Conservation” now… for the 6.3 anglers who visit this site and (probably) already know about Tribal Bonefish.

  • Reply

    When I have the time, I will certainly do that. I use Dreamweaver as well, but am not up on the use of templates through that program. However, I’ll do some research and see what I can come up with.

    As for sizzle, unfortunately only about half of what we say has to do with content, the other half has to do with how we say it. Presentation matters, as any angler should know. If not, we could drop our quality-made, imitatively accurate flies any old how and the fish would eat. Right?

    Thanks again, Aaron, for your characteristic humility and humour.

  • Aaron

    RE catch and release – It comes down to this: fish and handle fish responsibly and C&R is a good conservation tool. We do a lot to work with guides on handling practices for fish, we even wrote a letter to fishing mags and web sites asking them to not show hero shots. The former is working, the latter doesn’t seem to be.

    RE the high school web site that is Tribal Bonefish – LOL. I thought the quality web sites were all about content and valid information, not sizzle. Hmmm, might have to rethink.
    How about this – anyone who has the time (which I don’t) and inclination (which I do, but see ‘time’, above) to create a new web site design template for Tribal Bonefish ( – have at it. Create it (I use Adobe Dreamweaver (I’m still on CS3, a tragic result of salaries for fish biologists)), send it to me, and I’ll upgrade the appearance of the site to go with the valid content. Consider it a valid contribution to fish conservation.

  • Reply

    The first guide I had in the Bahamas treated the bones like you might treat a trout, maybe a bit rougher. I had not context for this and assumed that was OK… if the guide does it, it must be OK, right? It wasn’t until months afterward that I realized just how bad he had handled the fish. I look back at the pictures from that trip with some remorse.

    The last trip to the Bahamas the guide (a different guide) was up on the research and very aware of the danger of air exposure and excessive handling. Not a single fish was removed from the water, no hero shots were taken.

    … and the guides will lead them.

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