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Fish fatalities

August 28, 2020 by Ted Rulseh

On my first night ever at Birch Lake, more than 30 years ago at a rented cottage, I was casting a Jitterbug for bass from the pier after dark. A good-sized musky hit it. 

With my medium-weight spincast outfit and eight-pound-test line I managed to play the fish out. While it lay exhausted beside the pier I unhooked it; it slowly swam away, and I felt good about having let it go. 

The next day I saw a large dead musky floating along the shore near the cottage. What I know now, but didn’t know then, is that the dead musky might have been the one I caught, and supposedly released alive, the night before. 

I learned years ago that playing a musky or any fish to exhaustion can end up eventually killing it. That’s why I quit using ultralight spinning gear to fish for bass. I choose the rod/reel combination appropriate to the species. 

The issue of catching and releasing came into focus after two angling friends here on Birch Lake each recently reported finding a dead musky, one 37 inches, the other 32. The smaller one, the finder said, appeared to have had a hook ripped out of its gill. 

This is clearly a gross example of mistreating a fish, and likely also of going musky fishing without the tools needed to unhook and release the fish safely. Most likely the people who caught these muskies saw them swim away after the hooks were removed and assumed (as I did all those years ago) that they were fine.

It’s now axiomatic in catch-and-release circles that this isn’t necessarily true. The more one reads about catch-and-release, the more apparent it becomes that fish are more fragile than they may seem. Biologists have studied this subject extensively, and they’ve found that a great many factors can determine whether a released fish lives or dies.

One important factor is time out of the water. Fish should be unhooked and returned to the lake as quickly as possible. Ideally, they should be unhooked at boatside while still in the water. In practice many of us, when we catch a nice fish, want to take its picture. 

So we net the fish, remove the hook, then lift the fish up and take time to set the scene — the sunlight hitting the fish from the right direction, the ideal pose. Of course the bigger the fish, the harder it is to hold still; fish that struggle are sometimes dropped to the floor of the boat, then picked up and the pose for the camera repeated. All this handling, especially the impact from a fall, can end up being lethal.

Other factors are too numerous to explore in detail here, but they include the size and style of hooks (barbed versus barbless, J-hook versus circle hook), water temperature, type of landing net, and how the fish is held (vertically by the mouth or gill, versus horizontally, with the body supported). There are others, and reading material online is abundant.

They key thing to remember is to treat the fish as precious and to remember that if we catch, photograph and release carelessly, we can kill more fish in a day than if we kept a limit for the fry pan.

Ted Rulseh resides on Birch Lake in Harshaw and is an advocate for lake protection and improvement. His Lakeland Times and Northwoods River News columns are the basis for a book, “A Lakeside Companion,” published by The University of Wisconsin Press. Ted may be reached at [email protected]

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