How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Muskie Release Myths and Misconceptions

Both Muskies Inc. and Muskies Canada have done a fantastic job of opening the eyes of muskie anglers across North America to the benefits of catch and release. While both groups are to be commended for the hard work and education that has gone into this process, the job is far from over. Recognition of the need for catch and release is now firmly established in the minds of most muskie anglers. However, there is a big difference between effective catch and release, and tossing a fish over the side. Far too many fish are still being over handled, dropped, kept out of the water for extended periods of time, picked-up by the eyes, and held vertically by the jaw or gill cover. It is a pretty safe bet that many of these fish, although released, simply do not survive their handling experience due to lactic acid build-up caused by the stress of rough or over-handling, or due to injuries sustained during the handling process. What is the delayed mortality rate on these individuals? Nobody really knows. Hopefully in time, we will have an answer for this question.

The best way to ensure an effective release is to reduce handling to an absolute minimum. During the hot days of summer, reducing handling and keeping fish cool and wet is even more critical for their survival. Gills can dry out very quickly. Releasing fish in the water is THE best way to reduce handling and heat stress. This means you must become familiar with a particular release method (or methods), and use them consistently. For some anglers, a net, cradle, or hybrid release net is the way to go. Some anglers prefer to use their hands; others use their hands with a thick leather or kevlar glove.

There are specific agreed methods for using many of these release tools. If you are not familiar with the mechanics of a particular method, find someone who uses the device and ask for help. Most tournament pros, guides, or senior members of Muskies Canada or Muskies Inc. would be only too happy to talk to you or to point you to someone who can help you. There are also several good Internet Discussion Boards that might provide you with the answers you need.

Once the fish has been subdued, it is important to remove the hooks from the fish as quickly as possible. This means having the right tools for the job at hand. A couple of pairs of long-handled pliers or hook-outs keep your fingers away from those sharp teeth. Compound cutters are a definite must to quickly cut through large treble or siwash hooks. Jaw spreaders are also worth having nearby. Most hooks will come out quickly if you pause for several seconds and note their direction of entry. If they will not come out quickly, don't waste valuable time - just cut them as short as possible so as to avoid creating an impediment to feeding, and then quickly try to remove the cut-off hook from the fish. (This is not always possible.)

This is the point in the process where most anglers get injured. Show those teeth, gill rakers, and hooks the respect they deserve. Any or all of the above can put a quick end to your fishing day if you are careless!

The area where the majority of fish are injured and stressed is when they are brought aboard a boat, most frequently for photographs. Fish should be brought aboard ONLY when cameras are focused and ready to shoot. The photographer should be in place and ready to depress the shutter within seconds of the fish coming out of the water. Smaller fish (under 40 inches) can be held in a diagonal or horizontal hold for short periods (up to 30 seconds… less during the heat of the summer). Larger fish should be held horizontally to support their spine and internal organs. A good rule of thumb is that the bigger the fish, the less time it should be out of the water, because gravity and lack of oxygen are more debilitating to larger fish. While there is no scientific proof that vertical holds are harmful to fish, M.N.R./D.N.R. staff and co-op students who handle muskies, especially larger specimens, are taught by Biologists to only handle fish horizontally. This only makes good sense when we see the way gravity effects larger objects in the air versus under the water. Also, having two hands on the fish greatly reduces the chances of a fish being dropped to the floor of the boat and injured. Never allow to fish to thrash around on the floor of your boat.

Forget the old wives tale about how holding a fish up by the eyes paralyses them. It sure does! But you'd be paralyzed too if someone picked you up by the eyes. You'd also be permanently blinded as a result of the experience… so don't do it!

Picking up a muskie can be best accomplished in one of two ways. Grabbing the base of the tail, and cradling the throat area of the muskie works well. Lastly, slip your fingers carefully under gill cover and place your thumb firmly in the "v" shaped groove under the jaw, while cradling the mid section of the fish. This latter hold is the most dangerous to the angler if not done with reasonable care. The placement of the thumb is critical to maintaining a firm hold on the fish.

When the photo session is over, gently place the muskie back into the water. The fish may quickly scoot away, delivering you a refreshing dousing of water, or it may struggle to maintain an upright position. If the fish seems to be struggling, firmly grasp the base of the tail, and cradle the throat area of the fish. Move the fish forward in an "S" motion. If you must pull the fish backward while stationary, do so very slowly and gently so as not to damage the gills. If you can keep some forward motion into current, or using either your gas or electric motor very slowly, this will eliminate the need to pull the fish backwards. Once the fish is able to hold itself in an upright position and begins to show more energy, gently but firmly push the fish away from you.

In most cases the muskie will slowly disappear from sight. Other times, the muskie will return to the surface and either slowly move along the surface, or simply lay at rest there. It is critical that you remain close to the fish until it swims below, as the fish is susceptible to be hitting by other watercraft, or to being scooped from the water by unscrupulous anglers. If after a maximum of five (5) minutes, the muskie has still not submerged - slowly move your boat towards the muskie. In the majority of cases, this is all that is needed to encourage the fish to retreat to the safety of the depths. In the unlikely event that the fish returns to the surface after the push-off, and still appears to be struggling, you may have to repeat the initial resuscitation process. In the event that the muskie came from deep water, you may have to maneuver the boat into a shallow water bay, or the lee side of an island, so that the fish will be in shallower water and can expel the air that has filled its bladder, and is making it difficult to submerge.

Muskie fishing… exciting! Make the future bright for our children and practice C.P.R. - Catch, Photograph, and Release.

Steve Wickens is a Guide Association Member - Click here for more info


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