How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Tools and the Pro-Active Relaese for Muskies

An article by Pete Maina about the importance of good catch and release.

Before I get to my main topic, I want to revisit the topic of live and dead bait use briefly. In past issues of Esox Angler Magazine, I have discussed this topic in detail, since spring is a season where live and dead bait are commonly used. At the time, I discussed the importance of using quickstrike rigging, and NOT allowing ingestion of bait and hook(s). This plea has been further backed-up by Michael Butler, citing mortality rates from studies done with different species (including pike) as further warning/proof that ingested hooks kill.

Recently "circle" hooks have been promoted as an alternative to quickstrike rigs. These hooks are touted as potentially, or in some cases definitely (which is the reason for this mention; the potential to continue to kill muskies is VERY real) being a safe alternative to the old standard, square (swallow) hooks. But, keep in mind that circle hooks involve waiting for the fish to "turn" the bait, and therefore, potential for ingestion still exists. Until more is discovered about these hooks, the safest thing for the good of esocids is to stick exclusively with quickstrike rigging and immediate setting when using bait. There are many variables with respect to the use of circle hooks, and while there have been some positive reports, there are also reports of fish still being hooked in the stomach or gullet. Until more is known about these hooks, I'd like to suggest that you err on the safe side.

The tools of the trade for proper, effective catch and release for esox can't be discussed too much. Neither can the basics of handling release properly. So, a list of tools again is a must (I know this is a repeat for many of you, but it is important stuff! For those hearing this again, remember those new to the sport and this website and bear with me). Without the following tools, the Johnsons, Burns, Pearsons‹no one, no matter how many muskies they have handled, can release effectively or safely. The mandatory tools at all times (the "have them or don't go" tools) include long-nose pliers (11 inch models are great), quality hook cutters (Knipex are simply the best and are available through Esox Angler Magazine) and jaw spreaders. Back-up sets of each are a great idea. Other suggested items that make release even more efficient and safe, include "hookouts", heavy gloves, split-ring pliers, spare hooks (preferably pre-sharpened) and quality landing devices which include large nets, cradles or the net/cradle hybrid.

Be Proactive
Another part of successful release is the angler's mindset. With fishing, the right frame of mind is as much a tool as a rod and reel, and it's the same with release. A proactive mindset is as important a tool as your hook cutters. Make certain that you "have a plan." If you don't consider this before going on the water, you simply won't be as successful in releasing fish as you could be. Being a newcomer to the sport is no excuse for not have a plan. In reality, it's much more important for the inexperienced. And, it's not at all hard.

To develop a plan, go through the possible scenarios you may encounter with a hooked fish. Will you be using a landing device and if so, what kind is it? Do you know how to use it? Does it allow you to keep the fish in the water, and is the mesh treated and as tangle-free as possible (knotless, treated mesh is MUCH better for the fish)? I won't get into great detail here on landing devices, but be certain you have the most fish-friendly tool you can afford, then know how it works and plan how you'll use it.

The advantage to a landing device for catch and release is simply in the speed it allows. Landing devices allow you to subdue and, if properly handled, release the fish to its natural environment quickly. Speed is a huge factor in overall stress‹minimize the time the fish is out of its natural element and the fish wins.

The "if properly handled" part of this speed equation is the "proactive" approach to release and the use of the aforementioned tools. The most important of the suggested tools are those Knipex cutters. Don't worry, they won't wear out (it's the reason you buy a good set). You can cut hundreds or thousands of hooks with them. A great "plan" for those new to the sport is to put the fish in the landing device and just cut all the hooks on the lure. Even for experienced anglers, the first step in a release with a landing device, once a fish is in the thing, is to simply cut every hook in sight.
Very likely, the biggest mistake made by most esox fishers is to wait for what are considered by many to be drastic measures until after the standard method proves slow or completely unsuccessful; the "standard" method being simply grabbing the long-nose pliers or hookouts first, in all cases. All too often, thirty seconds or a minute later, the cutters are grabbed because pliers have accomplished nothing other than bent hooks and torn flesh. For the fish and you, it's often better to begin with "drastic" hook removal measures.

Sure, once in a while, the fish is not a twister or roller; it's not hooked too badly and the shank of the hook is exposed and easily grabbed with pliers and popped out. Great!

But any of you that have caught numbers of esocids know that they don't all cooperate. They seem to not understand our good intentions for their return to the water. They twist and roll and wrap line around themselves, through hooks and leaders and everything else in sight, and then this whole mess ends up in the landing device, and the fish rolls again. This is about as bad as it gets (the only thing worse is the addition of hooks in eyes or gills too). But, it's really not that big of a deal if you're proactive.

In these cases, don't even consider pliers. They have no place in this scenario with the exception of possibly plucking hook pieces after they've been cut, but that comes later. Get those cutters, and as quickly as you can, cut the line (and leader if necessary; a scenario more common with longer trolling leaders) and cut the hooks out. Just start snipping everything in several places like a madman/woman. If a hook is deeply imbedded and tough to get to, cut the split ring or main shank and as the fish is freed up you can usually return to that hook from a better angle. In seconds, the fish can be totally free. Cut line, leader, hooks, basically whatever is in the way until it's all gone.

Any pieces of hook left in the fish need to come out (most of the time, hook pieces simply fall out). So, in the case of a hook where the split ring or shank was cut, get a gill hold on the fish (carefull here to do this correctly; it is VERY important to know how to hold them) and cut that hook to pieces and get the pieces out. Often, jaw spreaders may be necessary to get at these hooks.

So, automatically grab the cutters when hooks are embedded deeply; when hooks are in dangerous areas like eyes or gills; when fish are wrapped in line and/or mesh, and especially when you're new to the game. Many times, I've heard folks talk about being excited; about that excitement hindering the thought process and mechanics somewhat. Recently, a fellow new to muskies said to me while discussing release, "I'm just not as calm as you with these fish." Understandable, and unless you just aren't human, expected. It's all the more reason to simply plan to grab the cutters and just cut the line and hooks.

A good set of cutters is a beginner's, and fish's, best friend. Have I mentioned the importance of cutters too much here? No, I don't think that's possible. Viewing hook cutters as the "last resort" may be the biggest obstacle I consistently see to a quick release, and the solution to the problem is fairly simple - be proactive. If it's in the way or offering potential for any further damage, cut it!

Did I mention cutting hooks and line if need be?

Let 'em go alive.


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