FISH FACTS: Keep fish wet

Keeping these fish in the water and releasing at the side of the boat will increase their chances of survival nearly tenfold. And you still get some pretty cool pics. Keepemwet !

BEING trained as a fish health professional, providing tips on how to maximise the survival of released fish has been one of my key messages to readers over nearly 30 years of writing for Fishing World.  US outdoors writer Lee Wulff once wrote in the 1930s that “Game fish are too valuable to be caught only once.”  In the Australian context, the concept of deliberately releasing legal fish probably arose from the sportfishing movement in the early 1970s with the birth of ANSA, and in Fisho’s own Ron Calcutt’s emphasis on taking only what you need for a feed.  After slowly gathering momentum in the 1980s, the concept exploded in the early 1990s when Rex Hunt bought catch and release to the masses with his extremely popular Fishing Adventures TV series.  

Rex’s “catch, kiss and release” techniques raised the profile of catch and release to new heights in this country.  Of course this behaviour also interested fisheries research departments nationwide, as questions were raised relating to whether these “discards” actually survived the process. While overseas research on the “hooking mortality” of popular angling species like trout and North American bass species was well established by the 1990s, the base of scientific knowledge on the survival of Australian fish species after release by recreational anglers was virtually non-existent at that time.  

Given the importance of answering this question (the whole point of releasing fish should be so they can survive to reproduce the next generation of fishes), ANSA and the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC) established a National Strategy for the Survival of Released Line Caught Fish. This research program ran from 2001 until 2008 and focussed specifically on studying the survival rates of popular fish species released by Australian recreational anglers, and determining methods for improving released fish survival through changes in fishing gear, techniques and angler behaviour.  

The key scientific learnings that were discovered during this near decade of research can be summarised as follows:  

Deep hooking in the gills or gut reduce fish survival, so use methods and rigs that increase the frequency of mouth hooked fish (rather than gut hooked). For example, target fish using artificial lures rather than bait, or if bait is used, choose non-offset circle hooks.  If the fish is hooked deeply, cut the line as close as possible to the fish’s mouth rather than removing the hook, as this can greatly improve fish survival (from 12% to more than 85% in the case of deep hooked bream and mulloway, with around 76% of gut-hooked bream shedding their hooks within three weeks).   

Remove hooks from mouth-hooked fish, but try to release fish as quickly as possible.This can be facilitated by using barbless hooks, and/or singles instead of trebles, whilst use of needle-nosed pliers or hook removal devices can also greatly reduce time spent unhooking.  

Minimise the length of time the fish is out of the water, and ideally, unhook fish while they are still in the water.Try not to use a landing net if possible, or if a landing net must be used, make it a fish-friendly landing net with soft knotless mesh. Avoid knotted landing nets which damage the fish’s scales, skin, eyes and fins. If fish have to be removed from the water, support their body weight (do not hold them vertically using fish grips), and use wetted hands or surfaces to avoid damage to their scales and slime layer. And, if live wells are used, maintain good water quality by using flow through, aerated system. 

Some of the results from the National Strategy for the Survival of Released Line Caught Fish can be summarised in the following table. 

Fish Species % post -release survival Key factors in fish mortality 
Australian Bass 92-100 Deep hooking 
Barramundi 98-100 Deep hooking, poor handling 
Baldchin groper /tuskfish 0-50 Barotrauma (>10m), deep hooking 
Black Jewfish 0-100 (est) Barotrauma (>10m), deep hooking 
Bream (Yellowfin) 72-97 Deep hooking 
Coral Trout 40-91 Barotrauma (>25 meters), deep hooking 
Dusky Flathead 91-96 Poor handling and sub-optimal live well water quality 
Emperor, Red 95 Deep hooking 
Emperor, Redthroat 76-92 Barotrauma (>25 meters), deep hooking 
Freshwater Catfish 97 Deep hooking 
Golden Perch 73-100 Poor handling, sub-optimal live-well conditions and high water temps 
Golden Snapper (fingermark) 10-100 (est) Barotrauma (>10 meters), deep hooking 
Luderick 99 Poor handling 
Mulloway 73-81 Deep hooking and poor handling 
Murray Cod 85 Poor handling, excessive handling, sub-optimal live-well conditions 
Pearl Perch 91 Deep hooking 
Sand Whiting 93 Deep hooking 
Silver Trevally 63-98 Excessive time in poorly designed live wells 
Snapper 40-92 Deep hooking, poor handling, barotrauma (>65 meters) 
Tailor 92 Deep hooking 
WA Dhufish 14-79 Barotrauma (>20 meters), deep hooking 
Yellowtail Kingfish 85 Deep hooking 

One key part of the National Strategy was the emphasis on extending information to anglers at the coal face.  Much effort was expended to ensure that scientifically proven “best practice” release techniques were quickly transferred to the masses via communication networks that involved not only state fisheries departments, but also the major fishing magazines and TV presenters including Rex, Andrew “ET” Ettingshausen, Starlo and Bushy, and later on Al McGlashan, Paul Worsteling and Mark Berg. 

Note that I did’nt mention Facebook, Instagram, Youtube or other social medias in the communications strategy.  This is because these were in their infancy back when that work was being done.Unfortunately, despite today’s social media saturation, in the decade and a half since the end of the National Strategy, when I look to the online products of the modern crop of social media personalities, I see very few are imparting information on “best practice” methods for maximising survival during their catch and release activities. Today, with the dilution of social media, the fishing communication space is being taken over by literally thousands (if not tens of thousands) of “fishing experts”, most of whom have no idea about best practice release methods.  I guess 10 to 15 years ago it was relatively easy to equip all of the mainstream media personalities with information on best practice release methods, which they passed onto their audiences.Not so today with social media.   

Instead, there seems to be a worrying social media trend towards glamorising some decidedly “un fish friendly” behaviours.These include people handling fish unnecessarily, handling them roughly with dry hands or rags (guaranteed to remove all the mucous layer), holding fish unsupported on fish grips (promoting traction injury), holding fish out towards the camera for far too long (usually with straight elbows to make small fish look bigger) and so on. All of this stuff maximises (instead of minimises) air exposure and greatly reduces chances of fish survival.   

This was bought home to me recently during a trip to a remote offshore reef with a bunch of dedicated sportfishers.There is no doubt these young guys were a very keen group of anglers, fishing an expensive trip in a pristine location with top shelf gear.The charter captain specified a “no take away” philosophy requiring mostly catch and release, in keeping with the remoteness of the pristine location. That is fine, but near the end of the trip during a hot bite of yellowfin tuna and wahoo, I witnessed some worrying behaviour which saw anglers thinking they had to “grip and grin” every large wahoo they caught in a manner which resulted in massively overextended air exposure times and the needless death of many fish.  It seemed they didn’t know or care that the end result of air exposure after a long fight for a pelagic fish is, physiologically, the equivalent of the fish having to hold its breath. I put this down to a younger generation learning their fishing etiquette and fish handling methods from a diet of social media.  

In contrast, in our own boat we operated as we always do, going barbless (easier on fish, safer for angler), appropriate gear to keep the fight times short, and releasing fish at the side of the boat by keeping the motor in gear at idle moving slowly forward and holding the trace to control the fishes head.Not only did we get some fantastic pics of lit up yellowfin and wahoo in the water right next to lit up anglers, every fish was easily dehooked and swam away strongly. While I would have liked to have kept a wahoo or two amongst the three of us for a few meals, the catch and release instructions of the charter captain were respected and accommodated without sacrificing fish or photos, all by using appropriate rigging and the “Keepemwet” philosophy ( 

The science is in and the upshot is, anything that catch and release anglers can do to release their fish in the water (especially pelagic fish), or minimise the surface interval out of the water to 10 seconds or less is considered best practice.  So next time you release a fish, try to remember that photos of the fish in the water are more interesting anyway.  Try to see if you too can “keep em wet”. If only we could change the social media status quo to make in-water photos the gold standard for catch and release photography. 

Some websites summarising the “best practice” outcomes from the Survival of released fish programme can be found at:  

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