Catch-and-Release Tips for Bonefish

Written by: Dr. Aaron Adams

I’ll be the first to admit it, and then other fly fishermen can chime in. In the past, though I was well intentioned, I sometimes handled fish in a manner that may have reduced their chance of survival after they were released. Maybe it was because I was excited about catching an especially big fish, or perhaps it was the first of that species for me. But mostly it was because of the common misunderstanding among anglers, who assume that if a fish swims away, that means it survives.

Catch-and-release fishing is a valuable and valid conservation tool that is being practiced by more and more anglers. For most species, survival rates after release are very high. But one of the major factors influencing the survival of released fish is how the fish is handled by the angler. Poor handling results in extreme increases in fish mortalities. As catch-and-release anglers, it is our responsibility to handle fish correctly so they live to be caught another day.

To determine the effects of catch-and-release on bonefish, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust helped to fund extensive research by a group of scientists—led by Doctors Steve Cooke, Cory Suski, and Andy Danylchuk—working in The Bahamas. The following are tips from this research that you can use to make sure the bonefish (or any fish, for that matter) that you release survives. When handled properly, bonefish survival is typically better than 95%.

Hooks

  • Use barbless hooks. They cause less tissue damage and are easier to remove, which reduces handling time. Experience has shown that barbless hooks do not cause you to lose fish.
  • If a hook is deep within the bonefish’s gullet and difficult to remove, cut the line and leave the hook in the fish. Research in The Bahamas revealed that leaving the hook in bonefish does not influence the fish’s survival or overall health.

Fight Time

  • Tackle should match the conditions and size of fish such that fish can be landed quickly.
  • Shorter fight times increase survival.
  • However, avoid bringing the fish in too quickly, because a thrashing fish may increase chances of damage to itself.
  • Although fight time is related to bonefish size, a general goal is to land bonefish within four minutes. (Smaller fish can be landed considerably faster.)
  • Always land a bonefish before it is exhausted and loses equilibrium (i.e., rolls over). If a bonefish loses equilibrium, revive it by moving it forward through the water (never backward), and try to shorten the fight time on future fish.

Handling

  • Minimize handling.  If you handle a bonefish, use clean, wet hands. Bonefish slime and scales can be easily damaged and removed by excessive handling.
  • Use a hemostat or pliers to quickly remove hooks while holding fish in the water. 
  • To revive fish, hold them upright, ideally facing into current and in clear water. 

Bonefish 3

Leaving the bonefish in the water while you take its picture is one of the best ways
to reduce stress and scale damage and to help ensure the fish’s survival.

photo by Dr. Aaron Adams

Photography

  • Reduce the bonefish’s exposure to air to a maximum of 15 seconds.
  • Before removing a bonefish from the water for a photo, have your camera ready and decide on the angler and photographer positions to minimize handling time.
  • If the fish is not still dripping in the photo, it has been out of the water too long.
  • If you remove a bonefish from the water for photographs, the gently support it from beneath the head and the belly. 
  • Better yet, take underwater photos to facilitate a quick photo and release.
  • Just say NO to “hero” shots.

Predators

  • The survival of released bonefish drops severely when predators (sharks, barracuda) are abundant.
  • Just because you land a fish before a predator attacks it doesn’t mean the fish is safe. Predators often attack a bonefish after they are released.
  • Move to other locations when predators are abundant and appear to be attracted to your fishing activity.

Bonefish 2

If you must lift a bonefish out of the water for a grip-and-grin photo, make sure its belly and tail are supported.

photo by Dr. Aaron Adams

Final Tips

  • Lip-restraint devices can damage a fresh fish, particularly when the fish is suspended.  Best practice is to use the device to stabilize the fish in the water while the hook is removed.
  • If you want to weigh a fish, best practice would be to cradle the fish in a sling and use the scale from the lip-restraint device to hold the cradle.

Bonefish & Tarpon Trust is a non-profit, membership-based organization dedicated to supporting research and education toward effective conservation, management, and enhancement of bonefish and tarpon populations. Bonefish & Tarpon Trust is the world’s strongest funding organization for bonefish and tarpon research. To learn more about BTT’s mission and the research it is supporting, or to download a copy of the Bonefish Catch-and-Release brochure, visit their web site, and click on the Education tab.

Aaron Adams, PhD., is Director of Operations for Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, as well as a Senior Scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory.

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