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A Fish out of Water: How Long Can You Hold Your Breath? Print E-mail
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Written by J.J. Ross   
Tuesday, 30 June 2009 17:06

J.J. Ross demonstrates muskie handling techniquesThe muskie season  is open!  Don’t get me wrong: I like walleye fishing, but nothing can beat the anticipation of getting in the boat and casting for big muskies. However, no matter how much we intend on catching a certain species we inevitably hook into something we never intended. As a guide I have the opportunity to fish everyday in the summer, and I have witnessed many “incidental” catches in other boats. Some very poor fish handling sometimes meant that the fish did not make it back in the water alive. If you find yourself catching large pike and muskies during an outing for walleye, here are some helpful hints to allow these freshwater predators to get back into the lake with minimal harm to you and the fish.

Techniques for Landing Fish

Release techniques vary as much as lure choice. However, the goal in any release is to minimize the time a fish is out the water. Your goal is to get the fish in, maybe take a photo, and let the fish go with minimal stress.  There are two basic methods of landing fish. One method is to use a net or a cradle, and the other is to hand land your fish. Both methods come with advantages and disadvantages.

The “anti-net” supporters argue that the fish thrashing around in the net removes protective slime and can cause the large hooks to become caught in other parts of the fish as it twists in the net. They prefer to grab the fish under the jawbone by the gill cover. This technique takes some practice. One drawback is that the fish has to “played out” until it is docile enough to handle. Often, fish will swim the equivalent of a marathon before they are calm enough to grab. This increases chances of a fish getting off and it will take  longer for the fish to revive.

The more common practice among musky anglers today is to use a large net. Let me clarify what large is. I use a Frabill Power Catch that has a 60-inch wide Nylon-treated bag. This past summer I put a 200-pound friend and his 90-pound dog in the net to prove a point. With a net this big the technique becomes more like a live-well than a net. A 50-inch fish can swim around inside! The nylon treated bag decreases slime removal and does not allow hook penetration. Therefore the fish will not tangle. I had the opportunity to fish the Professional Musky Tournament Trail and nearly all anglers used nets. Leave the small untreated nets at home.

Hook Removal

You have to develop a release plan and ensure all anglers in the boat know how to use the tools and equipment. As a guide I spend the extra few minutes before leaving the dock in the morning to show clients how to operate the tools and where they are kept. I show them how to use my camera. Likewise I get them to show me how to use their camera. The last thing I want while a fish is out of the water is camera lessons.

Another important part of a release plan is not to view cutters as a last option after you have tried to use pliers to remove hooks. If there is any doubt about removing a hook I do not hesitate to CUT hooks are inexpensive and easy to replace. When I say cut hooks, it doesn’t mean cut out the hooks and leave them in the fish. I feel this is a common misconception. It is not okay to cut a hook and leave it in the fish. They do not dissolve over night and fish will have trouble removing it on their own, so CUT (did I say this already) and remove any pieces you cut.

Tools for Catch and Release

Old time musky fisherman used to keep everything they caught. Catch and release was unheard of. They only carried one release tool, a .22 calibre pistol. These musky pioneers caught and landed the fish by shooting it at the surface and dragging it in the boat.  Fortunately, for the muskies this practice has been outlawed and catch and release has become universally accepted. The tools needed for the job are pictured below.

  1. Knipex Cutters – These are a must as they are the only tool that will cut large hooks should they become difficult to remove.
  2. Long Nose Pliers -With violent strikes hooks can be embedded deep in the fish. Long nose pliers will get at hard to reach hooks and keep your fingers away from razor-sharp teeth.
  3. Jaw Spreaders- Uncooperative fish often need encouragement to open their mouth to retrieve hooks. I like to secure mine to the side of the boat with a long cord.
  4. Split-ring pliers- This tool will make replacing hooks that have been cut out much easier.
  5. Gloves-Especially for those who don’t have a lot of experience, a good pair of rubber gloves or neoprene gloves can save your fingers and hands from teeth and sharp gill rakers.
  6. Net or Cradle-This net must be large enough to handle a big fish.

There is a 54-inch minimum size for muskies on Lake of the Woods and the Winnipeg River, because releasing these big fish makes musky fishing better and better each year on these systems. Unless a musky is 54 inches, it has to go back in the lake, so you had better become an expert at releasing these fish. If you are not sure what to do with a big fish, it is probably a good idea to have someone along that does. An easy solution may be to hire a guide. Guides can offer valuable information on all aspects of fishing and will shorten the learning curve. CPR (Catch-Photo-Release) works. Good luck this season, and I hope you get to the chance to do CPR in your boat.

J.J. Ross has been guiding on the Winnipeg River for the past 17 years. He owns and operates Double J’s Guide and Tackle. For more information check out or call 204 770-4617.