As a kid growing up in North Dakota a few decades ago, I don’t recall the concept of catch-and-release fishing, let alone the intentional practice. “Eaters” were kept because that’s why we were fishing.
Today, many anglers still fish because they enjoy eating fish, but catch-and-release, especially of larger fish of just about any species, is common practice.
This transition has surprised me a little bit. Most anglers will keep a few fish for eating, and maybe save a fish-of-a-lifetime to send to the taxidermist.
On the other hand, North Dakota’s fishing resources right now are such that on some days in some places, anglers would have to end their day on the water fairly quickly if they kept every fish up to the daily limit.
Because the fish, especially walleye, populations in the most popular fishing waters are in such good shape, restrictions requiring release of fish of certain sizes is not necessary. But even in this time of plenty, anglers who might keep a limit of five walleyes for a day want to make sure the fish they catch-and-release will live to give someone else a chance sometime down the road.
While North Dakota Game and Fish Department tagging studies have shown that on average less than one in five walleyes released by anglers are ever caught again, no one likes to see additional mortality on fish that are let go.
With that in mind, here’s a few tips for maximizing the likelihood that a released fish will swim away healthy. This practice of releasing fish the angler has no intention of using is effective only if fish are handled carefully.
• Try to decide whether you might release a fish as soon as you hook it. In North Dakota, fish must be kept, or released immediately, as it is illegal to keep them in a livewell or on a stringer and then released later.
• Generally, land the fish quickly and don't play it to exhaustion.
• Set the hook quickly to reduce the likelihood the fish will swallow the bait.
• Don't put your fingers in the eyes or gills of the fish.
• Avoid removing mucous or scales.
• Get the fish back in the water as quickly as possible.
• If the hook is very deep within the fish, or it can't be removed quickly, cut the line close to the fish's mouth.
• Back the hook out the opposite way it went in.
• Use needle-nose pliers, hemostats or a hook-out to remove the hook and protect your hands.
• Place the fish in the water, gently supporting the mid-section and tail until it swims away.
• Resuscitate an exhausted fish by moving it back and forth to force water through its gills.