Off the hook

Keep the fish in the water as much as possible, even while taking photos.
The practice of ‘catch and release’ is all about ensuring the fish lives to fight another day. But there are right ways and wrong ways to do it.

The marlin burst through the surface, thrusting its bill about in an effort to throw the bait, before leaping away in a series of high-flying leaps. My angler worked hard on the spin outfit as we set off after the fish once more.

With the fish tailing down-sea, we snuck up beside it and before it realised what was happening, we had the leader. The circle hook was clearly visible in the corner of its mouth, so we cut the line right at the hook, before towing the fish to revive it. The crew gently released it and it glided away into the depths.

After the furious action had subsided, I reflected on how fishing has changed. Not just in terms of technology, but attitudes. As a kid, my dad caught fish purely for food; he struggled with the notion of releasing fish, and even joked one day about knocking a few steaks off a marlin before we returned it to the sea. However, today things are changing and anglers are continuing to evolve their tactics to minimise their impact on the species they chase.


Anglers today are actively working towards a better understanding of fisheries and the days of keeping everything they catch have long since been replaced by the practice of ‘catch and release’. Anglers have also come to realise the importance of breeding stock and instead of just releasing the little ones, they’re now also making a concerted effort to release the larger fish that fall into this category.

One of the best examples of anglers’ dedication to conservation is the NSW Gamefish Tagging Program. Since its inception in 1973, this program has grown to become the largest of its kind in the world, with almost 400,000 fish tagged, from little kingfish to huge tuna and marlin. Of these, almost 7000 have been recaptured, and these tagging records form the foundation for much of what we know about many species of fish today. This is a real pat on the back for recreational anglers, who have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars, as well as countless man hours, for their sheer love of fishing.

We have been rewarded with some amazing captures, like the small black marlin that swam from Queensland to Costa Rica, or the blue shark that was released in Victoria only to reappear on the other side of the Indian Ocean. This is all vital information that is essential to helping us manage the various fisheries effectively, and is certainly a much smarter approach to the vast marine park lockouts we are faced with at present.

However, releasing a fish is not as simple as it sounds and studies have shown we need to do more than simply toss the fish back. Some species, like kingfish and bream, are robust and can handle the rigors of catch and release, while others, like jewfish and deepwater species, need far more care.

Thanks to the increasing popularity of catch and release, there has been a lot of research into fish mortality, largely funded by anglers, and the results have been encouraging. These studies have revealed there are a number of things anglers can do to help a fish’s chance of survival, and while these vary between species, there are some guidelines that appear to work across the board.


Deep-hooking fish brings with it the greatest risk of fish mortality, period. A fish hooked internally can potentially suffer serious injuries, while a fish hooked in the mouth will fare far better. Some studies indicate a mortality rate for gut-hooked fish as high as 70 per cent. The problem is the standard J hook is designed to penetrate as soon as pressure is applied and in the case of natural baits, this is often when the bait is in the fish’s stomach. This knowledge has led to many anglers adopting the tuna circle hook.

Circle hooks do not look like conventional hooks, so some anglers are reticent to try them. The key to making circles work is actually to do nothing. Originally designed for commercial longlining, they work best when left alone. The best approach is to allow the fish to swim off with the bait, then slowly push the drag up. Water pressure on the line is enough to pull the hook up out of the gut and lock it around the jaw hinge.

I should also clarify that a true circle hook is the non-offset version, which means the point is in line with the shank. An offset circle hook is where the tip points out to the side, which means it works in a similar fashion to a J hook.

Initially, it was game fishermen who employed circle hooks to help improve the survival rate of billfish and tuna. Not only did they discover that these hooks dramatically reduced mortality, but they also improved the hook-up rate, so it’s a win-win situation. The success of this hook has flowed on throughout the fishing fraternity and now everyone is using them for everything from bream to barra, snapper to shark.

The conventional J hook is still worth using, but is best suited to lure fishing. With lures, there is little chance of deep-hooking fish, but to minimise damage it is a good idea to press the barb down. This will increase hook-up rates as well making it much easier to remove the hooks from the fish with minimal damage – it’s safer for anglers, too.

If you do still favour J hooks and hooking fish deep, don’t try your hand at surgery to get the hook out. Instead, cut the line as close to the mouth as possible. According to some studies by NSW Fisheries, as many as 76 per cent of bream caught in this manner shed the hook in around three weeks.


In an effort to learn more about fish behaviour, both during the fight and after release, I have been free diving to see for myself how fish react. In particular I have been focusing on marlin, and I’ve been amazed by what I’ve discovered – so far not a single one has displayed any signs of pain or stress. I should also point out that all the fish were hooked in the mouth with circle hooks and the fights were never prolonged, which is important in preserving the fish’s health.

One particularly large black marlin actually swam over to look at me, completely ignoring the pressure of the line trying to pull him the other way. I swear that as he approached he shook his head in disapproval!


Tagging has played an essential role in unlocking the secret lives of gamefish, revealing much about their movements and habits. However, tagging a fish doesn’t just involve jamming a tag into it in any old spot, as there are a number of specific locations for tagging that minimise harm.

Firstly, anglers need to use the right tag: steel tags for sharks, dart tags for everything from tuna to mahi and the special orange billfish-only tags for marlin and sailfish.

When it comes to placing the tag, it is recommend that sharks are pinned just below the dorsal fin, but further down the back for most other species. Marlin and mahi should be tagged about halfway down the back. Not only does the tag need to be in the right spot, it also needs to be angled at about 45 degrees so it slips easily through the water.

Also, do not cut the fish off with long leaders. Instead, ensure the line is cut within 30cm of the hook. A long leader will attract barnacles and other life forms that will create drag on the line, ultimately causing stress for the fish. The fight should also be kept as short as possible to reduce exhausting the fish. In most cases, this means using heavier outfits and maneuvering the boat to the angler’s advantage.


How a fish is hooked is only part of the equation. According to various studies, the way it’s handled is also vitally important. The key is to minimise contact and get the fish back in the water, pronto. There’s certainly nothing wrong with holding a fish up for a photo – it just has to be done correctly.

In the case of larger fish over a metre, it’s a smarter option to leave them in the water because they’re simply too big to handle. Smaller fish, on the other hand, must be lifted out with care. Always support their midsection with a spare hand. Remember that, in their aquatic world, the water supports their body; out of the water there’s no such support, so anglers need to compensate accordingly.

Obviously, allowing a fish to flop around the deck is not desirable. A thrashing fish is likely to damage itself and it can be a risk to the crew. Hooks flicking around can impale someone, especially treble hooks. Believe me, there is nothing worse than having a hook in your hand that is also attached to an angry fish. Here, barbless hooks offer more merit than just looking after the fish.

One of the best ways to hold fish without teeth is to employ a pincer grip with the thumb inside the mouth and the index finger under the jaw. The other hand then supports the fish midway down its body. Not only does this make the fish look better for the camera, it also supports the fish and ensures it can’t damage itself.

A landing net is a great asset. Not only are they great for getting the fish on board, they also offer the fish support as they come out of the water. However, not all landing nets are equal. Many use coarse netting that acts like sandpaper for finely-scaled fish, often doing more harm than good. Some of the new release-style nets come with a finer rubber-coated netting that is much better for the fish, but they create drag in the water, making it difficult to scoop up a fast-swimming fish.


Hooking it right and then handling the fish with care all help, but the fish might also need to be revived. Many fish tire during the fight and although exhausted, they can be quickly nursed back to health by simply ‘swimming’ them for a while.

Marlin are ideally suited to this revival tactic thanks to their bill, which makes for a great handle, allowing them to be towed along with ease. The trick is to keep their head submerged and keep the boat going down-sea and at about walking pace. They will let you know when they are ready to go, and will often kick or attempt to bite down on your hand.

Tuna are a little more difficult, thanks to their aerodynamic shape, and many anglers spear them back into the water in an effort to get the water flowing over their gills. However, from my personal experience, this action seems to stress the fish further. I believe it’s better to lower them into the water and simply give them a push.

Smaller species, like barramundi and kingfish, can be held in a pincer grip on the lower jaw, or can just be cradled until they recover. In most cases, they will bolt away without hesitation. Occasionally, big barra or snapper may need a bit longer, and some coaxing, to get them going.

It really is all about being gentle and not rushing things; give the fish a bit of respect and do the right thing, because – as the saying goes – they’re too good to catch just the once.