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The Art of Release

Catch and release allows other anglers to share the thrill of capture – and helps build scientific data on fish movement, writes Mark Gercovich

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (before, say, the early 80s) seemingly pretty much every fish that was pulled from the water died. Eaten, used for bait, lined up for a photo, consigned never to return to some corner of a deep freeze, or thrown on a bank or pier to die, particularly if it was some form of undesirable. Then along came a big fella with a beard who preached kissing fish and letting them go. Rex Hunt’s significant contribution of not only bringing angling to our mainstream media was matched by being undoubtedly the most influential originator of the concept of letting unrequired fish return to the water. But does it work? Do fish survive human interaction? Does the flash from the camera blind them? Is there some hideous form of human to fish transmission of disease? Does exposure to the air have negative impacts on their internal organs? Well, evidence both scientific and incidental proves that they do handle the rigours of catch and release well. Implementation of correct handling techniques (as mentioned in the accompanying fact box) makes this even more likely.

Bream (as we know through many scientific studies) are very resilient to capture and release. The whole bream tournament fishing industry is based on this. The revolution that was the Australian bream-on-lures scene spawned an amazing release ethic that carried over to a host of species. My first memory of the resilience of fish was with a particular bream. This story is so long ago it was well before the tournament scene, when I was targeting the local bream and EP in my earliest attempts at catching them using floating trout hard-bodies, ordinary 4lb mono and light trout rods. I decided to take one of the bream home for a feed, and around a kilo of bream was unceremoniously put in a bucket of water. Arriving home, I was a little jaded from the early start and, with the fish still alive, I placed him in one of the saltwater fish tanks that adorned the lounge room of the share house I lived in. When he was still swimming strongly later that day, he avoided the pan and became a popular addition to the household.  He would chase around the mullet in the tank at night, waking up anyone sleeping on the couch, and did so until we slipped him back into the river weeks later. 

Trout

Virtually all our local trout streams in the south-west of Victoria are reliant on stocking from Victorian Fisheries Authority as there is next to no natural recruitment. Therefore, they are pretty much “put and take” fisheries, so there would seem to be no reason not to keep a few for a feed. The daily bag limit of five has a clause of only two fish over 35cm. Given you are usually hard pressed to catch a fish under 35cm, it pretty much means that two is your daily limit. However, due to our proximity to these trout as well as a variety of other angling options that keep the fridge well stocked, we usually let our river trout go. What we have been finding, though, is the regularity of the recapture of these fish. How do you know if the trout has been recaptured? The pattern of spots on trout is unique from fish to fish, a little like human fingerprints.  Combine that with other physical attributes that make a trout look unique, such as condition, jaw formation, fin clip or defects, and it can be easy to look at a fish and think, “Hang on, I’ve seen you somewhere before.” A quick look back through some photos and a bit of forensic observation and comparison, and there you have it. Sometimes these fish are caught in the same season, perhaps the very next day. Others have been from the previous year, in the same spots or kilometres away from the initial encounter. One particular fish this season has been caught four times by three different anglers. The biggest Merri River fish my son caught this season was a fish we released last year. It had grown from 58 cm to 65cm and put on around a kilo in weight. Given the amount of angling pressure the river receives, it’s amazing to think of the odds that you might recapture the same fish again, let alone 12 months apart. But it hasn’t happened just once, with many instances of fish we’ve released being recaptured by another family member or fishing friend.

Although stocking rates might seem good given the size and length of these rivers, access to many sections of the local riverbanks is difficult and these recaptures are proving that the “put and take” trout resource is somewhat limited. It is a good feeling, therefore, to return a good trout knowing that it should survive handling and release, and has the chance to make someone else’s day… maybe even yours.

Apart from anecdotal stories such as those trout ones, and the warm fuzzy feeling of maybe doing the right thing by your fellow angler by releasing a fish, the concept of catch and release is also important for scientific research. Tagging programs are a vital part of fisheries science in understanding the movements and habits of some of our most important species.

Mulloway

Run by Lauren Brown from Nature Glenelg Trust, the Mulloway tagging project is investigating movement patterns of mulloway across Victoria and interstate. This citizen science project has aimed to tag 2000 mulloway by encouraging anglers to practice catch and release fishing while helping to increase knowledge of mulloway. Gaining an understanding of the connectivity and movement patterns of mulloway between estuarine nursery habitats and marine waters will help to paint a picture of their population structures and the species life history. It has shown some very interesting data about a hugely popular angling species that previously had very little hard scientific data about its movements.

What does appear concerning is the high percentage of recaptures. While on the positive side it shows that the fish are quite resilient to the tag and release process, it does indicate a limited resource that can be easily affected by fishing pressure, especially with the low minimum size (60cm) and generous bag limit of five here in Victoria.   I have been amazed by the number of fish we have tagged that have been recaptured, sometimes even by people we know. An 80cm mulloway my son Luke caught in the Hopkins River was caught a year later by Tim Vincent measuring 102 cm.  We have had two tagged fish caught and released three times. One fish was initially tagged at 45cm in January 2018, around 10km upstream of the Hopkins River mouth.  It was then recaptured by Andrew Meade near the mouth in December 2018 and grew considerably in this time to reach 62cm. Shane Murphy recaptured the fish again in February this year, a couple of kilometres further upstream. The fish was then 70cm, which means the fish grew 8cm in two months.

Now, I for one do enjoy a feed of mulloway, and the first fish my boys really used to enjoy sinking their teeth into were “mulloway nuggets”. However, it is looking like a species that could do with some assistance. Mulloway stocking has been attempted before (Lake Tyers/Tamboon inlet 2015/16) and is maybe something that Fisheries could look to as a way of boosting numbers of these fish in some waterways that have been previous strongholds of the fish. 

Kingfish

If it appears the mulloway aren’t great learners, and our recent involvement in Fisheries NSW has shown that kingfish are also big recapture candidates.   Around a third of the kings we tagged and released last season were “officially” recaptured and had the tag details submitted to Fisheries. Once again, it’s great to see a larger size fish being able to handle the tag and release process. Unfortunately, once again it suggests a fish species that could be affected by serious angling pressure.  The fact that all these fish were recaptured within a few kilometres of where they were released unfortunately does not contribute much data to kingfish movements. Movement of our local kingfish population is another example of a popular species whose movements are based on speculation, not science. On our last kingy mission of the season last year, I did spot a yellow tag protruding from a fish in a school we were sight casting at, so hopefully a couple of our tagged fish “escaped” and got recaptured later.  Anecdotally we heard people talking about catching tagged kings and not reporting data, due to lack of knowledge. Or perhaps disappointment that the tag they found in a fish wasn’t from the successful Victorian Fisheries “golden tag” promotion that was going to earn them some cold hard cash.   Remember if you capture any form of fish with a tag there should be a contact phone number on it. Sometimes this tag can be covered by slime/algae, making it difficult to read unless cleaned. It is a small inconvenience to go to the trouble of conveying the information to the relevant authorities if you do come across a tagged fish. A quick snap with your camera phone of the details on the tag is the easiest way, particularly if you are intending to re-release the fish.     

Snapped Up

From this article you can see that fish handle the rigours of capture well if care and attention is applied. However if you’ve just been smoked… what happens to that lure? In all my experience I’ve never heard of anyone recapturing a fish with a lure hanging out of its gob. The only anecdotal incident I have came after getting roasted by what probably was one of those big Whitsunday Island GTs. A day or so later, trolling the same area, I snagged up but eventually retrieved my lure attached to a piece of coral. Also attached to that piece of coral was the rather unique model of lure that surely was mine from the previous encounter. The fish had obviously used the coral to help rub off or remove the lure from itself. It’s reassuring to think that a fish has the dexterity and ability to hopefully free itself if it manages to be good enough to take your lure off you.

Who doesn’t go back?

Squid are a great example of a super-sustainable target species for “catch and cook”. They are short-lived species so it’s not like the squid you release is going to live much longer and provide someone else with an exciting angling experience.  Every part of them can be used as tasty food or awesome bait. On a recent “non-fishing” trip, we’d noticed some squid under the lights of the pier we were walking along. A quick dash back to the car saw rods rigged and squid on the deck, but with no means of keeping them fresh, the decision was made and off they swam. It felt so wrong!

King George whiting and gummy shark are two other prolific table fish that probably only go back if the species bag limit has been obtained.  Always be conscious of the fact that large gummies are often breeding females. Any large-bellied big gummy is probably full of “pups” and might be a candidate for release. They do release well even if taken from depths, unlike most deep-sea fish with swim bladders affected by barotrauma. The old saying “If it’s red it’s dead” is not only a reflection of how well red deep sea fish taste, but also a reminder of the fact they probably won’t survive release too well if they have come from the depths.  

If lockdowns here in Victoria have helped lift the profile of one species in particular, it’s probably the carp. Travel restrictions have seen many anglers having to be resourceful and target species close to home and for many, particularly metro and inland anglers, it might be resorting to some hard-pulling mud marlin out of the local pond. As much as this might be a heap of fun and a great way to test one’s drags after an enforced period of inactivity, one must remember that at the end of the battle and maybe an obligatory photo, the fish doesn’t go back. As much as you’re used to doing it and no matter how pretty you think it looks (yes maybe you have been locked up too long), it is illegal in Victoria to release a carp due to Fisheries’ declaration of carp being a noxious species.

So whatever the species that is attached to the end of your line, if you make the decision to release it there is a good chance someone else will one day get to experience the joy of landing that fish too. Particularly so if you followed the 10 commandments of a successful release.

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