DAN KIBLER COLUMN: ‘Please, release me, let me go’: How a fish needs to be returned to the water

Pretty soon, bass are going to be spawning across North Carolina’s Piedmont, and it won’t be long until big red drum and cobia are entering the state’s saltwater. Since a lot of anglers will practice catch-and-release for bass, can’t keep any big red drum at all, and will have to release any cobia under 33 inches long, the time begs for a lesson in the successful release of a fish.

Dan Kibler

And it’s second nature to turn to an expert, in this case, Jerry Dilsaver of Oak Island, an expert wild-game and fish chef, expert inshore fisherman, expert kayak fisherman, champion king mackerel fisherman — if it swims, he can pretty much catch it, and release it if he doesn’t have a fish-driven menu in mind.

Dilsaver recognizes four different factors in turning a fish you don’t want to keep into a fish that will be there the next time you fish that spot — or there for the next fisherman, maybe a youngster on his first trip.

Don’t handle it too much.

Handle it with care.

Don’t let the hook do too much damage.

Learn how to put a fish back in the water.

“If you’re going to release a fish, wet your hands, wet a towel, wet some gloves,” he said. “You want something to hold the fish with so that you’re not raking its slime off. If it’s a small fish, it can be held vertically by a gripper (Boga grip, for example).”

A fish’s “slime coat” is a layer of mucus that covers its body. It is a key coating that helps a fish fight off parasites or infections, and if removed — even just a small section — the likelihood of something bad happening to the fish increases.
Beyond grabbing the fish with dry hands, Dilsaver takes the protection one step further.

“If the fish is small enough to net, I like to use a rubber net with big holes — and no knots,” he said, explaining that the knots that connect segments of, say, a nylon net, can also disturb a fish’s slime coat if they rub across its body.

“I’ve seen guys rake the fish over one side coming into the boat, raking off all the slime. Handle a fish with care and respect; slime is their protective coating. There are viruses in the water that can attach to a fish if the slime is gone.

“With really big fish, if I’m in my kayak, I like to stick my leg out and lip it, then slide the fish up my leg into my lap. No kayaks are so wide that you can’t do that. You’re supporting its belly that way and not damaging the slime.”

I’ve taken plenty of photos of really nice fish that I didn’t want to keep — or wasn’t allowed to — and Dilsaver has recommendations for those situations.

“If you want to take a picture of the fish — or if you’re tagging the fish — support its belly; don’t just lip gaff or grab him. As they get bigger, that’s not a good thing, because without some support, their internal (organs) can be damaged; they’re only held in place by little ligaments.”

No, about those hooks. Don’t damage the fish by trying to unhook a fish that’s deeply hooked. The fish has a much better chance of surviving if you give up and cut the hook off. If the hook is in the fish’s mouth, a pair of needle-nosed pliers or something along those lines can help get the barbs out without doing any further damage.

“If it won’t come out easily, cut the line off as close to the hook as possible and let the fish swim off,” Dilsaver said. “I don’t mind cutting the hook. I don’t use stainless-steel hooks; I use either bronze or tinned hooks, because they will rust out quicker. A little treble hook will be gone in a week; a big hook might take a little longer

“And a fish will sometimes run a hook through its system. I’ve actually caught big drum with a 7/0 hook in its belly and two feet of leader coming out of his (anus).”

Finally, the hooks have been removed, the photos taken, and the fish is ready to go back in the water. Dilsaver has a specific way he completes the release: holding it by the tail, making sure he gets plenty of water running across the fish’s gills, creating dissolved oxygen that will sustain the fish.

“A lot of people will put a fish in the water and swish him back and forth, but I don’t do that — because fish don’t have a reverse gear. They always go forward,” he said. “If I’m in a kayak, I’ll paddle along, holding him to make sure I get water across his gills. I’ll go forward until the fish kicks a second time. Don’t just let go of his tail until he jerks a second time.

“If I’m anchored, I’ll hold the fish and just pump its tail (side-to-side). You can see the gills moving a little bit when you do that. It takes a little longer, but they will come around.”

Dilsaver said that a successful release will become more difficult as the water warms and summer approaches and arrives.

“You can revive a fish more easily in cooler water, because there’s more oxygen in the water,” he said. “In hot water, you don’t have as much oxygen to work with.”

Dan Kibler has covered the outdoors since 1985 as outdoors editor of the Winston-Salem Journal and later as managing editor of Carolina Sportsman until his retirement in 2021.