Proper Release Techniques for Billfish
By Anthony DiGiulian
The South Florida sailfish season is here and thousands of sailfish will be caught and released over the next several months. This fishery is the driving economic force for thousands of American jobs up and down our coast. Sailfish are a very valuable, renewable resource and should always be treated with the respect they deserve.
Imagine running around a quarter mile track, once, as fast as you can. When you get back to the starting line, someone immediately covers your mouth and nose, so you cannot breathe for 15 seconds. What do you think could possibly happen? Stroke, brain damage, cardiac arrest and death would all be on the table. This is what a billfish experiences when you remove it from the water for a picture.
Satellite tagging studies and science have taught us that removing a billfish from the water for a picture prior to release can increase the mortality rate significantly. Marine scientists have shown that often times, removed fish that seemingly swim away fine, will die 2 or 3 days after release. It is our responsibility to take care of this valuable resource and to use all the knowledge we have to release these fish ethically, in the best shape possible and with the best chance for survival. In the Atlantic Ocean, it is illegal to remove any billfish from the water, prior to release. The purpose of releasing these fish is to make sure they can continue to spawn and provide fishing opportunities for future generations. Here are some tips to ensure your next billfish catch has the best chance for survival, while still getting great pictures.
Use Circle Hooks: When using live bait or rigged dead bait, always use circle hooks. Circle hooks are designed to prevent gut hooking and to hook fish in the corner of the mouth, where the hook does the least amount of damage. Survival rates have soared since they became the hook of choice among the top tournament billfishermen. Hook up and catch ratio have also greatly increased with the use of circle hooks. Fish tend to stay on top of the water when hooked in the corner of the mouth and often times can be caught quicker and provide more opportunities for pictures of jumping fish.
GoPro Camera / Selfie Stick: GoPro cameras and accessories for your smart phone enable you to get fantastic pictures and video of that “catch of a lifetime” and still keep your crew and the fish safe. Attach the camera to a long selfie stick and have a designated crew member hold the camera out away from the boat. A GoPro set up also allows you to take pictures of the fish from under the water and of it swimming away upon release. In the water billfish pictures are always better quality and much safer than pictures holding a fish on deck.
De-Hooker: If the hook is clearly visible and not too embedded in the fish’s mouth, a long handled de-hooker can be used to remove the hook. Be sure to have the proper sized de-hooker for the hook size and type you are using. Make sure to slide the device all the way down onto the hook. De-hookers that allow you to push and twist the hook out seem to work best. A good de-hooker will also have a small hook on it that allows you to slide a lure up the leader for easy retrieval.
Release Knife: The easiest and safest way to release a billfish is to cut the leader without removing the hook or hooks first. A safety release knife can be attached to the end of a tag stick or small gaff so that you can reach the fish without getting to close. Be sure to cut the leader as close to the hook as possible as long trailing leaders will continue to irritate the fish and cause it to continue to panic. This device can also save the life of a leader man if he gets wrapped or tangled in the leader. Always have a safety knife on your person when dealing with heavy leader and large billfish.
Join TBF and IGFA: Get involved with Billfish conservation and make it your business to be educated on the issues that matter to you, the fishing public. The Billfish Foundation and the International Gamefish Association are both located in South Florida. Both organizations work hard to keep you on the water fishing and to make sure the fish we catch are looked after. Check out www.billfish.org and www.igfa.org to start learning more about these amazing fish and how you can be a positive force in fisheries management.
General: Give a tired fish some time to recover from the fight. Always keep your boat in gear and moving. A few extra minutes swimming the fish with its mouth and gills underwater can be the difference between life and death. A large marlin that is extremely tired can take up to 45 minutes to an hour to fully recover. It is also important to hold the fish upright so that it can regain its strength and recover proper blood flow. With smaller species like sailfish, spearfish and white marlin, be extremely conscious of holding the bill. It is very easy to break a bill or cause trauma to the root or area where the bill grows from the fish’s head. Catching and releasing a fish should be as quick as possible. The heavier the tackle, the faster you can catch and release the fish. Touching the fish should be kept to a minimum as not to disturb its protective slime coat. Keep your ego in check and release the right way by always keeping these magnificent creatures wet and in the water where they belong.