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Fishing is a favorite pastime of Florida’s residents and visitors. Fishing efforts in Florida have
increased dramatically over the past decade, and are continuing to increase. In 2011, Florida’s
recreational anglers caught roughly 121 million marine fish, 74 million of which were released.
Fish are released for a variety of reasons, but increasing a fish’s chances of survival after it is
released will help ensure fish populations remain sustainable for future generations. Anglers
can use various fish handling methods and gear to increase the survival of released fish. Get
involved by reading more about how to increase post-release fish survival.

What Causes Angling Mortality in Fish?

Fish may die after release for a variety of reasons. The most common causes of post-release
mortality are physiological stress on the fish resulting from struggle during capture, injuries
caused by the hook, and mishandling of the fish by the angler.

Unfortunately, some fish may die after release even though they appear unharmed and despite
efforts by the angler to revive the fish.

Fish that struggle intensely during capture are usually exhausted and stressed from the
accumulation of excessive amounts of lactic acid in their muscles and blood. The stress of
capture may be more severe for larger fish such as tarpon, therefore, using the proper weight-
class tackle, landing your catch quickly, and releasing the fish as quickly as possible increases
the fish’s chance of survival. Bringing an exhausted fish out of the water is like asking a triathlon
winner to jump back in the water and hold their breath---they both need oxygen to recover!

Fish that are reeled to the surface from deep water may face additional challenges that could
decrease their chance of survival.

If you have caught a fish that you do not intend to keep or that cannot be harvested, follow the
steps below to increase the chances the fish you release will survive.

Know Before You Go

Knowing before you go is an important step in increasing the survivability of fish you release.
  • Decide beforehand which fish are to be kept and immediately release all others.
  • Do not engage in a prolonged debate over whether or not to release a fish after it has
    been landed.
  • Make sure you can identify the fish in your area, specifically the fish you are targeting.
    Have a resource to help you identify fish you are not familiar with such as the Fishing
    Lines magazine or a saltwater fish field guide.
  • Always know (or have access to) the current regulations for the fish you target. Knowing
    how to measure fish, the size limits, bag limits and seasons minimizes handling time
    when determining whether or not you can keep the fish you caught.
  • Use tackle heavy enough to bring the fish in quickly, and avoid using multi-hook rigs or
  • If you have a treble hook, you can remove some of the hooks and flatten the barbs. This
    makes it easier to remove the hooks from the fish and causes less damage.
  • Finally, make sure you have all the proper tools and gear on your vessel before heading
    out for the day.

Check out the
Saltwater Fishing Checklist for items you can use for a successful day on the

Handling Fish

You can increase the survival rate of fish you release by using proper handling techniques.

Handle fish as little as possible and only with wet hands.
  • Match tackle to the targeted fish to land it quickly and minimize stress on the fish. Large
    species such as sharks, billfish and tarpon should be brought alongside the boat within
    20 minutes of being hooked. If you are consistently landing exhausted fish that require
    extensive efforts to resuscitate, consider using heavier tackle.   
  • If a fish needs to be handled, wet your hands. This reduces the amount of fish slime
    removed from the fish. Fish slime protects the fish from infection and aids in swimming.
  • A knotless, rubber-coated landing net is ideal when handling a fish since it supports the
    fish’s body weight.
  • Remember, fish swim horizontally! Never hold a fish by its jaw, gills or eyes.
  • Large fish, such as tarpon, should not be boated or dragged over the gunwale of the boat
    because this could injure the internal organs of the fish.
  • When holding a fish that has teeth, use a gripping tool to support the front of the fish, and
    use the other hand under the belly to evenly support the fish's weight.
  • Sometimes it’s better to carefully remove the hook so it can be released, and other times
    it’s best to cut the line as close to the hook as possible while the fish is in the water –
    especially if it’s large or agitated.
  • Never hold on to or tow a fish not allowed to be harvested to a different location to weigh
    or measure it.
  • Know and follow current fishing regulations and how to accurately measure fish.
  • Reduce handling by using a dehooking tool. Dehooking tools allow anglers to quickly
    release their catch while minimizing injuries and handling time.  
  • Never “toss” a fish back! Always release your fish head first into the water. This allows
    water to be forced through the mouth and over the gills, essentially giving it a “breath of
    fresh air.”

Photographs and Video

Capturing a catch on camera is a great way to share your experience with others and to create
lasting memorabilia.

It is okay to take a picture of a fish that is not allowed to be harvested while it’s in the process of
being released, but it still must be let go immediately after. A fish should not be held out of the
water for long periods of time just for the purpose of taking a picture.

Remember, when taking a picture of your catch, hold the fish horizontally and support its weight
with both hands. This decreases the possibility of damaging the fish internally.

It is best to designate someone on the boat as the photographer, that way when an angler hooks
up with a fish, the photographer is ready to go.

Whenever possible, take pictures of the fish while in the water. Tarpon should always be left in
the water if they are more than 40 inches long.

And remember, if you are releasing your catch… Practice CPR-Catch, Photo, Release!

Circle Hooks

Circle hooks are designed so the point is turned perpendicular to the shank to form a circular or
oval shape. Circle hooks are best used with natural bait (live or dead). Circle hooks are 90%
more likely to hook fish in the mouth instead of in the esophagus or stomach. Hooking a fish in
the mouth reduces internal harm, decreases dehooking time, and lessens the chances of the
angler needing to leave the hook in the fish. Fish hooked in the corner of the mouth also tend to
fight less than fish that are hooked in the gut.

Pictured is an example of a J Hook (left) and a circle hook (right).

Non-Stainless Steel Hooks

Non-stainless steel hooks (steel and bronze) increase survival rates of fish. If these hooks
cannot be removed from the fish, they will rust and deteriorate sooner than stainless steel and
cadmium or nickel-plated hooks. They are also less toxic.

When a fish is hooked in the gut or throat:

If a fish is hooked deep in the throat or gut, research has shown that it is best to cut the leader as
close to the hook as possible and leave the hook in the fish. Prolonged attempts to remove the
hook often do more harm than good.

Circle Hook Tips! Try fishing with barbless hooks or crimp the barb down. Catch rates using
barbed versus barbless hooks are not significantly different, but the advantage of using barbless
hooks is that they are easier to remove from a fish or yourself!

Also remember to not “set” the circle hook. After the fish takes the bait, allow the fish to run and
then proceed to reel it in.


De-hooking tools are designed to remove a
hook from a fish without the hook being
re-engaged. De-hooking tools come in a
variety of shapes and sizes to fit the need
of the angler. Remember, even a pair of
needle nose pliers is considered a
de-hooking tool.

De-hooking tools should match to the
angler, the fish being targeted, and the
vessel. If an angler is fishing from a
boat with a high gunwale, the de-hooking
tool may need to have a longer “shaft”.
If being used on a kayak, a shorter
de-hooking tool should be used.

If targeting fish with large teeth, spines
or sharp barbs, use a long de-hooking
tool to keep hands and fingers out of
harm’s way.

If a fish is gut hooked, cut the line as
close to the hook as possible to avoid further damage to internal organs.

Reviving Fish

If the fish doesn't immediately swim away or it is lethargic or erratic, some "resuscitation" may be

Revive exhausted but otherwise healthy fish by first placing the fish in the water, one hand under
the belly, and the other hand holding the bottom lip or tail. If the vessel is anchored, point the fish
head-first into the current to gently force water through the mouth and over the gills. If the vessel
is not anchored or there isn’t a current, hold the fish in the water alongside the boat and gently
nudge the boat into gear, forcing water through the gills of the fish. If an angler is fishing from a
non-motorized vessel, such as a kayak, place the fish in the water, hold its front lip, (you can use
a gripping tool if the fish has teeth), and move the fish in a figure “8” motion.

Never move the fish back and forth in the water. This will not allow water to flow properly through
the gills of the fish!

Barotrauma - Releasing Fish Caught in Deep Water

Fish that are caught in deep water and released may face additional challenges to survival.  
Some marine fish, such as snappers and groupers, have a gas-filled organ called a swim
bladder that controls buoyancy and allows the fish to maintain a certain depth. When fish are
pulled up from deep water (typically depths greater than 50 feet), the change in pressure can
cause the gas in the swim bladder to expand and in some cases burst. Damage to the swim
bladder or other internal organs that is caused by such change in pressure is called barotrauma.

Signs of Barotrauma include (photos courtesy of SeaGrant):

The stomach coming out of the mouth

Distended Intestines

Bloated Belly

Bulging Eyes

When a fish suffering from barotrauma is released, it is unable to swim back down to capture
depth making it difficult to survive the elements and avoid predators. If a fish needs to be
released and shows any or all of these signs of barotrauma, venting tools and descending
devices may increase the fish’s chance of survival after release.

Remember to only use a venting tool or descending device when one or all of the above signs of
trauma are noticed.

Sometimes symptoms of barotrauma are not readily apparent. If you release the fish and it floats
at the surface, struggling to swim down on its own, that is a good indication the fish may need to
be vented or descended.

If the stomach is protruding from the mouth of the fish, do not puncture or push the stomach back
in. When the fish swims back down to depth it will re-ingest its stomach. Return the fish to the
water as soon as possible and, if necessary, revive  the fish by moving the fish forward in the
water allowing water to pass over the gills.

Venting Tools

Venting tools are sharpened, hollow instruments such as a hypodermic syringe with the plunger
removed or a 16-gauge needle fixed to a hollow wooden dowel. These devices are used to treat
barotrauma by releasing expanded gas from the fish body cavity—enabling fish to swim back to
capture depth after release. A variety of venting tools are available in bait and tackle stores.

Knives or an ice-pick are not venting tools because they do not allow the expanded gases to
escape from inside the body.

How to Vent

Vent the fish as quickly as you can. Gently hold the fish on its side and insert the needle into the
body cavity at a 45-degree angle under a scale. The area to insert the venting tool is
approximately 1 to 2 inches behind the base of the pectoral fin. Insert the venting tool just deep
enough to release the expanded gases. You may hear an audible release of this gas.

Venting helps release gases that may over-expand in the body cavity when fish are brought to the
surface from deep water.

Descending Devices

A descending device (recompression device) is a tool that is used to reverse the effects of
barotrauma. The device descends fish back down to a depth where the increased pressure from
the water will recompress the swim bladder gases and allow the fish to swim away.

In recent years, a number of descending devices have been developed. The type of descending
device to use is often based on individual angler preference.

Most devices are weighted and attached to fishing line (or rope) and clamp or hook on to the
mouth of the fish.

Most devices are weighted and attached to fishing line (or rope) and clamp or hook on to the
mouth of the fish.

Another option is an inverted milk crate with a rope attached to the top and weights at each
corner. This creates a bottomless cage which allows the gases to recompress while the fish is
brought down to capture depth. Once the crate is pulled up the fish is able to swim away.

Although more research is needed, there are indications that use of descending devices can
increase survival of released fish. If you choose to use a descending device, follow the
instructions on the package carefully to ensure the device is used properly.

Other Ways to Conserve Fishery Resources

Many of our most popular recreationally targeted species are regulated and sometimes must be
returned to the water. Most anglers would agree that anything we can do to minimize harm to fish
being released will benefit the resource in the long term.

However, we don’t want to discourage the fun and excitement of catching fish and documenting
the experience, whether for records or the personal satisfaction that comes from sharing the
experience with friends and family. That’s why we want to inform the public about safe fish
handling practices and the harm that can be caused to fish that are handled roughly or held out
of the water too long.

Without ethical anglers following fisheries regulations, there would soon be little of value left to
catch. Florida’s anglers should be proud of their conservation efforts. They have helped to
restore or sustain several valuable fisheries, including snook, red drum and spotted seatrout. As
the number of anglers continues to grow, it becomes more important than ever to release those
fish that cannot be harvested in as good a condition as possible. The next angler will thank you
for it.

"Limit your take, don't take your limit!"

The Ethical Angler:
■ Can identify most of the species commonly caught in their area and knows the current
regulations for each.
■ Understands the legal requirements for licenses and stamps.
■ Appreciates the importance of habitat and a clean environment.
■ Protects habitat and wildlife by following
safe boating practices such as knowing the
waterways, keeping a slow wake when necessary, and poling through seagrass beds.
■ Keeps trash out of the water, disposing of monofilament fishing line, napkins, food containers
and other waste in a proper receptacle ashore.
■ Knows how to fight and release fish in a way that gives the fish the best possible chance at
survival after release.
■ Abides by the law and is not afraid to report those who do not.

All About Florida Keys Fishing and Key West Fishing