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Apr 2, 2019 10:35 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Safe Release Of Stripers Is Important

Grabbing the tip of a lure as you land a striped bass is the best way to keep flailing hooks away from your hands.
Apr 2, 2019 12:46 PM

The first little striped bass were pulled from the waters of back creeks this past week.These fish are somewhat more lethargic than they will be in a couple of months, after they’ve been gorging themselves on minnows, but they can still shake like a wet dog when they’re lifted from the water or dragged onto shore. If you’ve only got one of two hooks in the fish’s mouth, the other one is a flail on the loose.

In keeping with my recent theme of how anglers might hope to reduce the number of dead discards of striped bass—which researchers say account for nearly half of all striped bass mortality—I’d like to highlight one of the most problematic things one sees from fellow fishermen when it comes to the safe release of striped bass.

Anglers using a foot to hold a fish down while it is unhooked is a big problem. Even though, most of the time, an angler is theoretically doing the fish a favor by planning to unhook and release it, they often are undoing the good of releasing it by seriously injuring the fish in the process.

And it is usually—not always, but usually—wholly unnecessary. Certainly, for any seasoned angler, stamping your foot down on a fish’s body to hold it still while you pry a hook out of its jaws is something that only rarely should be the best approach.

First of all, you are almost always going to be safer from accidental impalement by hook if you have that implement to which the hooks are attached—be it a bucktail or a lure with multiple hooks—firmly in your grip, where it cannot be suddenly flung toward you.

The best approach to subduing a fish so that a hook can be removed, I’ve found, is to slide your hand down the line until it can grasp the head of the lure (removing a single bait hook should never pose a problem) and then finding a spot in the jaw or gill plate (being exceedingly careful not to touch the gills themselves) where you can get a firm grip. Keep the lure on the far side of the fish’s body from both of your hands, and pry the hook out with pliers or fingers.

There also are tools that can help in this. Boga Grips are ubiquitous these days and do present a good way to firmly grasp a fish. Plastic grips like the Fish Grip and Lip Gripper can be even better for holding a fish by the jaw.

Nonetheless, young anglers and especially frenetic fish, or a lure lodged into a fish at odd angles that make holding it securely precarious, may on occasion dictate that the best approach to removing the hook safely, for both man and beast, is to leave it on the deck or sand and hold it down with your foot. Okay, that is going to happen. But there is a way to do this gently, also, and with less likelihood of injuring the fish.

First of all: a bit of patience. Small stripers often come to the beach green and shaking wildly, with loose hooks flailing around their heads.

Yes, getting a fish back in the water as fast as possible is priority, but I think it is best to let them shake themselves out before trying to secure them so a hook can be removed, rather than taking more hasty and violent action to halt their tremors sooner.

Once they have calmed a bit, lay them on the boat deck or sand. Situate them so that the back or shoulders—the dark brown side—is facing you, not the white belly. Place the front of your foot and only the front, no farther down than the ball of your heel, onto the fish’s back, just about at the top of the gills. In this situation, it should take almost no pressure at all to completely anchor the fish so that it can’t flop its head and pose a danger to the angler from a sudden hook strike.

Surfcasters, when you’ve gotten the hook out, don’t just boot the fish back into the water, like we all see done, especially with bluefish and small stripers. Stripers are very savvy at getting themselves back into the surf and need only a small wave run-up to ride back into the surf. Once a hook is free, just dragging them by their jaw a few feet back toward the water line and leaving them pointing toward the waves will usually suffice. Holding them in your hand and waiting until a good-sized wave has rushed up the beach and then dropping them gently into the undertow is even better.

I know a lot of this may seem trivial, but the little things that each of us can do will have major impacts if applied across the hundreds of thousands of anglers who catch striped bass. Lead by example, and others will follow.

Catch ’em up. See you out there.

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