Catching bass is one thing, but it's how you treat them between the catch and the release that has the biggest impact on our fishing.
With one hand gripping the base of a bass's tail and the other cradling the belly, you lower both hands into the water, observe the bass for a moment, release the tail grip and watch the fish disappear.
Then, as quickly as you released that fish, you pick up your rod and begin the process of trying to capture another one.
Catch-and-release, once a nearly foreign concept for any kind of fishing, has become so much a part of today's bass world that many anglers seldom even think anything about it. Pretty much out of habit — they catch bass and release them.
That's not a bad thing. Catch-and-release fishing has played a major role in sustaining and enhancing countless fisheries. That said, it never hurts to pause and consider the reasons for the things we do. More important, it pays to learn steps that can help each fish be released in the best condition.
Reasons for releasing bass vary by angler and sometimes by day. Seasons or special regulations could dictate C&R. Some anglers simply lack interest in the fish as food, or lack a desire to clean and prepare them. The most prevalent reason, by far, though, is to return a bass to the fishery so it can continue to grow and possibly reproduce, and potentially be caught again another day.
Several decades of trial and many studies leave no question that catch-and-release fishing does work, and with many popular fisheries, a fair amount of ongoing voluntary fish release by anglers has been critical to sustaining those fisheries through the years.
Catch-and-release isn't always the magic button. Waterways can get overcrowded with smaller, stunted bass, creating a need for some harvest. Such fisheries are the exception, though, especially on large public waterways that get substantial use, and the truth is that if regulations allow for some harvest, it usually isn't hard to find someone to take home a few bass. Most places you fish, releasing your bass won't harm the fishery, and it usually will provide benefit. So, if you are going to release your bass, you want to do so in the best possible way.
RELEASE, NOT THROW BACK
Despite the popular terms "throw back" and "toss back," you never really want to throw or toss a fish. Anglers frequently get far too casual about lazily flipping bass back from too high above the water.
It only takes a moment to kneel and lower a cradled bass slowly into the water. If the fish is ready, it will swim out of your hand. If not, hold it in place a moment to give it time to catch its breath and regain its strength and posture in the water.
If a fish spent too long out of the water and needs a little nursing, hold it facing into any current that exists so water flows into the fish's mouth and through its gills.
Lacking current, hold the fish still. Moving it forward and back works against the cause because while the forward movement gives the fish oxygen, pulling it back for another push has the opposite approach. One trick to "create current" is to have a partner move the boat very slowly forward with the trolling motor while you hold the fish in the water with its head facing toward the bow.
Hold the fish in the water until you feel strong body movements, and when you do let go, watch it for a moment just to make sure it swims away strongly and remains upright.
GEAR FOR GOOD RELEASES
Gear choices can help you release more fish in better condition. One practical step is to err on the side of heavy with line size and corresponding tackle. While the notion of catching fish on extra-light tackle has often been romanticized as sporting, extended fights in fact wear out fish and increase the likeliness of delayed mortality.
When possible, choose gear that allows you to land fish in a reasonable amount of time. Sometimes lighter line is needed to get the right lure action or to get fish to bite. That's OK. Just consider options. If line in the 8- to 12-pound range would work for your approach, choose 12, so you can land fish a bit more efficiently.
The hook setups you select can help you keep fish in better condition. When it's practical, use single hooks instead of treble hooks, and/or fewer hooks on your lures.
Single hooks are far less likely to hook bass in ways that do extra tearing, and fewer hooks on a lure reduce likeliness of hooking the fish a second time, away from the mouth. If you've never tried removing a plug's trebles and replacing the back one with a larger single hook, you might be surprised at how well that type of setup hooks bass and keeps them hooked.
Another simple alteration that can make fish much easier to unhook efficiently is to pinch barbs flat. Again, you might be surprised how rarely fish get away because of barbless hooks. Keep the line tight while you fight bass, and they typically stay pinned by the hook's bend.
A final related hook option is to use a circle hook when possible for fishing soft-plastic lures. This won't work for weedless rigs where the hook point must be buried in the plastic, requiring a big hookset to drive the hook home. For open-hook rigs, though, circle hooks work wonderfully. Just tighten the line to hook fish, and when you land a fish it likely will be hooked in the corner of the mouth, where the hook is simple to remove.
The basic rule for handling bass is to do so as little as possible. The fewer places you touch a fish and the less amount of time the fish spends out of the water, the better. Handling the body of a fish too much can remove part of its protective "slime" and can make the fish more subject to infections. Meanwhile, holding a fish out of the water is just like holding your head under the water.
An ideal scenario is to lead the fish into a fish-friendly net or scoop a hand under the belly of the fish and to pop a single, barbless hook out of the fish's mouth without ever lifting the fish from the water.
Of course, that's not always realistic. You probably won't always choose single, barbless hooks, some fish won't cooperate that well, and you might want a photo or two of you with your catch.
That's understandable. Just be smart, and remain aware of the amount of time the fish stays out of the water. Get the hook out, snap a quick photo or two, and put the fish back in the water. Also, wet your hands before touching a fish, minimize the number of places you touch it, and use needle-nose pliers or a de-hooking device when you need to reach farther down to get a hook out.
Finally, don't "jack" the fish's jaw. If you hold a bass by the lower lip, either hang the body straight down or support the fish's weight with your other hand. The fish's own weight can break its jaw and cause the bass to starve.
DEEPLY HOOKED FISH
When a bass gets hooked in the gills or it swallows an offering, removing the hook without damaging vital parts or causing excessive bleeding can be tough.
If your offering is small and you used a single hook, just cut the line as far down as possible and release the fish with hook in place. For larger offerings with treble hooks, the hope of the lure coming dislodged without causing more problems is minimal, so you simply must do the best you can.
Occasionally, when getting a hook out has been extra difficult, if that fish is legal to keep, the best thing to do is take it home for the table, even if you normally are a strict catch-and-release angler.