In a way, this discussion may be somewhat off-topic for a release column. At least I thought so at first and pondered it a little. But in reality it isn¹t at all. My concern was that the act of landing a fish alone technically doesn¹t stick strictly to the question of proper tactics to ensure ultimate survivability. For a variety of reasons, esox anglers should avoid fishing alone. These include the fun of companionship, the ability to take some good, quick photos, safety concerns and, most pertinent here, successful releases. The bottom line is, for the good of the fish, at least two folks should be present. In many cases, one person alone simply can’t release fish as efficiently as they can with help.
Still, the fact is a lot of people do fish alone, either due to lack of a partner, or because they simply enjoy the solitude. In this column, I’m going to discuss landing and release by the solitary esox angler. Many people who fish alone have asked me what methods are best for a solo release. Many have expressed the problems they’ve encountered, not only landing fish (trophies that got away), but getting a landed fish released in a timely manner.
The problems associated with solo releases are fairly obvious. With no help, it’s tougher to get the fish in a landing device. Then it has to be controlled, while getting to release tools, measured (maybe), possibly photographed, and very quickly released. All has to be done as fast as possible.
In the first issue of Esox Angler, I discussed the basics of C & R, which included the question of water release versus the use of landing devices. The call on this issue, is usually made considering a couple factors, the first being the angler’s perceived need to land the fish. A fish can usually be put in a landing device quicker than they can be handled in-water at boatside. Many marginally hooked fish have been landed via a device that would otherwise very likely have gotten off before they could have been grabbed. This is one of the reasons many guides choose to use landing devices.
Using a landing device often results in getting the hooks out and the fish back in the water faster than a release without. The other issue is safety. An apparently docile fish lying at boatside with a set or two of trebles dangling can be a dangerous proposition
The general guideline is if fish are hooked on lures with a single set of hooks, or the bait and position of the hooks are such that there is minimal risk of the fish snagging the angler, and especially if the hooks appear easy to pop out, and if no photos are desired, then water release is probably the way to go. In all other cases, landing devices are generally safer and quicker. The fish is subdued, its motion is limited, and loose hooks will hang in the mesh.
Soon, we’ll talk measuring, but I want to point out here that this is a major sticking point with fishing alone. EVERYTHING about releasing alone is harder to accomplish, and most importantly, slower.
Measuring is, well, unnecessary! So, unless it’s a very important fish, and you really feel you have to know the exact length, just estimate the length of the fish and accomplish the release faster.
In the case of water release, the solitary angler is basically on the same playing field as with partners. The only issue to be considered is that they don’t have a partner present to toss tools to them. This should be kept in mind while fighting the fish. Either land the fish near the tools or move them to a designated site during battle. Getting a hold on the fish only to realize the tools are on the other end of the boat is a real problem.
Whether it is safety concerns, getting the fish concerns, or simple comfort with use of landing devices, the single angler is disadvantaged. A standard cradle is nearly impossible to use with one hand, so a standard (large) hoop net or the Frabill Kwik Kradle are the most logical options.
The issue here is control, because one hand must handle the rod and the other the net. It can be done quite efficiently though. Keep in mind that it’s quite a bit harder to make a fast net-move with one hand (most of the got-away stories usually involve rushing things when alone). While a person with the use of two hands can often effectively stab a fairly green (still fresh) fish, when alone, wild stabs should be avoided.
First, learn to choke-up on the net, and then practice the push and lift movement with one hand before you get in a situation where you need to perform the maneuver when it counts. The fish should be led into the landing device head-first with the rod. Once the fish is a third to half-way in (be prepared to quickly pull back if the fish makes a wild move), move forward with the net to get the fish fully in and then continue smoothly with a lift and quickly get the rim of the net to the gunnel. It should be one motion: forward, up, to the gunnel.
The continued motion forward and up is key. Folks often tend to stop after the fish appears to be in, rather than continuing the upward motion which secures the fish. Many a fish has been lost after netters felt the fish was secure, only to have it jump back out again, often leaving the lure on the rim of the net.
After completing the motion of forward and up to the gunnel, simply kneel on the rim of the net and reach for the tools, popping out easy hooks with pliers and cutting all the rest (cut in multiple places, and as always, make certain pieces fall out). If the plan didn’t come together with respect to landing the fish near the tools, simply slide the net down the gunnel to the tools, taking care to keep the fish in the water as much as possible.
If measurement and some type of photo are a must, it gets more complicated. In the case of the Kwik Kradle, the fish can be measured right in the device, in the water. In the case of a large hoop net and smaller to moderate-sized esox, the same can be accomplished in the net. Larger specimens will need to be taken out to get a good length measurement. Most preferable for the welfare of the fish, is an in-water measurement. This can be done out of the net, over the side of the boat, although there is some potential here for the fish getting away before measurement.
Other options, if a measurement is very important to the angler, include a large livewell. Ideally, an angler that fishes alone regularly, and wants measurements, should have a ruler in place on the floor of the well, or increments marked off in the well. The fish’s head can be bumped against the wall and length checked at the other end. This can be done quickly, but make certain the well is full with fresh running water.
Photos are generally not an option when alone, although in some cases, a boat nearby may be called over during battle, and things can work out just fine if these folks cooperate. (As discussed in a previous article, transporting fish to get a photo is not in the best interest of the fish.) Leave the fish in water until the camera is handed over, the helpers know how to use it, and are ready.
If the solo angler is prepared, one pre-planned shot using a camera with an automatic timer can be taken. This should be practiced before getting out on the water. Have a pre-planned spot for the camera (a tripod is the best bet), and a spot for holding the fish. (Unfortunately, rough water makes this nearly impossible.) Get the camera ready, hit the timer, grab the fish and get in place. One shot is all that should be attempted. Multiple shots with this method just require too much time out of water for the fish.
Handling catch and release alone can be done quite efficiently, and with little harm to angler or fish. A little more planning is required though. Certainly, as stated earlier, fishing alone should be avoided if possible. And fishing alone should definitely be avoided completely by those new to the sport.
Once an angler is adept at handling and unhooking fish, and is prepared, catch and release alone is not a big problem. Realistically though, both measuring and photos are not absolutely necessary and definitely add to the time required. And therefore, they add to stress.
One final note: One of the main safety concerns when angling alone for esox is getting hooked. Especially bad is being hooked to a bait that’s still in a fish (I’ve been there, but fortunately never alone). No matter the level of experience, if you continue to handle numbers of muskie and pike, sooner or later, you will take a hook. If you take one past the barb alone, you’ve got real trouble. Therefore, going barbless while fishing alone is certainly recommended.