Proper catch-and-release techniques ensure fish live to fight another day

December 27, 2019

With the new regulations recreational fishermen will be saddled with in 2020 and even more stringent regulations expected in 2021, proper catch-and-release techniques will be needed to save the fish we catch and can’t keep. 

Most of us have experienced catching many small trout over the past few years along with short flounder and tog. Add to this list bluefish, since the bag limit has dropped to three fish for shore and private-boat fishermen, and five for charter and head boat anglers.

The first thing you can do to aid release is to crush the barbs on all of your hooks, especially the trebles on your lures. When I ran charters in Virginia, I crushed the barbs on all my WindCheater plugs. These plugs were deadly on blues and rockfish, and even the ones going in the cooler had to be unhooked. Barbless hooks made it so much easier on myself, the fish and the customers. I seldom lost a fish due to the barbless hooks, and it was usually a bluefish that did a lot of jumping.

Another important tool to successful release is a wet rag to hold the fish. Dip the rag in the bay or ocean and use this to control the catch while you remove the hook. By doing this, you protect the slime coating that protects the fish from infections.

Non-offset circle hooks should always be used when bait fishing. They will set in the corner of the fish’s mouth and seldom in the gut or gills. It may take a bit of practice to get the hook set right, but once you do, you won’t miss many bites. As I have said before, the only fish that I don’t use circle hooks on are tog because they crush the bait, spit out the shell and the hook, then swallow the meat.

There are dehooking tools that work very well. These look like ice tongs with a curlicue on the end. The idea is to put the hook in the curlicue, hold the line out and flip the fish over the line. At that point the fish will fall off the hook, back into the water without touching human hands. These work best with circle hooks.

Some fish survive catch-and-release better than others. Trout are soft-bodied fish, and I doubt they hold up well after release. When I begin catching them, I move away and hope to start catching kings or spot. Blues are pretty hardy. I think they survive the catch-and-release experience very well. Summer flounder are another hardy species, if handled properly.

And then there are rockfish or striped bass. According to the latest figures, recreational anglers are responsible for 90 percent of their mortality, with catch-and-release taking the blame for most of that figure. If the latest proposal becomes law, anglers will only be allowed one fish per day with a slot limit of 28 to 35 inches. Trophy seasons in the Chesapeake Bay will be closed as will the catch-and-release season. Rockfish may even become off limits during the summer when the water temperature is high and release mortality is also the highest. All of this including Delaware’s summer slot season in the bay is still up in the air, but I believe most of these regulations will become law in 2020.

The biggest problem, besides proper catch-and-release techniques, is educating anglers that it is not necessary to kill a big rockfish to have a good time. Back in the day when slot limits were first proposed for red drum or channel bass, the same mind-set had to be changed. Today, catch-and-release of big red drum is the accepted practice from Texas to Virginia. I have personally seen schools of 45- to 55-inch red drum that spanned several acres and they were fighting over who could get to my bucktail first. I believe with the new regulations and good catch-and-release techniques, we could see the same thing with striped bass in the next 10 years.

Fishing report

Striped bass did show up in the ocean off Sea Colony at Bethany Beach Dec. 21, and they stayed around until Dec. 28. While the action was short-lived, it was welcomed by everyone who was able to get out and catch these beautiful fish. From the reports I received, the fish that were kept measured somewhere around 36 inches. Many fish over the 37-inch slot limit were released, but I did not have any reports of stripers exceeding the 47-inch maximum on the other end of the slot. Most were caught by trolling MOJOs or Mann’s Stretch 25s or 30s. A few were taken by casting large plastic shads.


  • Eric Burnley is a Delaware native who has fished and hunted the state from an early age. Since 1978 he has written countless articles about hunting and fishing in Delaware and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast. He has been the regional editor for several publications and was the founding editor of the Mid-Atlantic Fisherman magazine. Eric is the author of three books: Surf Fishing the Atlantic Coast, The Ultimate Guide to Striped Bass Fishing and Fishing Saltwater Baits. He and his wife Barbara live near Milton, Delaware. Eric can be reached at

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