Fish care; does it matter?
One of the most important things in angling is fish welfare; fact. The protection, conservation and continuation of our target species is paramount to our fishing, without conserving and husbanding of stocks, our sport will decline and we will all suffer the consequences......but do we take it seriously enough?
To my mind, every angler should have the correct items to ensure the welfare of any catches, but I’m sure all of us have our own horror stories of things we have seen on the bank; dropped fish, big carp left on gravel banksides, anglers rooting in the bivvy for the camera while a prized specimen flaps helplessly gasping for oxygen, or anglers tipping fish down the whole length of the keepnet at the end of a session, small perch or roach floating upside down as the angler wanders away.....we have all seen it, we all know how important it is, but some anglers still don’t bother!
I wanted to consider fish welfare as an article, but when I thought about it, it appears to be a far more complex issue than first impressions would suggest. Where does it start? I would hope for most anglers that it begins at home, selecting the right tackle for the chosen species and venue; it’s little use approaching a venue full of 30lbs+ carp with a whip or float rod, (I know it can be done before you ask, but would you fish for such a specimen on such light tackle intentionally?) when it would make far more sense to use a rod of sufficient power to tame such beasts successfully?
Choosing the right rod is just the tip of the iceberg, angler skill may play a part too; I have been fishing for over twenty years and would be reasonably confident of landing a 20lbs+ fish on a fairly light rod, but I know that a relative newcomer to the sport may struggle to ‘play’ such a fish correctly, and I realise that by using a heavier rod, it would leave far less chance of the fish reaching a snag or causing other problems. With that in mind, the opposite is also true; a 3lb testcurve rod is no tool for roach or other soft mouthed species and would result in mouth damage as the fish is hauled or dragged into the bankside. Balance the rod to the species and protect the fish!
Landing nets; how many times have you witnessed an angler trying to catch big carp or catfish with a pan head net??! Sitting opposite such an angler, I've often commented, sometimes to be met with abuse, other times to be told “...it’ll do, I've had 20’s in it”. Rarely will such anglers listen to reasoned debate but if you think about it, it makes sense to have a landing net which will allow you to safely pull the fish over the net before lifting it clear of the water. Recent regulations also establish that a soft knot less mesh should be used in net construction, so the older cane and steel nets are technically illegal for use! The amount of mesh is also important; a large fish needs a deep, wide mesh to fully support the weight properly as the fish is brought to the bank, so using a net which is too small can put pressure on the fish’s internal organs and cause invisible damage before it is returned to the water. Small fish can be bought ‘to hand’ but anything of more than a few ounces deserves the protection of the correct landing net.
Keepnets; if you don’t need to use one, then don’t! Many fisheries have now banned their use except in matches, and in my opinion, rightly so. We all want the trophy shot of the huge net of fish, but at what cost? I’m no longer a matchman, but I have witnessed fish being thrown from the keepnet to the weighbasket, tipped from one of the net to the other and even tumbled down a high bank as the angler puts the fish back! Overcrowding of keepnets causes fish to be crushed under bigger fish, fins to be torn and ripped as the fish are retrieved to be weighed or returned, and can cause stress to fish which may even be kept in the same net as predatory fish! I do still occasionally use one to retain a few fish for magazine work, but only a minimum number, and for the minimum possible length of time; always with the permission of the fishery owner, and always on the understanding that fish will be placed back by hand.
Unhooking mats; should be compulsory on all waters. For the sake of a few pounds, they offer so much protection to prized catches. There are so many available, it would be remiss of any angler to fish without one. I still see anglers resting fish on grassy banks, but what lies within the grass? Sharp stones, glass, sticks can all damage the bronzed flank of a beautiful carp, so the use of a substantial mat or cradle should be mandatory. Some of the products marketed today include combination mat and slings to safeguard fish as they are carried back to the water’s edge; expensive, but worth the money. Unhooking mats should be used on level banks, not much point having a fantastic mat on a slope if the minute you turn your back on the big carp you've just , it slides off onto the stony area below! If cost is an issue (it is to many of us), then pick up a used mat from local boot sales, newspaper classified advertisements, internet forums or at least consider a cheaper mat; something is better than nothing....
Weigh slings; another important part of the specimen anglers armoury, should be thoroughly wetted before use and large enough to fully enclose the fish.
Hooks; there are arguments for and against barbed and barbless. If I’m truthful, I sit on the fence and will use whatever the fishery rules state, however what cannot be denied is that any hook will cause some damage to the soft tissues in the mouth of the fish and this needs to be addressed. I carry a carp care kit from a recognised company which consists of an antiseptic gel and applicators which retails for around £14; I know other anglers use the common mouth ulcer product ‘Bonjella’ which performs much the same function and is gently dabbed onto the hook hold with a wet cotton bud. It helps to protect against infection by forming a barrier to waterborne bacteria and prevents further damage.
Hook removal; aside from the standard disgorgers, I carry straight and curved surgical forceps in a variety of sizes to help grasp the shank of any hook so it can be removed safely without causing further distress. A pair of sidecutting pliers can be used to cut below the barb of any hook which has passed through any tissues so the hook can be withdrawn without dragging the barb back through the tissues. Correct removal equipment is especially important when handling pike which may have delicate structures within the mouth and throat.
Retention sacks; used to enable the angler to keep a large fish until daylight for photographs or to assist the recovery of pike or other river species, it is imperative to ensure they are of sufficient size to allow the capture to move freely and let water circulate across the gills. They should have a closed mesh to restrict the amount of light entering the sack and help to keep the fish calm. MUST be securely pegged so that it doesn't come adrift!
Photography; I hate self-take photography, but when fishing alone, it is often the only option. To reduce the risk of harm to the fish, set up and frame the self take shot BEFORE you catch a fish. Use bank sticks to find the edge of the image, and position yourself between them; hold the fish a few inches above the unhooking mat (do not stand up..) and take the minimum number of shots to record the moment for posterity. Having a small bucket of water handy helps to prevent the fish drying out, can wash off any debris and ensure your new personal best looks pristine and shiny!
By taking the welfare of your catches seriously, horror stories of well known carp or others being found in the margins as a result of angler error will decrease, spread of disease will lessen and the reputation of our fantastic sport will remain untarnished. A few pounds spent wisely and a little consideration goes a long way to protecting our quarry, so make sure you do your bit!
(previously published elsewhere)