Afield: Getting a line on keeping trout alive

If you want to take photos of your catch, consider the possibilities with leaving the trout partially in the water for the photos.
If you want to take photos of your catch, consider the possibilities with leaving the trout partially in the water for the photos. For the Centre Daily Times

The 2016 trout season is underway. I hope you are enjoying it as much as I am.

My April 3 column about the Bald Eagle Creek Trout Hooking Mortality Study sparked a wave of emails and message board comments. For example, more than 10 pages of comments — well over 10,000 words — followed the posting of my CDT column on the www.PaFlyFish message board. Apparently, some fly anglers just cannot accept that mortality can be low with bait fishing. Therefore — according to them — there must be something wrong with the study.

I am very familiar with the Bald Eagle Creek research. I firmly believe that the preliminary results are valid. The key, as pointed out in the column, is angler behavior, not whether the trout was caught on bait, lure or fly.

As Dr. Robert Carline said, “The important message to be taken from our research and other recently-published studies is that the hooking mortality from bait fishing can be rather low. The key to low hooking mortality is angler behavior. If bait anglers fish with a tight line and set the hook immediately upon detecting a strike, the fish will not be deeply hooked. Deep hooking has been shown to increase mortality.”

Bait-caught trout made up the majority of the trout involved with the Bald Eagle Creek experiment. There were a small number of trout caught on lures and flies during the study. Their numbers were not high enough to get a statistically valid result. During the second year of the study, trout caught with lures and flies had a slightly higher mortality than bait-caught trout. During the first year, it was lower.

Participants in the Bald Eagle Creek study did not know that they were going to be part of scientific research; therefore, no angler bias. (This was not true of any other trout mortality study.) Anglers were fishing with their preferred terminal tackle. Again, this cannot be said of any other trout hooking mortality study that I am aware of. I believe that this study accurately represents typical licensed anglers — men and women of various ages — fishing in a stream setting.

The anglers were motivated to keep their trout alive, because prize money was only paid to anglers turning in live trout. I would like to think that any angler fishing in Catch-and-Release, Delayed Harvest, and Trophy Trout waters would also have the same motivation: the desire to keep their trout alive.

Releasing trout

According to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, an increasing number of anglers are choosing to release all or part of their trout catch, even when regulations allow them to keep fish. A 2008 survey of Pennsylvania trout anglers found that 88 percent indicated they practiced catch-and-release at least half the time. Based on my streamside observations, I am relatively certain that percentage has increased during the past eight years.

Although more anglers are releasing more of their trout, I still see a need for additional education in this department. If your goal is to bring home dinner, the regulations on most of the state’s streams allow you to creel up to five trout, measuring seven inches or longer. If harvest is your plan, then fishing techniques and handling are not critical.

However, if you would like to successfully return your catch to the stream or lake, I would like to offer a few tips for carefully releasing trout.

1. Most important: If fishing bait, keep a tight line and set the hook as soon as you detect a strike. This reduces the chance of deeply hooking a trout. Deeply-hooked trout are at least five times more likely to die after release than those hooked in the jaw.

2. To unhook a trout, use a net or keep the fish in the water. Never pull the trout out of the water by holding the line. This puts maximum stress on your line and the trout, and it imbeds the hook more deeply.

3. If a trout is deeply hooked, snip the line close to the trout’s mouth. Do not try to remove the hook as this could cause injury to the gills or internal organs.

4. Play trout the minimum amount of time reasonably possible. The longer it takes to land a trout, the greater the stress that will result. My brother and I have timed each other, from hook-set to release. On a small stream, it usually takes us less than 20 seconds to hook, play, land, unhook and release a typical 10-inch trout. How long does it take you?

5. Handle trout with care and as little as possible. Do not squeeze them.

6. Keep your fingers away from a trout’s gills. They are fragile. Putting your fingers in their gills would be like someone sticking their fingers in your lungs.

7. Trout caught in cool water have a better chance of survival than those caught in warm water. Never fish when water temperatures climb above 68 degrees. The higher the water temperature, the higher the probability that a released trout will die.

8. Wet hands vs. dry hands: I am not aware of any research regarding this. However, if you handle a trout with dry hands, it removes the protective slime layer from the fish. Use a wet hand if at all possible.

9. If fishing a lure with two treble hooks, consider removing the forward treble hook. This will reduce eye injuries for the trout. It will also lower handling time, which in turn decreases mortality.

10. Support the jaw when removing a barbed hook from a trout’s mouth. There is no need to damage the trout while unhooking it. Apply pressure opposite the barb and back the hook out. A needle-nosed pliers or forceps helps.

11. If you can, take photos of the trout partially in the water. If you are going to hold a trout out water for a photo, make sure the camera is ready before you lift the trout out. For multiple photos, return the trout to the water between shots. Research shows that keeping a trout out of water for even one minute increases mortality.

Every trout that is successfully released is just the same as the Fish and Boat Commission stocking another trout. It makes the fishing better for everyone.

Discover and Explore Wetlands

The Wildlife for Everyone Endowment Foundation will present Explore, Discover & Understand Wetlands Through the Lens of a Camera on May 10. Youths ages 10-18 will learn about the Governor Tom Ridge Wetlands and the wildlife that live there. Each team will receive a camera to explore the wetlands, then upload a slide show to share their discoveries with others. Help will be provided for camera use and preparing a presentation. Prizes will be awarded for the three best presentations.

The event begins promptly at 5:30 p.m., rain or shine, and ends at 7 p.m. To register, visit info@wildlifeforeveryone.org or call 238-8138.

Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is chairman of the board for the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. He can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com