Few moments in nature can be as touching, even spiritual, as watching a trophy fish swim away to fight another day. Years ago I was fortunate to guide a successful veterinarian and accomplished outdoorsman named Dale to one of the more memorable and moving experiences I have been privy to experience on the water. Dale was an accomplished hunter and fisherman, having traveled the world while capturing wild game on just about every continent, including Africa’s fabled “Big Five.”
The stories were excellent – the cold front that greeted us on the first of our two fishing days was not. After a fruitless first day consisting of only a few lazy follows on one of Hayward’s pristine bodies of water, a dandy musky finally decided to eat Dale’s Jake crankbait as the sun peeked out from behind the clouds during the late afternoon. As we had discussed prior to the trip, Dale knew my boat maintained a strict catch-and-release policy with muskies. After catching the upper forty inch class musky, he begrudgingly let it go after a few brief pictures.
Long after the fish had disappeared back to the depths, he remained laying on his belly on the bow of my boat. He lay motionless, even statuesque; to the point I began to feel a pang of worry as to his health. I intuitively asked him if he was all right, to which he slowly sat up and faced me, tears in his eyes. "Joel", he said, "You were right - that was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen".
Catch and release of trophy gamefish is more popular today than ever, and for good reason - many top predators such as the muskellunge often experience difficulty reproducing successfully or tend to produce young that are highly vulnerable to natural mortality and predation within their environment.
A study and hypothetical musky release/stocking scenario conducted by Muskies Inc. concluded that to grow just one 50" musky in a body of water requires over 500 juvenile muskies make it to 10"; think about that, over 500 juvenile muskies must survive to hopefully result in just one making it to the magic 50" mark!
I am thankful to the good Lord for the hundreds of muskies I have been blessed to boat over the years for myself, clients, family, and friends; of all those fish, not one musky has been kept, including all of them over the magic 50" mark. Am I looking for praise and accolades? Absolutely not. Rather, I hope to impress upon you just how vital proper catch and release truly is. With the advances made in graphite fish mount replicas such as those produced by Conover, Wisconsin's very own Lax Taxidermy, there is no educationally-sound argument to be made for killing big fish. Period.
The successful release of trophy fish does require preparation on behalf of the angler – just as a surgeon cannot do his or her job without the correct tools and equipment, neither can a fisherman. Preparation begins by keeping a “release kit” in the boat at all times and in good working order. Start by taking a quality durable waterproof box such as the Plano 1470-00 Large Polycarbonate Waterproof Case and filling it with the tools necessary for proper release of a musky - a long-nosed pliers, bolt cutters (for cutting hooks), hook-out, and a fish-friendly jaw spreader. Release gloves are a good idea as they not only protect your hands from sharp teeth and gill rakers, but help minimize the amount of protective slime removed from the fish during landing and handling. Add in a split ring pliers along with extra split rings and Mustad hooks of varying sizes and your release kit is ready to go.
Aside from the ‘release kit’, arguably one of the most important tools when catching and releasing muskies, regardless of their size, is a proper landing net. Frabill, in my opinion the hands-down leader in landing net design and technology, offers a couple of solid options for the musky hunter. My personal favorite, the 40” x 44” “Big Kahuna” – a net featuring Frabill’s Brute Hoop design and revolutionary PowR-Lok yoke system, also sports a special knotless mesh that is easier on a fish's sensitive scales, eyes, slime coat and fins.
While fighting a fish, do not play it to the point of exhaustion as it makes successful release that much more difficult. In summer as the water temperatures reach the upper seventies and into the eighties in our area and most places down South, this becomes even more crucial; in fact, once water temperatures crest the eighty degree mark, it is in the best interest of the muskies to avoid fishing for them at all as successful release becomes incredibly difficult.
Landing a fish should involve leading it head first into the net, then leaving the fish in the water so that it is able to breathe and have its body supported. With the specimen still in your Frabill, remove the hooks using the bolt cutters to cut any hooks too firmly embedded. Once the lure has been moved safely out of the way, leave the fish in the net while preparing the camera and addressing any organizational needs in the boat.
When you are ready for your photo opportunity carefully lift the fish, ensuring to support the weight of the body with your other hand. Take a few quick photographs if so desired, and get the fish back in the water as quickly as possible. Once you have placed the fish back into its watery domain, continue to support it so that the body remains upright and do so until the fish swims away under its own power.
May you experience the thrill of watching a giant swim away to fight another day this year! Catch a big one and let it go, let it grow.
I'll see you on the water.