I watched a happy moment one evening last week. Two guys in a bass boat were tossing artificials for snook and one of them landed a really nice fish. I was too far away to be able to precisely estimate the size of that beautiful fish, but I’m pretty sure that it was overslot — maybe way overslot.
After a spirited fight they had it boatside and were able to lift it aboard. That’s when the lucky anglers got really happy. It’s also when I started to get sad.
But first, a disclaimer: I have killed quite a few snook in my time. When I was going to college on Florida’s East Coast, my favorite snook rod was marked to show 18 inches (the minimum size for harvestable snook at that time). There were plenty of evenings at Sebastian Inlet when I took a limit of four snook back to my apartment so I didn’t have to spend as much of my limited cash on groceries in the coming days. That mark on my rod allowed me to quickly measure a snook at night without having to hunt around for a measuring device and it was a very efficient system.
Later in life when I began working as a Charlotte Harbor fishing guide, I killed and filleted many snook that were caught by my clients. So I am no stranger to snook blood. However, I have released far more snook than I have harvested. And I figure that I owe it to a snook that’s going to be released to try my best to handle it carefully to give it as good a chance as possible at survival. I know that they don’t all make it, so in spite of my best efforts I am guilty of killing some released fish too.
Which brings me back to the happy/sad moment the other evening. One of the guys lifted the heavy fish aboard and the first thing he did was to lay it on the deck. A carpeted, slime-removing deck (remember, this was a bass boat).
Someone unhooked the fish as it lay on the deck, then one of the guys dug around in the boat until he came up with a measuring device so they could get a good length on their catch. Not that there would be much reason to obtain an exact measurement since the season is closed, but a measurement is good for storytelling. As the scene unfolded, there was a decided lack of urgency about the proceedings. Nobody seemed in a big hurry to return the gasping girl to the water.
Then it was photo time. The victorious angler went to hoist the fish for a photo, but just about the time he had it horizontal and chest-high the fish started flopping, got loose and dropped to the deck with a thump that I could hear from 50 yards away. At least the carpet may have helped some there.
After it stopped flopping, the fish was picked up again and posed for a lengthy photo session, then the angler lowered the fish to vertical, held by its lower jaw, while the two guys stood together shielding the camera screen from the sun so they could peruse the photos to make sure they had some good shots. After a minute or two of scrolling through photos, the guys were apparently satisfied that they’d captured the moment for posterity and it was time for the release.
To be fair, they did spend some time with the fish over the side attempting to revive it. I was too far away and on the wrong side of the boat to tell how strongly that fish may have swum away. But I’m not optimistic about its prospects for survival — it was out of the water for more than five minutes, and it wasn’t handled very well.
My conscience has been bothering me ever since I witnessed this episode because I didn’t do anything about it. Perhaps I should have said something to the guys, but I was far enough away from my vantage point on land that I would have had to yell. It’s hard to present your suggestions in a genteel manner while shouting at someone.
And I didn’t want to come across as a cranky and envious old geezer who wanted to spoil their big day. We see this on social media every day, just about any time anyone posts anything the least bit boastful some hater will bash it. I didn’t want to be “that guy.”
But I now regret not trying to make it a teachable moment. So I am trying to somewhat soothe my guilty conscience by penning this column as a guide on various ways that we can hurt fish unintentionally. Please try to get them back in the water as quickly as possible if you remove them from the water. Don’t hold them with rags or lay them on carpet, since both will tend to remove protective slime from the fish. Don’t hang large snook vertically while holding them by the lower jaw. And try really hard not to drop them onto the deck.
An old-timer told me that if I really want to be fair to the fish, as soon as I lift a catch out of the water I should inhale deeply, then hold my breath until the fish is returned to the water. The old guy’s theory was that an angler who does this is experiencing approximately the same respiratory challenge as the fish, and that you shouldn’t keep a fish out of the water longer than you can hold your own breath. I don’t know if this is a good guideline or not, but at least it puts things in perspective.
Hopefully I will sleep with a clear conscience tonight.
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.