Suggestive techniques for handling a bonefish boat-side.
Importance of a single species.
Albula Vulpes; better known as the bonefish, is a species worth protecting. Theories of where our local Floridian bonefishery is headed in the not too distant future still remains a topic to be discussed as different groups can debate on and on about this to no end. Groups like the Bonefish Tarpon Trust have devoted many hours and dollars to research these important topics and back them with hard scientific evidence. Either train of thought can not deny that water quality, habitat change, the 2010 winter, fishing pressure, and predation have definitely effected the bonefishery in a negative manner. The fishery is changing indeed but this write-up is not about where the fishery is headed or whether there is a primary cause for why the fishery is what it is today. This article will discuss techniques for a healthy bonefish release.
I truly believe that each and every single bonefish we release is just as important as the next. Bonefish directly and indirectly bring millions of dollars to our sport fishing economy, as well as help in keeping us locals sane when we feel the need to stalk a truly challenging species on the flats. Though they are scrappy fighters at the end of your line, bonefish are actually quite delicate and fragile fish. Depending on how a bonefish is handled boatside, harm can come immediate or minutes later if handled for too long outside of their comfort zone. If we are to help the survival rate of each bonefish released, we must find it within ourselves to take the extra step to make sure they are released healthy and able to evade predators that may have picked up the trail of distress left by the battling bone.
Talk amongst colleagues
I have had many conversations with friend and avid bonefisherman Dr. J.A. Llera, about the state of our bonefishery as well as different tactics he’s explored when carefully handling these delicate fish. Bonefishing makes up 98% of Dr. Llera’s recreational time and he has spent countless hours studying the species from the eyes of an angler. He has gone beyond studying how and where they can be caught (which he has pretty well figured out accounting the many bonefish he successfully releases on fly while fishing solo), but also how to release his caught fish back into the wild giving them the best chance of survival. Dr. Llera has even devised a sling device used to measure the weight of large fish that does not remove the important slime coating that protects a bonefish from disease and bacteria. He has also concluded that it is just as important to have the fish in the water revived before attempting to handle it, then it is right before releasing it. The best analogy for this is letting a marathon runner catch his breath after he has just run a marathon. That is a wise analogy that has stuck with me since hearing it.
So here I stand on my soap box…
So we have touched base on the 2 things to keep in mind; protecting the vital slime coating on the bonefish, as well as keeping the fish healthy and energized before handling it. I personally am sure that a simple quick out of water and back in photo op isn’t too harmful to a bonefish but I beleieve it is best to keep the bonefish in the water as much as possible unless you have a memorable fish you absolutely have to photograph or have to run a weight fish back to the tournament scales in an oxygenated well. I mean how necessary is it to have 50 in the skiff grip and grins of the same person with a 5lb bonefish. I won’t claim to be a saint in this matter as I have made my mistakes in the past when it comes to handling these fish but through mistakes, time, and proper education, my school of thought has definitely changed. I share these thoughts with others hoping to make some sort of difference, as little or big as it may be.
So if you absolutely have to remove the fish from the water for a photo op, keep in mind the 2 things discussed… slime coating and fatigue. Make sure a bonefish is revived before removing it for a quick photo op and keep your hands wet (or even use a rubber glove) when handling the fish. The biggest slime remover and bonefish killer of all time is the bonefish bear hug with a dry cotton or microfiber shirt. If you really care about the fishes survival, try to avoid that at all costs. Handling the fish as close to the water as possible will also lessen any damage inflicted to the fish by dropping a strong wiggling fish onto the hard deck of a flats skiff. If you release a bonefish and it turns belly up, it will likely succumb to predation or disease, even if you poke it with a push pole to “motivate” it to swim off. I’m sure most of us have been down that road.
Rubber gloves and nets with rubberized meshes are great tools for controlling a bonefish boat side. Keeping a fish in the water inside a big net with rubberized mesh will keep the fish in the water and swimming into the current without rubbing off it’s slime coating. I have personally witnessed that a bonefish releases much healthier when using these types of net and keeping the fish in the water in the current boat side before, during, and after handling. You know a fish is healthy when it just shoots out of your hand and darts off instead of waddling off. These nets with rubber meshes can be found at most local and retail tackle stores today. You can even purchase retractable versions for those in skiffs with limited storage space. They range anywhere from $20 to over $200.
The most reasonably priced and great functioning nets I have found thus far is actually a net I found at Bass Pro Shops. This net is actually made by their own in house store brand. Here is a link to the net…
Other options are also available as companies like Frabill and Stowmaster make a premium net for such applications.
No matter what you choose, just keep in mind storability, functionality, and durability. In my experience, with proper maintenance, even the cheaper nets can last a long time.
Now that all the tools and techniques have been discussed, it is up to us to find it within ourselves to take action in protecting these magnificent gamefish for not on their future, but also for the fishery we hand down to the next generation.