With the imminent opening of the new Lake Wanahoo and the required release of all northern pike that will be caught there, this is a good time to review fish handling procedures, especially fish handling procedures for large toothy fish! Requiring the release of all pike caught from Wanahoo will do no good unless those fish are released with the best possible chance of survival.
First of all, be prepared. There are enough northern pike in Wanahoo that a person will have a chance of encountering one whether they are fishing specifically for them or not. I am not suggesting that every panfish angler use leaders because they might catch a pike–if they do that they likely will not catch any panfish. But, if you are fishing for any of the larger game fish, whether you are intentionally fishing for pike or not, you better be prepared. Once Wanahoo opens, I would tell you that if you are fishing for bass, walleye or of course pike, you should be using a leader of some type. Anglers owe it to themselves and to the pike to do everything possible to land pike that are hooked so those hooks can be properly removed. It is not the pike’s fault if they cut off a bait or lure because the angler was not prepared. Anglers should do everything they can to ensure pike do not swim away with hooks stuck in their jaws, and I would hope every angler would have more respect for the fish, for the resource, than that.
Fortunately, there are lots of leader options nowadays. A person can tie on a 20-pound test fluorocarbon leader and have a good chance of landing any pike that might be hooked without having a bulky leader that might inhibit the action of baits being fished or be visible to the fish. Likewise, there are a variety of titanium leaders on the market that are very flexible and are very good leaders ( http://www.cabelas.com/wire-leaders.shtml ). A person could also use TyGer ( http://www.tygerleader.com/ )or Surflon Micro Supreme ( http://www.americanfishingwire.com/smsupreme.asp ) wire leaders that can be tied with your favorite fishing knots. The TyGer and Surflon Micro Supreme wire leaders can be spliced right onto your fishing line, and they are very flexible and nearly invisible.
Years ago I would have told you that landing nets were hard on fish and if you wanted to release a fish you should try to land it without a landing net. I do not believe that is the case anymore. I have become a huge fan of rubber mesh landing nets or at least knotless mesh that is rubber-coated or treated. There are a variety of nets made by a variety of manufacturers specifically for fish that are to be released, http://www.beckmannet.com/ , http://www.frabill.com/store/landing-nets.html , http://www.stowmaster.net/default.asp . Landing nets are simply the quickest way to land a fish and control it. The best way to use a landing net for fish that are going to be released would be to land the fish and then leave the fish in the net and the net in the water while hooks are removed and the camera is readied for a picture. Handling of fish can be reduced to as little as possible with the proper use of a good landing net.
When landing a pike, absolutely DO NOT pull the fish onto shore or allow them to flop around on the bottom of the boat. Letting fish flop on the bottom of a boat or on the ground, grass, gravel, etc. is not good for the fish. Fish are “slimy” because they have a mucous coating, and that mucus helps protect fish from infections and it aids in the healing of any injuries to the skin. When you let a fish flop on the bottom of a boat or on the ground or handle them with dry hands, you remove some of that mucus coat and that can expose the fish to bacterial or fungal infections after it is released. As I have stated, leaving the fish in a landing net, net in the water, is probably the best way to handle fish, but what can you do if you have to take a fish out of the water and lay them down? Actually European carp anglers have developed some great techniques and products for handling fish. Some of the trophy carp they catch in Europe are literally caught, handled and released again and again over a period of years, so they must be doing something right. They have developed a variety of mats, cradles, slings and “corrals” where the fish can be held or placed (for example, look here,http://www.harrissportsmail.com/Categories.aspx?CategoryID=2221 ). All of those products are designed to keep fish from flopping around on the ground or bottom of a boat. You might not want to fire off an overseas rush order for one of those mats or slings, but you could adapt something you already have or can easily get. For example, a rubber mat can be used as a fish handling mat (make sure to get it wet before placing a fish on it), or how about a soft-mesh laundry bag that you can buy at Wal-Mart?
Way back in the day, holding a pike by its eye sockets was considered to be a good way to handle pike. Unless you are sure you are harvesting a pike, and at Wanahoo no harvest is allowed, NEVER, ever stick your fingers into a pike’s eye sockets!!!! You do not have to be a pointy-headed fisheries biologist to know why that is a bad idea. Pike can be gripped behind the head, but anytime you lift or hold a pike use both hands to support the fish in a horizontal position. If a person is careful, fingers can be slipped inside the gill covers, but one must be especially careful of the gills–make sure your hands and fingers do not contact gills or gill arches! Do not support a fish’s entire weight by the gill cover! Again, support the fish horizontally! Fish are made for life in the water. Their skeletal structure is not designed to support their weight out of the water. For that reason, you have to be careful while handling fish, and you want to keep them in a horizontal position as much as possible, support their weight with both hands, especially large fish like northern pike.
Every angler needs to have some tools for handling fish and removing hooks. Those tools should be at the ready, at hand, at all times; you do not want to have to rummage around to find them when you need them. There are a variety of pliers, hemostats, forceps, hook-out tools and hook removers that are very handy for removing hooks. I cannot give you examples of them all. I use a pair of extra-long, needle-nose pliers that is on my person at all times while I am on the water. If I am fishing for panfish or trout, the forceps are on me at all times. Lanyards or “zingers” are good ideas for those tools so they do not get dropped in the water. An angler also should have some type of side cutters, hook cutters or bolt cutters too. At times it will be easier to cut hooks to remove them, and if you ever end up with a hook in your or your buddy’s flesh, you probably will want some type of hook cutters really bad!
I also like to wear a pair of gloves especially when handling large fish, toothy fish, and fish that have gill covers that can cut your hands.
Again there are a variety of fish handling gloves on the market; pick the ones you like. I know some folks that use a pair of leather gloves, I have some neoprenes myself. Whatever the gloves, make sure they are wet before handling the fish. The gloves can protect you from injury and they can protect the fish from injury by allowing you to control the fish while handling it.
Lastly, let me mention one other tool that I consider invaluable for removing hooks. That would be a good set of jaw-spreaders. Again there are several jaw-spreaders on the market, but I believe one of the best I have seen recently would be the ones made by Tryant ( http://www.muskyshop.com/modules/cart/products.php/nav_id/28/page/1/id/2704/name/TyrantTackleJawSpreaders ). You should also keep a lanyard on your jaw-spreaders to keep them from slipping into the water or worse yet to prevent a fish from flopping into the water with the jaw spreaders still in its mouth.
Eastern Nebraska anglers have been given an unique opportunity to catch some northern pike close to home with the creation of Lake Wanahoo. How long pike survive in Wanahoo will depend largely on water quality and habitat conditions in the coming years. For now, the health and quality of that fishery will rest largely in the hands of anglers–with careful catch & release there will be some pike, and big pike, available for anglers to catch for the next few years at least. But, if that resource and those fish are abused, well, there will be a lot less fish and a lot less big fish available for all of us. Land them as quickly as possible, handle them as little as possible, and get them back in the water as soon as possible!