How to Keep 'Em Alive!
All steelhead and salmon fishing in Idaho now requires the use of barbless hooks, either single or multiple. Though a few quality barbless hooks are on the market, most anglers merely "doctor" their barbed hooks by pressing down barbs with pliers. The Idaho game department's rationale for this requirement is mainly to insure the safe release, as required, of all wild steelhead and salmon to preserve a secure genetic pool. (If we ever lose our wild fish, we may lose anadromous runs altogether in Idaho!)
A spinoff value of barbless hooks is the easier and safer release of more steelhead and salmon in general, including otherwise keepable hatchery fish. Yes, a few fish will shake free of barbless hooks on their own prior to landing, causing some anglers much dismay. Still, steelies and salmon aren't as acrobatic as smaller rainbow trout, and "early release" is a minor problem if you'll keep a snug line at all times.
If you're fishing in water specifically designated as "catch and release," please note that you're required to use artificial lures only with single barbless hooks in that water or section of water. This means that two of the points on any treble hook must be broken or cut off entirely, and that only one such doctored treble (or other single hook) is legal per lure. Bait in any form isn't allowed in catch-and-release fishing areas, since fish sometimes swallow natural foods, making safe release a problem.
Whether you're releasing steelhead and salmon voluntarily or as required by law, you'll keep more of them alive by never touching the gill area. It's important not to lift fish this large from supportive water, since to do so may cause internal damage from weight alone. Squeezing a struggling fish may also cause eventual death.
If you can't remove your hook without much handling and probing, cut the line up close and allow the hook to rust out naturally. Otherwise, use long-nosed pliers to roll out the barbless hook point; then move the exhausted fish back and forth in the water in a swimming position, causing water to flow through its gills. If you use a net, select one with a soft, knot-free mesh to avoid scraping off protective slime, which makes a fish vulnerable to deadly fungus attacks. Since touching fish with dry hands causes the same problem, conscientious anglers employ wet wool gloves to handle slippery fish during release.
For taking photographs, you have about 90 seconds or less. That's about the time span the fish should be without oxygen and outside of the water. Make it 60 seconds to be sure.
With reasonable attention to the above details, you'll insure that virtually all of your released fish will survive to fight another day.
Copyright 2000 by Spring Creek Communications
BOOKS FROM AMAZON.COM
Mountain in the Clouds : A Search for the Wild Salmon
by Bruce Brown
Return to the River : The Classic Story of the Chinook Run and the Men Who Fish It
by Roderick L. Haig-Brown, Charles Defeo (Illustrator)
Advanced Fly Fishing for Steelhead
by Deke Meyer
Color Guide to Steelhead Drift Fishing
by Bill Herzog
Plug Fishing for Steelhead
by Mike Laverty