IF YOU MUST grip and grin, the horizontal handle is easiest on the fish. PHOTO BY JERRY MCBRIDE

IF YOU MUST grip and grin, the horizontal handle is easiest on the fish. PHOTO BY JERRY MCBRIDE

By Jerry McBride

Got a little game for you. You'll need a watch and a 5-gallon bucket. Fill the bucket with water, and set it on your driveway. Now sprint two blocks and back, as if your kid's life depends on it. Immediately plunge your head into the bucket, and time how long you can hold your breath.

Not enjoying this game? We make fish play it all the time.

Most kayakers are proud of the minimal footprint we leave on the environment. We shun fossil fuels and we don't burn trails across seagrass meadows.

But we can do better. We should also be setting the standards for other fishermen when it comes to the survival rates of the fish we release.

What's the first thing anglers do with a fish already stressed to the limit? We drag it over the gunnel where it can't breathe. Gotta know how big it is? Out comes the measuring board while we fumble around the kayak for the camera, or worse yet, the lip gripper with the built-in scale.

Australian senior fisheries biologist Alf Hogan's unofficial observations raised some of the first widespread concerns regarding the suspending of fish vertically by the lower jaw. Hogan captured 50 large barramundi—Australia's version of our snook—as breeding stock and, because scientists like to measure things, hung the fish by the lower jaw to ascertain weight for his records. Each and every fish subsequently died. The replacement fish, on the other hand, achieved a 100 percent survival rate. Why? They were weighed in a horizontal position, supported by a net sling. X-rays on the dead fish revealed spines stretched by as much as an inch, damaged jaws and tongues, and internal organs askew.

How much do fish weigh? Nothing, as long as they're under water.

That changes when we yank them into our world. Unlike mammals, birds or other creatures that live on land, fish lack the internal support structure to hold vital organs in place. They don't need one, as they live in a zero gravity environment. Hang fish vertically, and organs slosh right to the bottom of the body cavity.

Lip grippers are effective tools for controlling fish in the water, but should not be used for lifting fish intended for release. Bring fish out of the water horizontally, supported underneath by your hands, and not before the camera is ready. Take a shot or two, and put her back where she can breathe, pointed into the current to keep oxygen flowing over the gills. That is especially true in the summer; hot water and low oxygen content are a lethal combination to already stressed fish. Weight-measuring slings are available commercially if you really, really have to know. Anything that makes releases quicker and minimizes physical damage—crushing hook barbs, replacing trebles with single hooks—gives fish a better shot at recovery. If you drive a pedal kayak, tow fish around until they signal they're ready to swim on their own.

The bigger and older the fish, the less abuse it will tolerate. I know your mother taught you to respect senior citizens. Yet, the Internet is full of grinning anglers with some trout they claim weighed 8.2 pounds or whatever. That elderly female was obviously hung with a lip gripper, its chances of creating new millions of progeny needlessly endangered.

Even if the ethics don't matter, what's the point of scales and measuring boards?

You know you're gonna lie about how big the fish was anyway.