This is topic that I really wanted to cover. The excessive heat experienced throughout the country this summer has spawned a lot of discussion among muskie anglers (and anglers of other species as well) regarding the mortality of big fish released in high temps and rough conditions.

If you’ve read any of my works over the years, you know … and may bored with it by now – of my stressing the basics. One thing I’ve mentioned, that has also been stated by fisheries experts Michael Butler and Rod Ramsell, is that the “stressors” to fish during release are additive.

For instance, let’s say a fish was hooked deeply, requiring hook-cutting and was a little tangled in the net, had a minor tear in a gill arch from a hook while twisting, some slime wiped off from angler’s clothing during hold for a photo, was out of the water for about 45 seconds for that photo and then had to deal with flopping around in waves (wind and big water) while angler attempts to revive her over the side of the boat. It happens like this quite often really.

It’s likely that none of these factors alone would result in mortality. But they are additive, and if one thing goes really wrong, or a bunch of “little” things go wrong, often, it will result in immediate or delayed mortality. The one huge additive factor is time. Minimizing the time the fish is in possession is huge. The “time” of the fight is a big factor. We don’t want the fish totally exhausted before the release process starts (and that’s why lighter tackle, for sport, is not recommended for muskie angling). And there can be extra time getting hooks out (cutters are “quicker”), getting cameras ready, getting a hold, holding … time adds up (odd, but I seem to notice this more with age).

Heat, or water temperature, is the other basic, but very important factor I’ve mentioned often. Now, I’m thinking it deserves even more emphasis than I’ve given it. A couple things have happened in the past that have me thinking of this now, mainly that we have had such a hot summer – one that pushed surface temperatures into the 80’s (extended periods) which is simply not common here in the northern latitudes.

The heat this summer has been talked about quite a bit amongst muskie-folk – on the phone certainly, and on website forums and social media. The reason it came up a lot, is because people were having some bad experiences. Oh, it stays somewhat “hush, hush” as no one enjoys it really – or really wants to talk about having a questionable release or a definite loss of a fish. But that’s the reason it comes up when the water gets hot. Fish die … some barely swim away … and conscientious anglers wonder.

I become more convinced every year that the water temperature factor is huge! In the “example” I provided above – add to that scenario – water surface temperatures 75 degrees or higher. Nothing absolutely certain, but “very” good odds that fish doesn’t survive. Take the same scenario with 60 degree or less in surface temperature and the fish very likely survives. And, take the same scenario with 45 degree temperatures and (no excuse to delay things) frankly; I’d be completely unconcerned for the fish even if there was nearly a minute out of water.

That’s my honest take these days. It’s based on my personal experiences and that of others I speak with.

Here’s a key example of where my own experience has come from: It was the summer of 1995. I was still guiding in those days, and was booked heavily. It was a miserable deal all the way around for me. There were several fairly long periods where the surface temperatures were in the low 80’s. Of course the fishing wasn’t great. Lots of time after dark, uncomfortable more often than not … few fish caught comparatively. But frankly, that was the good news.

Long story short, I kept guiding because I was booked and I wanted/needed the money. While I only know for certain that one fish died (after “long” revival, fish finally swam away … wind remained absent … as I drove by with new clients the next day – there it was, floating), I expect there were more. You could simply tell by the way the fish were reacting and “looking” in general at the end of a fight and release. Not good. For my clients, I was desperate to get some action … but then when we finally hooked one, I was secretly hoping it would wiggle-off at boat side.

While obviously the best thing to do, would have been to have quit fishing, I did find myself adopting a no-photo (unless in-water) policy with clients. I’d warn them prior, and if they agreed we’d go (to folks’ credit, I recall no one canceling a trip). I was very glad when it (heat) was over.

I’m guessing there have been similar effects this summer. For esox anglers, the lines are gray, but as water temperatures climb into the mid seventy degree range and beyond, if angling, I believe that a barbless hook policy with no lifting from the water – to be the most responsible way to handle release under these conditions. Minimize any time and handling stressors. And, boy, if it gets in the eighties, it’s time to consider not fishing.

There have been many cases where it seems anglers will ignore “common sense” (I know I have. And I try not to these days). My plea here is that we re-accept the basic principles and values of common sense – as they apply to fisheries and life.

Editors Note:
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by Pete Maina