Skip to main content

Florida

Saltwater Fishing

Return 'Em Right

Return ‘Em Right to Help Released Deep-Water Fish Survive

When reeling up fish from deep water, you might notice some have bulging eyes, a bloated belly, protruding intestines, or their stomach coming out of the mouth. These “floaters” have barotrauma, or injuries caused by pressure changes when they are rapidly brought to the surface from deep water.

If your fish needs to be released, it is important to help them get back down to the bottom quickly, so they have a chance to survive and be caught another day.

Properly using descending devices or venting tools can help fish overcome barotrauma injuries. It takes a little practice to learn how to use these correctly, but research shows they can greatly increase the long-term survival of released deep-water fish.

Most descending devices attach to a fish’s mouth and use weights to take fish back down to depth. A lip clamp descending device clips onto the fish’s bottom jaw, while an inverted hook descending device slides through the fish’s lip, ideally in the hole made by the hook. You can also use a fish elevator, such as a crate, box or net with weights that is turned upside-down, to return fish to the bottom.

Be sure to have descending gear ready for use before your fishing trip when fishing in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic Ocean. You can attach the device and weights to a heavy-duty rod and reel designated for descending or use a rope to handline the device and weights down and back up. A good goal is to use one pound of weight for every five pounds of fish being descended. Use a combination of loop knots, swivels, snaps, clips, etc. to attach the weights and device to your line. Be able to quickly and easily add or remove weights as needed, based on the size of the fish being descended and the water conditions. Unless you use a pressure-sensor device that releases fish automatically, you’ll need to jig your device to release the fish once the weights have brought it back down to depth.

Venting is an alternative to descending but is only effective if done correctly with a proper hollow-tubed instrument piercing the side of the fish at a 40° angle, approximately two to three inches behind the base of the pectoral fin, to allow air to escape from the swim bladder. Do not puncture the fish’s stomach or intestines if they are coming out of the fish.

Be aware of gear regulations for best fishing practices in the area you are fishing. Download the Fish Rules app to stay updated on these regulations and more. Visit the reef fish gear webpage at MyFWC.com/ReefFishGear to view gear rules. Learn about best fishing practices at MyFWC.com/FishHandling. Visit ReturnEmRight.org to learn more and see if you are eligible for free descending gear.

A. Designated rod and reel with descending device and weights.

B. Rigged descending device with weight.

C. Active descent of red snapper with lip clamp descending device and 3-pound weight.

A. Inverted hook descending device through lower jaw of the fish that needs to be descended.

B. Alternative inverted hook descending device through the hole made by a circle hook.

C. Hollow tip venting tool at a 40° angle, placed behind the base of the pectoral fin.

Photos: Return 'Em Right