On of the keys to Minnesota's rise to one of the top states in the Muskie world is due to catch and release. Minnesota has been very pro-active in managing the muskie and leading the way in regulations that require the catch be released to fight again. Last year my friend Chris Dolan emailed me a photo of a fat 51" beauty he caught that had identical spots and scars to a 49.5" fish I caught two years before in the same area assuring me it was/is the same fish. Perhaps a few other anglers have been able to enjoy the catch and release of this same fish as well in the past few years also. This is the key to keeping our fisheries productive.
Successfull release reguires more than just putting the fish back in the water when you are done with it, and a fish that swims away after much resusitation may die later and that can be avoided, here is how to do it right and insure the sports future.
First you need a few tools to do the job right: a large landing net with treated mesh, long handled pliers or similar, a tool suitable for cutting hook shanks and or barbs and protective gloves. And of course your camera to record the moment.
First the net, a large net with fin friendly treated mesh is critical for dealing with large fish, after the fish is netted keep the fish in the water to start it towards 100% recovery right away. It is not uncomon for the fish to literally un-hook itself while in the net as it gains a measure of leverage when the lures hooks catch in the mesh. If this does not happen many times hooks can be simply popped out while the fish sits in the net using a long handles pliers or similar extraction tool. If the fish is hooked with more than one hook or the barbs are punched thru it can be desireable to cut hook shanks to facilitate an easier release. In this case a small bolt cutter is invaluable, I use the industry standard made by Knippex available in most hardcore muskie shops. With these cutters I can easily cut off the tips of hooks making extraction very easy...in addition if I happen to get attached to a thrashing fish I want to cut that connection as quickly as possible.....this is not the time for dime store wire clippers. Gloves are recomended to protect your hands from gill raker cuts and or an errant hook or tooth getting under your skin. Addition tools that can prove usefull at times are jaw spreaders and a tool called the "Hook Pick" which works well on baits that have been deeply ingested.
Once the hooks are removed the fish can simply rest and recover in your large mesh livewell (net) alongside your boat while you get your camera ready....assuming you are taking one. If you are alone a self timing camera or video camera on a small portable tripod work well...one other option is to use a clamp on spotting scope style mount to hold your camera steady. When you are ready to remove the fish for a photo get a good grip just under the outer gill plate locking your thumb in the soft area just below the lower jawbone....commonly known as "the Leech Lake lip lock". Lift the fish out of the water for the photo using care to support the entire fish as you pull it up not just using the head to lift the fish as the spine on a fish is simply not designed for this type of stress. In this same vein vertical holds where the entire fish is suspended by the jaw are undesirable and can cause damage to the fish. A better option is a horizontal or semi-vertical hold where the belly of the fish is supported as well. The important thing is to limit time out of the water and reduce contact to dry surfaces which remove the fishes protective slime. Your trophy which took around 7 years to reach 36" or so and quite a few more to reach the magical four foot plus range cannot breath out of water and will quickly run out of oxygen when removed from it so keep this time SHORT. A quick photo and perhaps a measurement can be done in no more than 15-30 seconds. Measuring boards and floating ruler sticks make that little job quick and can even be done in the water at boatside....don't worry about getting it down to the last 1/8" inch your experience will be no different for it. Again keeping the fish in the water is the most important thing here and cannot be stressed enough. A fish that is brought aboard, unhooked in the bottom of the boat and then held for pictures is unlikely to survive long...even if it swims away.
Place the fish back in the water and simply hold it's tail until it is ready to swim away. You can rock the fish gently from side to side but moving the fish forward and backwards is un-needed and actually undesireable as the gills are not designed to work in reverse...also if the boat is drifting or current is flowing make sure the fish faces into the direction of travel or into the current for the same reason. If the fish stays on the surface (common) for a few minutes stay with it so boat traffic does not injure or kill it.... it will usually dive back into the depths in a minute or two...sometimes after a light touch with a rod tip.
The future of our sport is in our hands (literally) as you improve as a Muskie angler your handling of the increasing numbers of fish you catch can directly impact the waters you fish....so do it right and reap the rewards. I'm looking forward to catching the fish Chris and I caught once each already in a summer or two when it hits 53".
Remember....unlike a trophy buck muskies don't get big by being smart...they get big when we let them go.