Release your catch—safely.
That we need government to require dehookers on reef fishing trips is absurd, given that we’ve always had handy pliers or disgorgers to retrieve hooks from spiky, toothy critters caught far from shore. Still, it’s worth pointing out that state and federal fishing regulations for both the Gulf and Atlantic sides of Florida now dictate that we carry appropriate tools for extricating hooks when targeting reef fish—which includes snappers, amberjacks and groupers.
Somewhat confusing is that only on the Gulf side are reef fishermen obligated to carry venting tools—the hollow needles which may be used to purge gases from bottom fish.
Regardless of what you’re targeting, you can make the whole dehooking operation a lot simpler by: one, using circle hooks (a requirement in ocean reef fisheries); or two, reducing the barbs on hooks and lures. If you reduce the barb, either with a few strokes of a file or by squeezing it lightly with pliers, you’ll find it’s far easier to get out once a fish is caught—and in fact, on larger hooks, you’ll actually get more solid hookups because a big barb is hard to sink.
With a single-hook lure and reduced barb sunk in the forward part of the jaw, you can usually pop the hook out with your fingers, or with standard fishermen’s pliers. With soft-mouthed fish, this can often be done without even touching the fish; simply grasp the hook, turn it upside down (so that the point faces the water) and give it a shake; the fish will usually fall off, which gives it a much better chance of survival than if you grip and squeeze.
But as you add more hooks and as the lure or bait goes deeper down the throat, you need more instruments for the process to have a happy ending.
For toothy and aggressive fish—blues and mangrove snappers–I want a tool that keeps my fingers well clear of the danger zone.
If you’re fishing live bait on a single hook, one of the classic “fish flippers” is all you need; this is a T-handled stainless rod with an open loop in the lower end that can catch the line and then be run down over the hook to the bend. You then raise up on the bend of the hook and let the weight of the fish pull itself off—the same principle is at work with the small tools used to remove sardines or other baitfish from sabiki rigs. ARC makes the flippers in all sizes up to 34 inches long, and Berkley has one suitable for reef fish, as well as bass, seatrout and most inshore fish.
Long-nosed pliers are also favorites with many anglers, and they work great so long as the hook is not too far down the throat. Because you have to start fitting the grips inside the mouth for a deep dehooking, most pliers are not effective in this situation. Surgical forceps have a good reach but most are not strong enough for use in anything beyond panfish hooks.
Tube-type dehookers have squeeze-grips that lock a latching device onto the hook shank. These have a lot of reach, allow you to put on a lot of pressure when needed, and give good visibility down the throat. I’ve personally used the Bill Dance Dehooker for years and wouldn’t leave the dock without it. Rapala makes some good ones too, in 6-inch and 9-inch versions.
With large and durable fish, it’s often possible to slip pliers or gripper in through the gill cover, between the gills, and grab a jig or single hook, then carefully draw it out far enough to clip the line. You have to retie, of course, but the fish survives to grow and fight another day.
Whatever tool you use, just remember the fish isn’t getting much oxygen while the procedure is underway so make it snappy and don’t hesitate to dip the victim in the water and let it recover if the extraction takes longer than expected. This is one reason why billfish anglers are pretty much in agreement over cutting the leader.
And of course for bottom fish, you may have to complete the surgery by venting them to allow them to get back to bottom. Venting tools like the Team Marine Pre-Vent quickly release gases and give the fish a much better chance of survival—again, remember that some sort of venting device is required when fishing for the reef species in the Gulf. Also receiving attention from anglers these days are the recompression devices which incorporate jaws and a spring-release, to carry fish down to their original depth and atmospheric pressure. Studies show these may be more effective than venting tools. FS