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Return 'Em Right: Free Reef Fishing Educational Course & Gear

Improve fisheries, fulfill new regulations: Get the tips and gear to reduce bottom fish mortality.

reef fishing permit requirements
There are multiple methods available to aid a fish in returning to the bottom and increase its chance of survival. Pictured here is the a lip-grip style descender that automatically opens at a set depth.

A phenomenon you’ve likely witnessed if you’ve done much bottom fishing is when a fish brought to the surface arrives with its stomach forced outside of its mouth. Efforts to release the fish whether because it’s not of legal size or the target species are followed by the fish floating off to die, unable to return to the bottom. It’s hard to watch as an avid angler.

fish with barotrauma
When a fish is brought to the surface quickly, pressure changes cause gases to expand which distends their organs. Here you can see the fishes stomach protruding from its mouth due to barotrauma.

So, what makes a fish float away on the surface? This effect is a result of barotrauma, a condition where gases inside a fish expand when reeled up from depth and like a balloon inside the fish, prevents it from returning to depth. The bubble protruding from the mouth isn’t the swim bladder, rather it’s the stomach being forced inside out by the expanding bladder inside the fish. You should never pop the stomach to deflate it since this only causes further injury and still won’t allow the fish to descend.

Why is it important to see to it that a fish is able to reach the bottom with minimal harm? The obvious answer is to promote stable fish stocks. Size and bag limits are in place to maintain a healthy, sustainable fishery and a fish returned only to float away and die is a wasted resource. Not only is this irresponsible, it’s unethical. Catch and release is only a conservative measure if the fish we release live to grow, spawn and be caught again. Lastly, it’s now a legal requirement (the DESCEND Act) for anyone bottom fishing in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico to have a venting tool or descending device attached to a line with appropriate weight rigged and ready to use. A similar regulation requires descending devices to be rigged and ready to use in federal waters of the South Atlantic.

how to vent a fish
Venting can be used to pierce the swim bladder, but is prone to inaccuracy and harms the fish. Descending is a much safer option.

There are multiple methods available to aid a fish in returning to the bottom and increase its chance of survival. Manual deflation of the swim bladder with a venting tool is allowable but requires you to pierce the fish’s side with a hollow needle and penetrate the bladder letting excess gas escape. This can be problematic and often results in more unnecessary injury to the fish, if done improperly. A more practical solution for the majority of anglers is the use of descending devices, which are weighted devices that bring fish back to depth allowing them to recompress upon descent.

how to use a fish descender
Manual pin descenders can safely return catches with a simple upward reel to release the fish at depth.

There are a variety of effective descending devices that are broadly grouped into three styles: inverted hooks, lip clamps and weighted crates/baskets (you can make your own of each type, too!). The simplest of the three are inverted hooks, such as Roy’s Fish Saver, SeaQualizer’s SeaYaLater, and the Shelton Fish Descender. These are barbless inverted hooks or pins that you pierce through the same hole the hook made or through the soft tissue under the lower jaw and send the fish back down. Once the fish reaches your desired depth, you simply reel in and the fish slides off the hook.

seaqualizer descender
Adjustable-depth SeaQualizer can release a fish at a precise depth. Simply set the depth you want the device to open at and drop the lipped fish down.

The lip-clamp style comes in a couple of different forms with the most recognized being the SeaQualizer. This pressure-released device resembles a Boga Grip type lip clamp that attaches to the lower jaw of a fish and releases automatically at the set depth (30'- 300' depending on model). In the same fashion as the inverted hooks,the device is tied to your fishing line and used in combination with a heavy weight to descend the fish. Fish should be descended to at least half the capture depth, however, returning fish as close to the bottom as possible is a good practice so fish can find structure and avoid predators.

As our population increases, it’s vital for anglers to take measures to avoid unnecessary wasting of any resource when it’s within our means to prevent it. The moral obligation should outpace the legal requirement to do so.

Free Education & Gear: Sign Up! 

how to release fish with barotrauma
Manual or depth-triggered descending devices can be paired with a weight to safely return catches to depth. Gulf Coast reef anglers can receive these devices after completing a 15 minute barotrauma education course with Return 'Em Right.

In an effort to promote responsible release practices and ensure sustainability of the Gulf of Mexico’s reef fish population, the Return ’Em Right program has been launched to offer assistance in educating the fishing public about the proper handling of fish and how to safely and effectively return fish to the bottom. Not only is the program providing the knowledge for anglers to successfully release reef fish, but they are providing the tools for free to do so.

Return ’Em Right offers Gulf of Mexico anglers the opportunity to register for their 15-minute online review of best practices at Upon completion of the training, Return 'Em Right will send a package to you, free of charge, of gear necessary to improve survival of released reef fish. The kit includes two descending devices, lead, and all of the tools you’ll need to safely return fish to the bottom. This is an exceptional value (over $100 retail value) and an excellent measure to ensure that your release practices support the current and future health of reef fish. FS

Florida Sportsman Magazine April 2022

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