TWIN FALLS – Researchers with stopwatches and binoculars watched 282 anglers catch and release a trout.
Their mission: the first study of how long anglers expose live fish to the air before releasing them, said leader Tony Lamansky, a senior fisheries research biologist in the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Nampa research office.
The answer: 26 seconds on average.
“I think it’s pretty good, really. You know, when you’re touching a fish, you have to hook it, you have to reel it in, and you have to let it go,” Lamansky said. The majority of studies show there’s substantially no mortality for fish that are exposed to air for less than 30 seconds, he said.
The take-home message, Lamansky said, is that most anglers’ time exposing fish doesn’t cause more stress than other aspects of catch-and-release fishing — such as the hook, the fight time or using a net with knots.
Twenty-six seconds brought a different reaction from Chad Chorney.
“That’s way too long. I think that’s definitely too long,” said Chorney, Big Wood River project manager for Trout Unlimited. He didn’t speak for the national nonprofit, just as an angler with a degree in fisheries biology.
“The best answer is not to expose them to air at all, if you really want the best answer,” he said.
For anglers who want to photograph the catch, Chorney advocates getting out the camera, setting exposure and aperture and making lighting and position decisions before ever lifting the fish from the water. Up to 5 seconds’ air exposure for a photo probably isn’t detrimental to a trout, he said.
If angler Don Morishita of Twin Falls wants a photo, he tries to keep the time out of water to less than 10 seconds.
His observation on southern Idaho anglers in general?
“Those anglers who are catching fish and releasing them for the most part do it quite quickly — as quickly as possible — and understand that fish are quite vulnerable when they’re out of the water,” said Morishita, a member of the Magic Valley Fly Fishers board.
But until now, nobody knew the numbers.
For their data, Lamansky and other Fish and Game employees from early June to mid-October 2014 observed anglers catching and releasing various trout species in five water bodies: the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon, Silver Creek near Picabo, Horsethief Reservoir in western Idaho, and Chesterfield Reservoir and Henrys Lake in eastern Idaho.
Researchers didn’t make contact with the anglers.
“We just sat and watched,” Lamansky said. “We never had anybody really ask what was going on.”
A road runs beside the Owyhee River, so researchers might sit in a truck and watch out the window with binoculars. At Henrys Lake, one cliff gave their spotting scopes a view of most of the lake.
To prevent an individual from biasing the estimates, observers moved on to another angler after watching a single catch and release. If an angler held the trout out of water more than once, observers recorded only the longest period.
Lamansky said 96 percent of all anglers exposed fish to air for 60 seconds or less.
Fly anglers on average exposed fish for less time than bait or lure anglers, his research noted. Those who landed the trout with their hands exposed the fish for a shorter time than those using nets. While photography didn’t change the averages much, smaller fish were exposed for a shorter time than larger fish because the big ones are harder to hold and handle.
But all of those differences between group averages were on the order of only eight or 12 seconds, Lamansky said.
His research paper, “Air Exposure Time of Trout Release by Anglers during Catch and Release,” is nearing completion. He intends to submit it in May for potential publication in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management. Fish and Game will present the work at the annual meeting of the American Fisheries Society in August.
The motivation for this science was defense.
Kevin Meyer, principal fisheries research biologist for Fish and Game’s Nampa research office, last year predicted the study would squelch concerns that someone might push Idaho to outlaw catch-and-release fishing.
The debate on fish welfare is hot, Lamansky said last week. Angler groups have asked Idaho fishery managers for regulations to prohibit taking fish out of water before release.
The Oregon-based Native Fish Society promotes a “Keep ‘Em Wet” campaign and photo contest. Other fly fishermen on social media are using the #keepemwet hashtag.
Fish and Game’s “2013-2015 Fishing Seasons and Rules” publication lists practices for anglers to reduce fish stress and increase survival after release. Those include leaving the fish in the water while removing the hook. “Hold the fish out of the water only as long as it takes to take a picture,” the book instructs anglers.