Handle With Care : The tools and skills for safely handling and releasing muskies.
So you've done it, your hours of hard work have paid off! That new custom lure from wbmuskyshop.com helped you put the musky of your dreams in the net.
But then it hits you.... You've got a big toothy critter with a giant hook piercing it's face; it's thrashing and bashing just over the gunnel of your boat. Then, just as the adrenaline begins to fade, you find your self asking, "what do I do now?"
First, take a deep breath an compose yourself. Next, realize that this is where our role as a musky fisherman quickly shifts to that of an EMT and conservationist.
Tools of the Trade
To do any job properly, like releasing a musky, you need the right tools.
The items on this list are non-negotiable, full stop period.
If you don't have these items on board, things can go south rather quickly, not only for the musky in your net, but also for yourself. Growing up with a father that was not only a musky angler; but also a doctor, I could bore you to tears with all the horror stories of people showing up to our cabin with musky related injuries. Deep lacerations, gushing puncture wounds and torn flesh are just a few of the less critical injuries that can occur. Some of these unfortunate injuries can definitely be "trip-enders" that would require professional medical attention.
So the first step of a safe release is to protect yourself with a proper pair of gloves.
I personally use abrasion resistant rubber gloves. These offer not only protection from removing hooks, but will also defend your hands against gnashing teeth and sharp gills. Clean non-absorbent gloves also minimizes any damage to a muskies slime coat reducing the chances of skin legions and infections from being handled.
2. Jaw Spreaders
Jaw spreaders are a rarely needed, but a critical item to have on hand. This simple tool holds the mouth of a musky open allowing for quick and safe removal of deep set hooks. Spreaders can do additional damage to the mouth of the fish and should only be used when hooks are inaccessible using other tools.
3. Long Nose Pliers
A good set of long nose pliers with an extended handle are simply the best tool for releasing a musky. The extended handle not only keeps the fish and hooks away from your hands and face, but also allows the leverage need to twist out large hooks. In most cases a good set of long nose pliers are all you will need to cleanly release a musky.
4. Bolt Cutters
I can not stress the importance of hand held bolt cutters enough.
Bolt cutters minimize jaw damage for the muskies and risk of personal injury. Having these out and ready to use at all times is important in the event that you or a boat partner is accidentally hooked in the net. Some of the of the worst injuries I have seen as a guide are when a fishermen is hooked in the net and connected to a thrashing fish.
Musky in the Net ! How to remove the hooks, handle and release your muskie.
Every guide has their own way of doing things but this is the status quo on my boat.
My focus is on the safety of myself, my guide clients and the fish.
1. Cut the Cord
Once a musky hits my net I immediately cut the line or leader which ever is easiest to safely grab. This will keep the musky from tangling in any loose line and also will remove the rod from the equation preventing any damage.
2. Remove or Cut the Hooks
Deciding whether to pull out or cut the hooks is made on a case by case basis. More often than not I simply cut the hooks as it minimizes stress and damage to the fish. But if a musky is cleanly hooked on a single barb, I will grab the long nose pliers and simply back the barb out.
Please keep in mind, inexpensive replacement hooks are easy to come but trophy muskies are not. Also note, if you must cut the hooks be sure to remove all parts of the hook from the fish.
3. The Pre Boat Prep
Once the hooks and the lure are removed from the net, it's time get you trophy musky in the boat right? No not just yet.... Now that the fish is free in the net and under water catching it's breath it's time for a little prep. Take a moment to make sure that your boat partner has the bump board or measuring device prepared and the camera is out and ready to go. Making sure these items are ready will minimize the time that the muskie is out of the water thus helping it's recovery time and survival rates. Please note bump boards, rulers and measuring tapes should wet when used. DO NOT put a musky on a dry bump board that's been laying in the hot sun all day.
4. Lift and Hold
A lot has been written about how to properly hold and lift a musky, most of which is highly debated and often contradicts itself on many fronts. I am not interested in jumping down the never ending rabbit hole of what some think is right and wrong. I personally recommend focusing on a firm grip and a hold that supports the entirety of the fish as much as possible. When lifting a musky out of the net I will often cradle the belly of larger fish to alleviate the strain on the head and jaws. I don't think there is a perfect lift or hold as the act of removing a fish from water always carries with it the potential of a negative impact. So I simply advise fishermen to use common sense and support the weight of the fish as mush as possible through all phases of handling and measuring.
5. The Release
So you have quickly measured and taken photos of your prized catch and it's time for the release. Begin by carefully lowering the fish back into the water, while supporting it's belly and holding the tail. Muskies seem to loose their equilibrium and need to be held upright to gather their bearings. Please note DO NOT push muskies back and forth in the water while attempting to release them. Simply support the completely submerged fish while gently holding the tail.
When they are ready to go they will let you know with a flick of their tail as they dart off.
Attention !!!! Larger fish and any musky caught in warmer water temps can take a long time to release. Never, I repeat Never give up on a fish, stay as long as it takes for that fish to swim away under it's own power.
Being a conservationist is part of being a musky angler, so always have the tools and skills needed to properly release muskies every time you hit the water.
Musky Guide 1-615-440-3237
Tennessee Musky State Record Holder