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SPORTS WEEKEND | THE OUTDOORS

Bait-and-Switch Can Be a Real Lifesaver in Fishing

March 09, 2001|PETE THOMAS

Seven weeks from today, U.S. 395 becomes the fish-fry express.

Thousands of anglers will be making their way north to take part in the annual bash that is the Eastern Sierra general trout season opener. The next morning, tens of thousands of rainbow trout will come out of the drink and land on the fire.

The fortunate ones will be thrown back by conservation-minded anglers. But are they really that fortunate? Will they recover or merely flounder around before their ordeal gets the best of them?

Studies conducted over the years generally have concluded that trout caught on artificial flies and lures experience a lower mortality rate after their release. This is widely accepted and comes as no surprise.

However, another study was carried out last summer and fall at June Lake, hoping "to see if recent bait, tackle and technique innovations would allow bait anglers to join artificial lure anglers in the catch-and-release fraternity."

The results were released this week and, it seems, bait anglers can release their fish and expect them to live, at least until someone else catches them, if they do the right things.

The 13-page study, conducted by fisheries scientist Tom Jenkins, Friends of Sierra Trout and the city of Bishop, involved catching hundreds of trout using various methods and observing them in pens for various lengths of time. Among the findings:

* Barbless artificial flies, to no surprise, lodged most frequently in the mouths of the fish. The mortality rate was nil.

* Circle-C hooks, with in-turned barbs and rounded configurations designed to hook fish in the mouth for easier releases, lodged in the mouth 70% of the time. However, those hooked in the esophagus did not fare well after the hooks were removed, suffering a 27% mortality rate. Of those, 77% died within five days. The mortality rate was substantially lower when deeply lodged hooks were left in and the line cut. Overall, fish caught on "circle" hooks suffered almost a 9% mortality rate.

* Standard "J" hooks lodged in the esophagus 65% of the time and, surprisingly, none of 150 fish hooked in the mouth or esophagus perished during a minimum observation period of three weeks. However, "their high incidence of deep hooking and the possibility of long-term damage warrants caution at this time." Trout caught on J hooks experienced slower growth than those caught on other hooks, suggesting their feeding habits were affected.

* Treble hooks lodged in the esophagus 63% of the time and the hooks were not removed. The mortality rate was only 2%, but since they too are ingested more often than not, their use by catch-and-release anglers is not recommended. If they are used and the hook is beyond the outer mouth area, the line should be cut.

* Another hook involved in the study was the little-known Shelton Release hook, which "is equally [effective as artificial flies] for catch-and-release fishing in a typical Eastern Sierra lake."

Manufactured by Bay Area real estate broker Bill Shelton, Shelton hooks are designed with the eye on the outside of the curved portion of the hook, a movable sleeve that fits over the shaft and a separate "tag line" attached to the sleeve. In essence, you reel in your fish, pull the sleeve forward with the tag line and tug on the main line and the hook exits the flesh the same way it entered. It sounds complicated and cumbersome, but those who have used it say otherwise.

Shelton hooks were studied extensively because of "the promise" they show and the overall mortality rate was less than 2% despite a high ratio of ingestion. When the fish were released without being handled--by the tug of the line--only two of 300 died over a period of two months in captivity.

Results of the study, paid for through a $25,000 rural development grant from the U.S. Forest Service, were released, as intended, in advance of the April 28 onslaught in hopes of reducing angler impact during the season.

"It just leaves more fish for everyone else," says John Frederickson, a spokesman for Friends of Sierra Trout and the concessionaire at June Lake. "You can't go digging down in their throats with [pliers or hemostats] and expect them to live. This study points out that if you use certain techniques with bait and follow certain guidelines, you can let your fish go and expect a low mortality rate."

*

How are things shaping up for the opener?

"We'll be open, but all this late weather isn't helping," Frederickson said Tuesday afternoon, in the middle of yet another snowstorm. "When it all comes in March like this you lose those days when it should be melting."

Frederickson said residents on and around the June Lake scenic loop have spent the week trying to keep snow from piling too high on the roofs of mostly older buildings and keep boats and other equipment in outside storage from being buried. The blanket is five feet thick, with drifts to seven feet.

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