Fish University 301-2: Reviving and Releasing Billfish


There might be no greater thrill in life than fighting a big fish for an hour or more, bring it to the boat to view it in all of its glory, then voluntarily letting it go to live another day.   As an angler who has never fished commercially, I love to see a fish that I could have taken at the end of a fight and watching it swim away.  When it happens, I feel like I have done my part to contribute to the health and future of the fishery, both from a biological and from a political standpoint, and I get a great deal of satisfaction out of it. 

In Hawaii, however, many anglers don’t feel the same way about releasing a fish.  Many anglers use the fish for money or to feed their extended families.  I find it sad that some people will criticize an angler for taking a fish for that purpose, because none of the meat goes to waste and it’s the culture that these people were raised under.   And perhaps more importantly, no matter what is written or said about Hawaii in the magazines, as of the year 2000, Hawaii remains considered a stable fishery that is not overfished, containing a healthy stock of pelagic predators.

The leaderman prepares to leader the marlin as it approaches the boat just off the stern corner

The leaderman prepares to leader the marlin as it approaches the boat just off the stern corner

But to move away from the political aspects and moral judgments one must make in arriving at the decision to release or take a fish, this article is about the nuts and bolts of going about releasing a fish if the team of anglers on board has decided this is the plan of action.

The crew must prepare for the final disposition of a fish well in advance and make sure the tools are all ready, thus giving them the ability to either take or release the fish when it’s the right time to make the decision.  This means the boat will need a series of gaffs, a tag stick, a pair of cutters, a knife and gloves for everyone that might handle the fish. 

Assuming everyone on board agrees that a Billfish will be released if appropriate and one is on the line, how does a team go about the release?  One of the first steps is to decide if the fish is a solid candidate for a release, meaning it has a good chance to survive.

Since all Marlin are different, it is difficult to generalize what fish are candidates for release and which ones are not.  Sometimes a fish comes to the boat in no time, is docile, then swims away after release without a hitch.  Sometimes a fish will put up a horrendous fight, make a final death dive straight below the boat, and come up tail-wrapped stone dead.  And there’s everything in between.

First, there should be someone on board that keeps a time log of the fight itself.  Notations on the time of hookup, number of jumps, approximate yardage and number of runs, and time the fish comes to the boat are all factors to consider when deciding to release a fish.   The more effort a fish expends during the fight, generally the more tired it will be.  And the more tired the fish, the longer it might take to revive, if it can be revived at all.

As the fight continues, look at the color of the fish, the movement in the fins, and the look in its eye.  When the fish comes to the boat, re-check these indicators.  A lethargic fish isn’t necessarily a dead one, and a rambunctious fish isn’t necessarily going to survive.  Look at the eye with the fish near the boat.  If it is looking down and back, say on angle toward the anal fin, this is a sign the fish is in poor health.  The color, if it is steel gray, is another indicator of poor health.   The smaller fins should have some movement, some form of slight wiggle, even if the tail doesn’t move much.  These would be indicators that oxygen in the blood is still flowing to the after sections of the fish, meaning it hasn’t completely spent itself in the fight.

If the color is bright, the eye is moving and the fins show movement as the fish gently follows along, chances are it is a good candidate for a release.  

Notice the tag stick in the holder and ready

Notice the tag stick in the holder and ready

Everyone on board needs to be aware that a live Marlin at the back of the boat, docile or thrashing around, is like a bomb ready to explode, and preparation is crucial.  The angler should remain in the chair with the drag backed off enough to allow the fish to run without either snapping the line form the shock load or causing a bird’s nest on the reel.  Generally, this would mean a pound or two of drag, and thus if the fish does run again, the angler can ease the drag back to the fighting position and carry on the battle. 

The angler also needs to be aware of exactly where the line leads to the fish to make sure the slack leader and line isn’t wrapped around a leg or a gaff, tag stick, etc.  This is crucial, because if the fish comes to life at the wrong time and there is loose line wrapped around something, a flying projectile, be it a human body or other item, will be the net result. 

As the angler nears the end of the fight and the swivel and leader are accessible, the skipper keeps the boat in a relatively neutral posture.  Bumping port and starboard into gear as required to keep the line off the back of the boat and allowing the angler the easiest fight possible, once the leader is in hand the approach changes.  Now it’s the job of the skipper to make sure the fish does not get forward of the transom.  This might mean one engine in gear or both.  It might mean throttling forward.   Whatever it takes to stay in front of the fish so it can be brought to the boat under control should be done.  

In a perfect world, the team would watch as the fish lays on one side or the other at about 50 feet, then bring the fish to the side of the boat that leaves the dorsal fin away from the side of the boat.  In other words, if the fish lays on it’s left side, bring it to port.  Sometimes it’s not possible to do this, so that’s why I made reference to the perfect world. 

Having the fish on one side or the other helps greatly in controlling it for the simple reason that the tail is nowhere near as effective as if it was vertical.  Now, with the fish on one side or another and the boat moving forward, the leaderman can draw the fish to the boat.

The leaderman has the job of bringing the fish’s bill to within grabbing range, at which time he takes the bill into a gloved hand, taking the pressure off the leader.  If the hook comes out with relative ease, it can be set down inside the cockpit, disconnecting the fish from the line.  If the hook is wrapped around the bill or embedded into the jaw (or foulhooked), the leaderman should slide a pair of cutters down the line and clip the line as close to the hook as possible.  

The Tagman, with bill in hand, eases pressure from the leader in order to remove the hook

The Tagman, with bill in hand, eases pressure
from the leader in order to remove the hook

The trick is to get the line and the fish disconnected as soon as possible for safety of the crew.   Once the fish is disconnected, the chance of injury is greatly reduced.

In addition to handling the boat, the skipper needs to keep an eye on everything.  His vision of the cockpit is important, as he might see things others can’t and make clear commands on what needs to be fixed.  “Joe, move the stick gaff into the cabin” is a much better command than “someone get that gaff out of the way.”

By this point, the fish should be free of the line.  This is the safest time to insert a tag and take the photos, though in tournaments most teams will insert the tag in right away to claim their points.  If there are no tags to insert and the fish is just going to be released, this is still a great time to take photos to evidence the catch.

The leaderman, still with the bill in hand, should never let go until the fish is ready to depart.   Photos are great, but now the survival of the fish should be on the team’s mind.  If the boat stopped for the photos, the leaderman should now instruct the skipper to put one or both engines in gear and get some water flowing through the fish’s mouth.  Speed up the boat to where it’s fast enough to flow water through the fish, yet not so fast the leaderman can’t hang on to the bill.

Next, with the boat moving forward, the leaderman, and if there’s room a second mate, should have both hands on the bill and try to roll the fish vertical.  Since this is done off the side of the boat and not the back, the use of a boat hook on the dorsal fin to align the fish will even help if needed.  The pectoral fins and the tail will plane, and guiding the fish to its vertical position will greatly enhance the fish’s recovery time.

With the fish in tow, hopefully vertically, drag it along until you start to see more color come back, more movement in the tail, and more ambition coming back to the fish.  Keep hanging on at this point, as the fish will soon be ready.  The fish will gradually add more kick, the entire body will flex, and soon, it will give some kind of violent jerk and tear itself away from the leaderman.

The Marlin is free from the line and the Leaderman is ready to help rotate the Marlin vertical to help revive it before release

The Marlin is free from the line and the Leaderman is ready
to help rotate the Marlin vertical to help revive it before release

If the fish comes to the boat thrashing and giving you the “windshield wiper” treatment, the challenge is greater.  Constant, steady pressure on the leader is necessary, and if the hook is set well inside the jaw, the leaderman can apply more pressure.  More speed from the boat as the leaderman hangs onto the leader will help, and the idea here is to get the fish onto its side where it has less ability to thrash around.  Care and good judgment are crucial here, as these fish don’t realize you are trying to let them go…..they are still mad that you snagged them and they are beside the boat in the first place. 

In rougher seas, the whole process should be done working down sea to minimize boat movement, giving everyone a better chance to do their jobs.  Because a power boat has a tendency to turn beam-to in windier conditions, the skipper should work the engines in and out of gear as necessary to keep the stern to the wind.

Once the fish has regained its color, thrashed around, and kicked away, a solid, healthy fish will generally swim away aggressively, sometimes down, sometimes away, but in strong kicks.   A still tired fish will sometimes hang around at the back of the boat, acting lethargic, and then slip below the surface.  So long as the fish remains vertical as it slips below the surface, it has a good chance of survival.  A fish that most likely isn’t going to survive will flip back over with the belly up and the eye down.   This fish should ultimately be backed up to and taken; not wasted on feeding the sharks. 

Like humans, the most important element of life (i.e. food, drink and air) that a fish requires after a long exertion is air.  They don’t breathe out of water at all, and just like an Olympic Sprinter that applies a tourniquet to his neck after a race, a Marlin needs to breathe.  Simply clipping the line isn’t enough, and the majority of fish that end up as “floaters” after a battle with rod and reel were clipped off without any attempt to rescuscitate it. 

Releasing fish is a wonderful and powerful experience, moving to even those who have done it once or a hundred times.  Seeing a wonderful creature like a Marlin up close and personal is a privilege, something not everyone will witness in their lifetime.  To give that fish back its life, to live another day, could be an anglers greatest thrill in response to having been afforded that privilege.

Sportfish Hawaii urges all anglers to set your own reasonable limit and let a few fish go now and again.