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October 26, 2007

Tips for safely releasing adult red drum

The increasing popularity of recreational fishing in S.C. demands effective conservation practices to ensure healthy fish populations. When fishing for adult red drum in coastal waters, important steps taken can minimize fishing mortality after a prized catch.

The current regulations for red drum are such that anglers can catch no more than 3 per person per day, at a size of 15 inches total length or greater and equal to or less than 23 inches total lengthRed drum release maximum.  After red drum grow and reach sexual maturity, by age 4, they join the spawning population found in coastal waters, grow very slowly and reach 25 to 50 pounds in weight. Most adult red drum that are caught fall outside of the legal parameters for keeping this species, and anglers, either through legal requirement or fishing preference, release these large fish back into the water.

Recently, S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has received reports of adult fish caught in deep water in coastal inlets floating at the surface after being released.  Coming up from greater depths inflates the air bladder and puts the fish in peril until the bladder purges air allowing the fish to swim normally.

When releasing the fish back into the water, doing so headfirst helps to expel this excess air.  A fish that has been stressed can be revived by gently moving it forward to promote water flow over the gills.  Once their tail enters the water, typically they have enough propulsion they need to survive and reach the greater depths again. Some anglers are trained in a technique called venting, which involves releasing the gas from an overinflated swim bladder with a hollow, sharpened steel-venting tool. This technique effectively releases pressure and allows the fish to overcome buoyancy problems. Anglers wishing to be trained in proper venting techniques should contact DNR at (843) 953-9300.

Using appropriate fishing tackle, practicing safe-handling techniques and carefully releasing the fish back into the water are helpful steps that can minimize mortality after these large fish have been released. DNR biologists have conducted important catch and release studies on the recreationally important red drum. The research provides insight on most effective tackle to use to minimize mortality of a fish. 

DNR biologists found through this research that fishing with non-offset circle hooks was the most efficient and effective type of hook to use to minimize mortality of the fish after it is released. With over 95% of the adult red drum caught using circle hooks during this study, the hooks were set in the mouth or lips. Because of their unique design, circle hooks almost always hook fish in the mouth, whereas other hooks are more likely to hook fish in the gut or gills. Fish hooked in the gut or gills will often die of internal injuries to vital organs that are sustained during capture.

Additionally, DNR suggests that the practice of using heavier test line can reduce landing time and assist with the safe release of adult red drum back into the water. Appropriate tackle for minimizing adult red drum mortality following release is at least a 20-pound test line and a medium weight rod. Using light fishing tackle and fighting the fish on the line for an extended period of time can stress the fish and increase the chance of death once released back into the water.  This is especially important during the summer months when water temperatures are at their maximum.

If removed from the water, returning the fish as quickly as possible minimizes stress and damage that may incur. It is best not to remove the fish from the water when possible, to reduce the chance of mortality.

DNR protects and manages South Carolina’s natural resources by making wise and balanced decisions for the benefit of the state’s natural resources and its people.

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