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September 21, 2007

Tool to Be Kind

A new dehooker makes releasing fish a snap.


Slip the ARC Dehooker onto the line, then slide it down to catch the bend in the hook.
Photo: Gary Caputi

Anglers who practice catch-and-release should do all they can to make sure the fish has the best chance to survive. Regardless of the reason why a fish is released, the big question is: Will the fish live?

A dead fish floating in the ocean does just as little for the health of the stock as one that is taken to the dock and thrown in the trash.

A dehooking tool, such as the one from Aquatic Release Conservation (ARC), can improve the survival chances of released fish.

The original concept came from Shawn Dick, president of ARC, and his brother, Jess, a retired commercial shark fisherman who abhorred the bycatch problems associated with the fishery. The brothers began kicking around design ideas for a tool that would improve the survivability rate. The two figured that the practice of leaving any hooks in fish was bad, and felt later studies by the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences confirmed their suspicions -hooks left in fish do not corrode quickly enough, and can impede feeding and cause infection, often fatally.

Dick also found that taking fish out of the water and handling them creates additional stress and often wipes off some of the protective slime that guards against bacterial infection and disease, further reducing chances of survival.

A Better Bend
The way to help anglers was to properly equip them. They needed a tool that could remove all hooks -from those reached easily to those embedded deep in the mouth, throat or stomach -with minimal handling and, in most cases, without having to take the fish out of the water.

All models of the ARC Dehooker feature a stainless-steel shaft that ends with a compound curve and a pigtail. The T-handle models are designed for a person to use alone and come in five sizes to correspond to fish and hook size.

To use the ARC Dehooker, the angler plays the fish within netting range, grabs the line in his left hand, drops the rod and takes the dehooker in his right hand with the end of the pigtail facing up. Then he reaches out with the tool and pulls it back toward him against the line, which slips inside the pigtail. (See "Turn for the Better" on page 90).

The angler turns the dehooker a quarter-turn to the right so the palm of his hand faces up and the line is inside the circle of the pigtail. He then slides the dehooker down the line until it bottoms out. It is now on the bend of the hook. The angler then brings the line in his left hand parallel to the shaft of the tool and pushes down on the T-handle with a "punching" motion -the amount of force varies with the size and style of hook, the size of the fish and the dehooker model used. The hook will pop out of the fish and immediately be hooked inside the compound curves of the pigtail so it cannot hook the fish again. The dehooker shields the hook point after removal. The soft curves of the dehooker do not harm the fish. Use it like an old-fashioned hook remover when a fish is hooked along the forward edge of the mouth.

Cool Tool
To develop the dehooker, Dick worked in cooperation with scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), who eventually reviewed the final design. Dick also developed models that could be used by commercial longliners to remove hooks from endangered sea turtles. The program was successful, and special ARC Dehookers are required on all domestic pelagic longline vessels. But Dick is a recreational fisherman and wants anglers everywhere to recognize that his tools can help reduce mortality in recreational fisheries. Many models in the line cost no more than a new plug or trolling lure.

"We wanted to create a tool that would be as simple and indestructible as a hammer," said Dick. "And one that could be used by any fisherman with a little practice."

I was initially introduced to Dick a few months ago by Jim Donofrio, the executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA). Donofrio had met Dick at meetings of NMFS and the International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas and was impressed with his conservation efforts and his device. The RFA has entered into a strategic partnership with ARC to get the word out about the device.

Out of the Box
I first tried the Dehooker on a trip to ARC's offices in Daytona Beach, Florida, which included two days of fishing. I was given basic instructions on the use of the dehooker.

Anglers must learn how to handle fish hooked in different ways.

I got a feel for the tool by sticking hooks in a cardboard box and then removing them with the dehooker. For practice, Dick stuck a hook inside a long, narrow box and closed the top with tape, leaving only a tiny opening and no way for me to see the hook. This test mimicked the hook removal from deep within a large fish -and helped me learn how it feels.

After releasing plenty of cardboard boxes, Shawn declared that

I was ready for real fish. The next morning we went out on Mosquito Lagoon with Captain Rodney Smith. Smith deftly unhooked one trout after another using the 161/2-inch Sportsman model without touching or taking the fish out of the water.

I've since used the various models on red snapper, weakfish, stripers, summer flounder and schoolie bluefin, and feel I've released them all in good condition. I've used the offshore model with an eight-foot extension handle to release yellowfin tuna and plan to try it on sharks soon.

In one instance, I removed an 8/0 Gamakatsu hook that was lodged so far inside a 35-pound striper that all

I could see was the line going into its stomach. I had to take the fish out of the water and run the dehooker into the stomach before it bottomed out on the hook. But it came out on the first try without seeming to cause additional damage or rehooking the fish along the way. That bass swam away with enough spunk to splash me with a strong kick of its tail, but it sure looked fine doing it.

For information on the ARC Dehooker, call (877) 411-4272 or visit www.dehooker4arc.com.