Creel counts on popular lakes often show more fish being caught and harvested during the ice fishing portion of the year than during the open water fishing period. I’ve seen those statistics several times. I’ve never seen any statistics about the number of fish caught and released by ice anglers. My considered opinion is far more fish caught during the open water season are released than fish caught through the ice.
I’m sure there are some ice-fish released; some because fishing regulations require releasing them, some for the same reasons open-water caught fish are released. However, due to the “pain” involved with ice fishing, most hard-water anglers are out there for one reason — to fill their frying pans. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s up to the DNR fish managers to set seasons and or limits to allow ice fishing to remain a sustainable activity.
Of course, there are pain-free ways to ice fish and many anglers consider methods used to catch fish through the ice just as challenging and/or satisfying as open water fishing. There’s no reason not to responsibly catch and release fish pulled through a hole in the ice. Or is there?
There have been hundreds of peer reviewed research projects examining the effects of catch and release angling on dozens of species of fish. The results show similar results across the board. How well fish recover and/or survive being caught and released always includes the amount of time a fish is out of the water and how the fish is handled as major factors, along with hooking damage as important factors.
There are a few other mitigating circumstances affecting post-release fish health. Among them, and often quite significant, is the temperature of the air when the fish is out of the water and the water temperature into which the fish is returned. For the most part, the warmer the air and the warmer the water, the worse the outcome of being caught and released for a fish.
So if C&R is easier on a fish in a cool time of the year than in the heat of the summer, what happens in the coldest part of the year? Does survivability continue to increase as air and water temperatures plummet; does it level off at some time, or does damage or death actually begin to increase for C&R fish in ice fishing conditions?
A few fisheries researchers have attempted to measure this and answer these questions. Direct results are mixed.
Of course, under the ice, the water temperature is never going to be very warm – usually in the 30s in most lakes and of course, never less than 32 degrees. Survival differences of released fish was negligible based on water temperature only. What was surprising was how the temperature of the water correlated to how long a fish could tolerate being out of the water. Apparently, a cold fish can “hold its breath” slightly longer as water temperatures declined. “Slightly” means it will be okay for enough time to snap an extra photo or two, not a few extra minutes. Summer or winter, any fish destined to be released should be freed as quickly as possible.
At air temperatures near or above freezing, little damage occurred to gill tissues, regardless of how long the fish was out of the water. However, in extremely cold (below zero, Farenheit) temperatures, gill tissues begin to freeze in less than 30 seconds. Frozen tissue in a fish, especially in a sensitive organ such as gills is very damaging.
The results so far show the same cautions for anglers wanting to practice catch and release during the warm, open water months are just as important for ice anglers. Catch and release can be a viable conservation technique but just as minimizing the length of time the fish is out of the water is important in any season, so is how the fish is hooked and handled.
Other factors ice anglers planning to release some or most of their catch could include fishing with artificial lures instead of live bait. Ice fishers wanting to use live bait can reduce hooking mortality by using barbless hooks, single hooks instead of trebles as well as circle hooks instead of conventional, J-hooks.