A long-standing debate among catch and release anglers of Esox involves the merits of horizontal holds versus vertical holds for the traditional pre-release photograph. Those favoring the vertical hold correctly state that in the scientific literature, there is no documentation of harm associated with hanging a large esocid intended for release, vertically by the jaw or operculum (gill plate).
Do fish handled in this manner suffer a greater likelihood of injury or delayed mortality?
Decades ago, as a student of fish anatomy, I thought the answer was a matter of common sense. The narrow symphysis connecting the lower mandibles seemed poorly designed to withstand the shearing force of a heavy, struggling pike or muskellunge. It also seemed that hanging a big fish vertically from a single hand under the operculum could injure vital tissues associated with respiration and feeding. The alternative of holding a large fish horizontally and providing support from two hands just seemed like common sense. A few years ago, I was getting so many questions about this from anglers that I set out to see just how common this sense was.
First, I solicited comments from researchers who routinely handled big muskies or pike. Among them were: Bernard Lebeau, Ed Crossman, Terry Margenau, Rod Ramsell, Bob Strand, Steve LaPan, and Arunas Liskauskas. Specifically, I asked these and other experts to comment on the risk of injury to larger (25 pounds or more) fish arising from being vertically suspended from the jaw.
While each of the muskellunge management professionals drew from a unique set of experiences, all were outspoken in recommending against the single-handed, vertical suspension of larger fish, as they felt this increased the likelihood of mechanical injury to the fish. Some-Rod Ramsell, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and Steve LaPan, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation-provided accounts of injuries or delayed mortality for muskellunge subjected to this kind of handling. As well, all emphasized minimizing out-of-water time, and some, a well-supported horizontal hold, if a photograph was necessary.
I should add that whenever the subject of best release practices came up in conversation with Dr. Crossman, he invariably cited an article, The Muskie Stress Factor, written by Muskies, Inc. member Rich Zebleckis, published in Muskie Magazine (Vol. 20, No. 9, pp. 11-12, 1986). The piece included a questionnaire and a scoring system that enabled the reader to assess the potential stress associated with each component (fight duration, de-hooking, handling time and methods, number and style of hooks, etc) of the catch and release process. Dr. Crossman appreciated the effective manner in which the article conveyed the ideas that (1) the stresses incurred by a fish through the C & R experience are additive, and (2), like the manner chosen to hold the fish, these individual stressors are largely under the control of the angler.