Righteous returns

In football, the quarterback has the option of holding onto the ball in what is sometimes called a "keeper." Fishermen can't always make that call themselves, as size, season and bag limits dictate whether your catch is eligible for the cooler.

On a recent trip in Sarasota Bay, I watched Capt. Rick Grassett and Doug Ford of C.B. Outfitters send legal-sized snook and speckled trout back to the water. Both are edible species of high regard, but both are currently out of season (snook statewide, trout in the South Region).

Our trip also yielded keeper-size pompano and Spanish mackerel and one of each went home in my cooler. But even without these alternative species, honoring the closed seasons helps keep our inshore fisheries in healthy shape.

One of the best fishery management moves the State of Florida ever made was to eliminate the harvest of "trophy" snook. Current regulations limit linesider harvest to fish between 28 and 32 inches on the Atlantic Coast and 28 to 33 in the Gulf of Mexico, Monroe County and Everglades National Park.

The food value of smaller "slot" fish is better than the big snook. Also, trophy size fish are almost invariably female and these large snook will make lots of little snooklets in their lifetime. Letting these big gals live keeps the genes of an experienced fish moving through the population.

Like many conservation-minded recreationals, Grassett follows a self-imposed regulation: "I usually ask my clients to release trout over 20 inches."

Same logic as with snook  a trout that lives long enough to merit the "big" title will pass along her genetic wisdom to the next generation. Therefore, releasing fish is as much about perpetuating the fishery we enjoy as it is about simple legalistic adherence.

However, just dropping a fish back into the water isn't enough. Safe and effective release requires careful thought before and after the catch. Here's a few tips to get these seasonally protected fish back on their way safely.

Handle with care

Avoid touching the eyes or gills, as these sensitive areas are easily injured. Also, avoid rubbing away the fish's protective slime coating, which helps protect against infections.

For best results, use a damp towel or a fish gripping glove to establish a firm hold on either the jaw, or for toothy fish, the outer gill covers. Prep the cameras and posing areas before the fish hits the deck and you'll minimize its dry time.

If you lift a larger fish, hold it with one hand near the head and the other near the tail. Avoid squeezing the delicate abdomen area.

Gear up

Catching big fish on light tackle is great for the angler's ego, but potentially disastrous for a released fish. Extended fights can exhaust a fish and thereby prolong its vulnerability to sharks, dolphins and other opportunistic predators.

The larger species have to eat too, and when they catch a meal fair and square, then that's just nature doing its thing. However, when predators target released fish that are too tired to escape, that's an unfair advantage that upsets the balance of the food chain.

Use tackle that is sufficient for catching your fish in a reasonable amount of time and you're opponent will have a better chance of swimming away in good shape.

Resucitation required

If your fish appears tired, support it in the water with both hands to give it a rest. Move the fish back and forth to force oxygenated water across the gills. Hold toothy fish like trout under the chin and grip toothless species like snook by the lower jaw. A revived fish will kick off on its own, and if the fish stalls, a light thump on the tail usually gets it going.

Snook are unique in that a revived linesider will clamp down on your thumb like a baby sucking a pacifier when they're just about ready to go.

Keeping legal fish for dinner is the right of all licensed anglers. However, those that must be released should return to the water in the best condition possible. A little care now means more fish to catch later.

Editor's note: David A. Brown has a B.A. in journalism from the University of South Florida and you can see his work in Florida Sportsman, FLWOutdoors.com, Cabela's Outfitter Journal, TIDE, In-Fisherman, Louisiana Sportsman, The St. Petersburg Times and Saltwater Angler. He also ghost-wrote and published "Fish Smart Catch More!" for Tampa's cable TV host Capt. Bill Miller (www.billmiller.com) and a couple more publishing projects will be docking soon. He operates a professional writing/marketing agency, Tight Line Communications.