If you like to picture yourself as a humane fisherman, you must carry the equipment to unhook catches quickly, cleanly and with a good chance of returning fish to the water unharmed.
Of the many tackle items that the angler will invest in, disgorgers, gags, forceps and pliers will be the cheapest, most essential, and generally the most easily mislaid. These simple pieces of equipment enable him to remove a deeply embedded hook and are vital to fish life and fisherman alike. They are important time savers too. There is a bewildering array on sale. Despite their usefulness, the, angler should be aware that, in many situations, these tools only become necessary because of bad fishing techniques and that deep-hooking can often be avoided.
Of course there are times when a fish bolts the bait with such speed that throat or cheek hooking is unavoidable, but many such cases could be avoided if proper attention were paid to the rod, with the angler close at hand and not several yards away from it. A small hook is another cause of deephooking.
A rank barb—one that protrudes too far from the body of the hook—can cause further disgorging problems, and each hook that is tied to the line should be inspected and a few strokes of a file or sharpening stone used to remove excess metal. Badly tempered or soft hooks that straighten under pressure can also present difficulties: a few seconds should be spent in examining hooks. Reject any that distort when flexed against the thumb nail.
It is in the realm of pike fishing where most unnecessary disgorging is seen. Reasons for it include bad timing of the strike (’give him a few seconds more to make sure he has really taken it’), and the use of fancy dead-bait rigs that are reminiscent of gorge tackle.
If all these precautions have been observed and the angler is still presented with a deeply hooked fish, quick action with the correct unhooking aid will prevent a death.
Many anglers wrongly believe that one type of disgorger will release a hook from any fish. At least two types will be required depending on where the hook has lodged and on the type of hook being used. Where the hook is deep inside the mouth, but still visible, then the straightforward flattened ‘V-shaped disgorger, with a long handle, may be used to ease the barb back through the skin. Where the hook is deep and cannot be seen, a disgorger with some sort of loop or ring will be ‘necessary. This can be slid down the line to the bend of the hook.
Several of the ring and guide types are available, but most fail in practice either because they do not slip easily onto the line, or more generally because they jam at the eye or spade of the hook. Only one type will slide onto the line and ride easily onto the bend of the hook, and that is the simplest design of them all—the open wire loop or ‘pigtail’.
Simply sliding the disgorger down the line and blindly stabbing with it will, in many instances, push the barb further into the flesh. The easiest method—and the safest for the fish—is to support the creature with one hand gently but firmly behind the gills. If it is too large, lay it along the bank with the head raised against a tackle box or rod handle. Hold taut the line leading into the mouth, put the disgorger onto the line, slide it down and ease it over the eye or spade of the hook and onto the bend. Press directly downwards until the hook moves freely and withdraw from the mouth—still supported in the disgorger—taking special care not to catch it against the tongue.
The disgorger is ridiculously easy to lose, but there are two things you can do to reduce the number that you mislay. One is to tie the handle by a piece of thin, strong line to your jacket lapel or through a buttonhole. The other is to paint the whole object either bright red or yellow, preferably with luminous paint. This also makes the business end easier to see inside a fishes mouth.
A lost disgorger can be replaced, in an emergency, by a small, forked twig or a twig into which a groove has been cut or filed.
Within the last few years, medical artery forceps have become popular as a means of releasing a deeply-embedded hook, and several firms have produced them specifically for the angler. They are useful, but like most pieces of equipment, they have their limitations.
Some fish have a relatively small mouth opening even though the actual mouth cavity is quite large. The width of a pair of forceps, particularly when they are open, can block the view of the mouth, and if they are opened widely, can cause actual damage. It is all too easy to grasp a portion of flesh, together with the hook, and tear it in the process of unhooking. For fish with bony or leathery mouths, therefore, artery forceps are an efficient means of freeing most hooks. Even so, the very large treble hooks used, for ex-ample in pike fishing, need a lot of leverage, and forceps are not always adequate. Choose a pair with strong, long handles and a fine nose that can grip very small hooks.
Pliers are infinitely better for removing treble hooks than either forceps or disgorgers—even the king-sized, foot-long models sold as ‘pike disgorgers’. Obviously, those with a long and narrow nose are best, and stainless metal preferable to cheap tools that rust. There is at least one pair on the market that are especially designed for this heavy work on large and ‘toothy’ fish.
Like disgorgers, forceps are best tied to the jacket with a length of line and not clipped on to a lapel.
These are usually thought of as pike disgorging aids, and there is no doubt that they beome essential where large pike have been deeply hooked. But their use is not appropriate with small fish. In fact, considerable damage can be caused to both mouth and tongue where gags are forced and stretched into immature mouths. That gag is a simple, safety-pin-style piece of sprung steel that, when opened, will hold the jaws of a pike apart. This enables the angler to use two hands to remove the hook without fear of the mouth closing and damaging a finger. Small ones are useless—and big ones brutal. Six inches is about right, and the first thing you should do is to crimp one of the loops on the keeper that holds the gag closed. This prevents the gag springing open at the wrong moment.
Next, the prongs at the jaws— those parts that are actually going to be pushed inside the pike’s mouth—should be filed down until they are completely round, then either covered with pieces of plastic sleeving or bound round with electrician’s tape until well padded.
When used correctly on a fish, the two protected prongs on the gag are wedged against the hard ridge of teeth just inside the upper and lower jaw—not into the outer lip, or halfway down the throat. By keeping them in the centre maximum space will be created through which a disgorger can be operated.
Where hooks are well down towards the throat area in a pike, a careful approach can always be made through the gill openings, avoiding the actual gills themselves.
Where hooks are well down in the entrance to the stomach, great care is needed, and rather than pull and push against the soft skin, it is better to use a pair of pliers to crush the barb to withdraw it easily.
Some kinds of fish are more prone to swallowing hooks than others; worst are small perch and large bream. The small perch can sometimes be a greedy feeder and baits intended for bigger fish disap-pear well down its gullet. A 6in perch can completely swallow a 3in worm. Before trying to unhook, try a careful exploratory feel with the disgorger and if the hook is too deep to be retrieved without damaging the fish, snip off the line as near to the hook as possible. If this is done, there will be few fatalities, whereas a perch that has had a disgorger poked around its throat almost always dies within minutes.
Very much the same applies to bream. Bites don’t always register until the fish has completely gorged itself and, by then, the hook is so deep that the only way to prevent damage is to snip off the line.
The flesh of the fish may well heal over wound and hook alike and the body acids gradually destroy the metal. If it is not bleeding badly when you return it, a fish will almost always survive perfectly well.