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Fish care is important when considering winter catch, release

Local anglers recently venturing out on the slush laden lakes are experiencing varying degrees of success.

Several consecutive days of sub-zero temperatures did little to remedy flooding ice and fishing action has been mediocre. Most lakes now support snowmobile and four-wheeler traffic, while some adventurous anglers have driven small vehicles out on certain bodies of water. Even so, no ice is ever safe and people should exhibit extreme caution before traveling onto the lake.

Because the snow accumulated so quickly following most lakes initial freeze, fish had little time to adapt to the changing environment. Although water temperatures remain fairly consistent throughout winter, especially in comparison to three other seasons of fluctuating surface temperatures, light becomes an influential factor upon fish activity.

Since snow and ice impede sunlight penetration, fish have less ambient light below to locate forage. This also impacts plant growth and causes many weeds to gradually die as the season progresses. The decomposition causes certain fish to periodically relocate during the winter.

As you experience the highs and lows of angling activity now and throughout the ice season, fish care becomes a priority.

Anglers focused on keeping a few fish can simply toss their catch onto the ice and it solidifies in a few minutes. However, filleting frozen fish can be difficult. That is, if you catch enough for a meal. Anticipating a good day of fishing and actually experiencing success is sometimes a lopsided endeavor.

Some anglers leave their fish on the ice for a while, then deciding there's not enough to warrant the emergence of a fillet knife, throw them back into the lake. Though the fish may initially swim away, delayed mortality can be an issue. Frostbitten or frozen fins and gills are injuriously fatal and extended periods out of the water can negatively affect the fish's central nervous system.

Another issue arises as fish writhe and flop on the ice and snow or inside a 5-gallon bucket with other fish. The abrasion caused by these situations removes the protective slime so imperative to fish survival. Yet a couple solutions permit anglers to preliminarily keep a few fish and still have a release option if their success is sub-par.

First, Today's Tackle's Ice Well is a 7-inch diameter, 33-inch deep mesh bag that fits inside any 8- or 10-inch ice hole. A foam ring at the opening keeps the bag afloat, allowing anglers to place their catch inside the system.

A second simple solution is a bucket or cooler of water with an aerator. Such aerators are available at any local retailer that sells fishing supplies. Running on batteries, the small mechanism provides much needed oxygen for the fish. Pricing starts at about $6 and are great for keeping minnows alive too.

The best option, however, is to decide upon your intentions to keep or release fish before actually venturing out on the ice. Catching a fish causes a certain level of stress to fish, but retaining it can add to that strain. Minimizing this effect raises the likelihood for survival and subsequent reproduction.