Scorpion Fishes - How to release these and other poisonous or sharptooth fishes

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"Scorpion Fishes - How to release these and other poisonous or sharptooth fishes"

with Barry M. Thornton

Some years ago while salmon drift fishing in Johnstone Strait, I hooked a small China rockfish, about four pounds, with the Perkins lure I was using. This was not an uncommon experience but, what happened next changed my whole approach to releasing bottomfish.

After bringing the rockfish to the boat I found that only one of the treble hooks was caught in the fish's lip. In haste and frustration, for I wanted to get my lure out in the water again for salmon, I picked up the fish, by holding onto the lure, and gave the lure a vigorous shake to dislodge the hook. It was a serious mistake! It seemed that the fish shook and I shook at the same moment and the next thing I knew the sharp poisonous dorsal spines had sunk into the fleshy palm of my right hand. The pain was excruciating! I dropped on my knees in the bottom of the boat and vomited over the side it was so intense. Then I thrust my now bleeding hand in the cold waters and simply curled over the gunnel as I waited for the pain to recede. It was a long fifteen minutes before I could even speak coherently to my partner who was showing deep concern. Later, while we drifted in a slow backeddy with the stimulant of hot coffee, he told me I had turned chalky white from the obvious shock the pain had inflicted on my system. It was a valuable lesson, I had been careless and impatient, and, I was determined to find a better way to release these poison spined fish.

Rockfish belong to the scientific fish family 'scorpaeidae', the Scorpion fishes, a name which should be a warning in itself. As a species they are distinguished by large broad heads and heavily-spined fins. They have a large mouth and look like freshwater bass, but, don't try the 'bassmasters' lip hold to free your hook. I tried this in my searching experiments and found they have sharp fine teeth and a bony jaw, and, I required a number of band-aides from the slashes on my thumb.

Rockfish have spines - many many sharp poisonous spines! As a species their single dorsal fin has between 11 and 17 long strong spines; the anal fin has three strong spines; each other fin has one long spine; and, the head has over 20 sharp short protruding spines. In all, the rockfish is a formidable yet passive adversary for all predators.

The solution to a controlled release, I soon discovered, uses the natural defensive posture of the fish. While not 'fail-safe', it now allows me to quickly and safely release 9 of 10 rockfish hooked.

When a rockfish is threatened by a predator it erects its defensive spines and assumes a rigid posture. Most predators, upon seeing the erect spines, swim away for they know that it will be very difficult and dangerous to swallow the rockfish as the stiff spines will puncture the throat and stomach. As well, most predators are also allergic to the poisons of the 'scorpion' fishes.

When an angler touches a hooked rockfish it will instinctively assume a rigid posture with erect spines. Once it has taken this rigid stance I hold the rockfish is the one area that it does not have spines, the belly. As the photo shows; using a FIRM grip, hold the rockfish on the belly, fingers under (or, holding down) the pectoral fin. You will be amazed at how easy and safe it is to then release your hook with pliers. I recommend pliers simply because it is quicker.

Bottomfish on the Pacific coast include a vast variety of ocean fishes. The most common on the west coast are the rockfish which number 36 distinct species. Bottomfish include everything from staghorn sculpins (small bullheads) to cabezon (giant bullheads some weighing up to twenty pounds), and, from ling cod and greenling, to the various flatfish like Pacific halibut and soles. All have varying methods of defense whether it be coloration or body armour. Except for the scorpion fishes few have any mechanism (except teeth) that can be called dangerous.

While the dogfish can not be called a bottomfish they too are difficult to unhook and release. Dogfish have rigid dangerous spines in front of their two dorsal fins - hence their name "Spiny Dogfish". In many cases, particularly when drift fishing, dogfish are snagged rather than hooked in the mouth. I have been fortunate (?) to have hooked thousands of dogfish while drift fishing and have even targeted these fish with my flies with much success on a slooowww retrieve. I now use the following simple release technique. I will play the mudshark out, then, grab it by the tail and hold it high so I can use my pliers to take out the hook. While the dogfish may twist when it is held up, it is powerless to use the dorsal spines, or, it's mouth. Another solution I often use is to change my treble hooks to single hooks when I am fishing waters with dogfish. The single hook rarely snags dogfish while drift fishing, and, if it does, I simply cut my leader below my lure or, cut the hook ring with my pliers, leaving the hook on the fish to rust and fall away.

We are most fortunate to have a vast variety of Pacific ocean fishes in our British Columbia waters. They can provide some exciting fishing and need only be handled carefully and firmly to be released.

"The End"

© Copyright Barry M. Thornton

Barry M. Thornton

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Scorpion Fishes - How to release these and other poisonous or sharptooth fishes