Educational course

Return ‘Em Right: Free Educational Course in Reef Fishing and Gea


There are several methods available to help a fish return to the bottom and increase its chances of survival. Pictured is a lip-grip style descender that automatically opens at a set depth.

A phenomenon you’ve probably witnessed if you’ve done a lot of bottom fishing is when a fish brought to the surface arrives with its stomach forced out of its mouth. Efforts to release the fish, whether because they are not the legal size or the target species, are followed by the fish floating to die, unable to return to the bottom. It’s hard to watch as an avid fisherman.

fish with barotrauma
When a fish is brought to the surface quickly, changes in pressure cause an expansion of gases which distends its organs. Here you can see the fish’s stomach protruding from its mouth due to barotrauma.

So what makes a fish float to the surface? This effect is the result of barotrauma, a condition in which gases inside a fish expand when rolled up from depth and, like a balloon inside the fish, prevent it from go back deep. The bubble protruding from the mouth is not the swim bladder, rather it is the stomach which is forced inside by the expanding bladder inside the fish. You should never pop the stomach to deflate it, as this will only cause further injury and still not allow the fish to descend.

Why is it important to ensure that a fish can reach the bottom with minimal damage? The obvious answer is to promote stable fish stocks. Size and catch limits are in place to maintain a healthy and sustainable fishery and a fish that returns only to float and die is a wasted resource. Not only is this irresponsible, it is unethical. Catch and release is only a prudent measure if the fish we release live to grow, spawn and be caught again. Finally, it is now a legal requirement (the DESCEND Act) for anyone bottom fishing in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico to have a vent tool or descent device attached to a line with an appropriate weight rigged and ready to use. Similar regulations require descent devices to be rigged and ready for use in federal waters in the South Atlantic.

how to fan a fish
Venting can be used to puncture the swim bladder, but it is prone to inaccuracies and harms the fish. The descent is a much safer option.

There are several methods available to help a fish return to the bottom and increase its chances of survival. Manual deflation of the swim bladder with a venting tool is allowed, but requires you to puncture the side of the fish with a hollow needle and enter the bladder letting excess gas escape. This can be problematic and often results in more unnecessary injury to the fish, if not done correctly. A more practical solution for the majority of anglers is the use of sinkers, which are weighted devices that bring fish back to depth allowing them to recompress on the descent.

how to use a fish descender
Manual pin descenders can safely bring in catches with a simple upward reel to release fish at depth.

There are a variety of effective lowering devices that are generally grouped into three styles: reverse hooks, lip clips, and weighted boxes/baskets (you can also create your own for each type!). The simplest of the three are reverse hooks, such as Roy’s Fish Saver, SeaQualizer’s SeaYaLater, and Shelton Fish Descender. These are barbless hooks or reverse pins that you poke through the same hole the hook made or through the soft tissue under the lower jaw and drive the fish back down. Once the fish has reached the desired depth, you simply reel it in and the fish slides off the hook.

seaqualizer descender
SeaQualizer with adjustable depth can release a fish at a precise depth. Simply set the depth you want the device to open and drop the lipped fish down.

The lip clip style comes in two different forms, the most recognized being the SeaQualizer. This pressure release device looks like a Boga Grip type lip clamp that attaches to a fish’s lower jaw and automatically releases at the set depth (30′- 300′ depending on model). Similar to reverse hooks, the device is attached to your fishing line and used in combination with a heavy weight to sink the fish. Fish should be down to at least half the catch depth, however, bringing fish as close to the bottom as possible is good practice so fish can find structure and avoid predators.

As our population grows, it is vital for fishermen to take steps to avoid unnecessary waste of any resource when it is within our means to prevent it. The moral obligation should outweigh the legal obligation to do so.

Free education and equipment: sign up!

how to release fish with barotrauma
Manual or depth-triggered descent devices can be combined with a weight to safely lower catches to depth. Gulf Coast reef anglers can receive these devices after completing a 15-minute barotrauma class with Return ‘Em Right.

In an effort to promote responsible release practices and ensure the sustainability of the Gulf of Mexico reef fish population, the Return ‘Em Right program was launched to offer assistance in educating the fishing public about proper fish handling and how to safely and effectively return fish to the bottom. Not only does the program provide anglers with the knowledge to successfully release reef fish, it also provides the free tools to do so.

Return ‘Em Right offers anglers in the Gulf of Mexico the opportunity to register for their 15-minute online review of best practices at At the end of the training, Return ‘Em Right will send you a free set of equipment needed to improve the survival of the released reef fish. The kit includes two sinkers, a sinker and all the tools you’ll need to bring the fish back to the bottom safely. This is exceptional value (over $100 retail value) and an excellent measure to ensure your release practices support current and future reef fish health. FS

Florida Sportsman Magazine April 2022

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