Catch and Release in Boat Matches

Shore matches recommendations for ‘catch and release’ cannot be applied to boat matches as there are fundamental differences between the 2 branches of angling, as follows:

  • Boats tend to be extremely crowded and usually not a calm and stable platform in which to work. The concept of using 8 or more buckets of sea water is obviously a non-starter.
  • Bearing in mind that there is usually no shelter from the weather, spray or even frequent dollops of sea water for most competitors, the use of individual score cards is impractical. Even waterproof cards would get blown over the side, trampled under foot and smudged, damaged in a variety of ways and be a source of constant dispute.
  • The use of a length based scoring system is unlikely to be acceptable due to the greater variety in the size of fish caught in boat matches. Should 4 or 5 Garfish or Dogfish beat a 60lb Conger? The practicalities of accurately measuring the length of each fish, particularly in one of the more hectic situations, are problematic.

Considering the different aspects of catch and release under various headings, it must be remembered that to some extent they are inter-related and that a recommendation adopted under one heading may influence which recommendations are seriously considered under another heading.

Treatment of the fish

This aspect is the crux of catch and release. There is absolutely no point in making arrangements for a catch and release system if a significant proportion of the fish caught do not survive. It is an unfortunate fact that a higher percentage of fish will die in boat competitions than in shore matches due to the adverse effect of the greater change in pressure. Having accepted this, there are still things which can be done to reduce the number of dead fish whilst still keeping the competition as a meaningful test of skill and ability. First, consider how the fish caught are treated. Secondly, and more controversially, consider reducing the number of fish caught.

In order to have a reasonable chance of survival, each fish must be handled as little as possible and what handling there is should be done in as gentle and humane a way as possible. Since the provision of containers of water is impractical, the fish must be unhooked and returned to the sea as soon as possible. In order to achieve this, the fish should be unhooked, recorded and returned before them is any attempt to continue fishing. The danger of this stipulation is that the fish will be handled and unhooked in a less than gentle manner in the rush to get fishing again. The alternative is to leave the fish on the deck to be unhooked after a pre-baited trace is dropped to the bottom. This allows the handling and unhooking to be done with greater care but obviously causes a greater delay in the fish being returned to the water. There is no real answer to this paradox but it is possibly best left to the organiser of each competition to choose in the light of the conditions and catches expected.

Having dealt with smaller fish that are generally lifted over the side or possibly netted, now consider larger fish such as conger or tope. Unless the boat is equipped with an exceptionally large net, the fish would normally be gaffed or possibly tailed and then lifted aboard. Either method is almost certain to do serious and permanent damage to the fish and is not acceptable. This leaves releasing the fish at the side of the boat by using either a ‘t-bar’ or if deeply hooked, by cutting the trace. The main problem with this is that the fish will sometimes come off the hook or the trace will snap before the attempt at unhooking has commenced although it is within gaffing distance. The rules should specify when a fish is deemed to have been ‘caught’ and should thus count as a scoring fish bearing in mind that smaller fish will drop off the hook and escape whilst being swung aboard.

It is suggested that the rules should stipulate that all fish must be brought on board except for those of certain specified species. Fish of those species will only count when another individual (skipper, crewman, steward or other competitor) declares the fish to be within gaffing distance. In exceptional circumstances, when another individual is not available, then the angler himself must touch the fish with a gaff handle.

The use of disgorgers and damp cloths should be encouraged.

Finally under this section, consider a rule stipulating that fish required for bait or food should be killed immediately and all other fish should be returned to the water with as little harm or damage as possible.

Reducing the number of fish caught

It is accepted that this will be resisted by many and will not be relevant at times. The competitors will have paid a considerable amount of money in boat and competition fees, for bait and also possibly for travel and accommodation. They want a return for their money by way of a good day’s fishing and that means catching fish. It has already been established however that to a lesser or greater extent depending on the species, a proportion of the fish landed and released will die. Consider the scenario when a charter boat sits over a shoal of Pout in deep water all day. Each angler catches 50, 60 or even more fish and every one either drifts away into the distance or is gratefully accepted by a variety of bird-life. Restricting each angler to the use of just a single hook would have kept the competition as a meaningful test of skill and ability whilst reducing the number of dead fish.

Another situation is where there are a number of species available but where one either predominates or is easier to catch than the others. Consider a days fishing on the drift over rough ground off the south west of England. The whole day could be spent catching as many Wrasse as possible with a considerable number of fatalities being inevitable. There are almost certainly other species available in smaller numbers on the same ground and others available on different ground nearby. If a restriction on the number of scoring fish from each species were introduced, then anglers would switch to other species when they had reached their limit. It could be preferable to have the boat winner’s catch consisting of 5 or 10 Wrasse (half of which are dead) plus a few Pollack, Garfish, Ling etc rather than 30 or 40 Wrasse (half of which are dead.) The number of dead fish that have been reduced and the competition will have been maintained if not actually enhanced as a test of skill and ability.

Obviously there will be times when attempting to reduce the number of fish caught will be inappropriate. There will be times when restricting the number of fish per species and/or restricting the number of hooks used will give the odd fluke fish an enhanced value and thus undermine the competition as a test of ability. Having said that the organisers of a competition should he given the opportunity if not actually encouraged to consider these options.


There are two aspects to scoring. Obviously in the first place each angler’s catch has to be evaluated in some way. A decision then has to be made either to judge the winner of the competition etc purely on this basis (as in the now generally discredited total weight method) or to treat each boat as a separate entity. Each boat winner is acknowledged in some way as having done as well as possible in catching the fish available to him and is rewarded accordingly. As far as catch and release is concerned only the initial catch evaluation is relevant, but it should be remembered that the decision reached on the second aspect may well influence the format of the scoring paperwork.

Assuming that it is agreed that any attempt to weigh fish on board is not acceptable, then a scoring system involving the allocation of points has to be devised. This could be very simple such as one point per fish irrespective of size or species. It can be highly complex with varying points scored for fish, not only of different species, but also for fish of the same species according to which length band they fall. Whilst it is very tempting to attempt to set a national standard for the scoring system, it can be argued that due to the varying numbers and varieties of fish available in different areas and at different times of year, each competition should have it’s own scoring system.

The rewarding of the boat winners can be done in a number of ways. One method is to give each boat winner 100% and the other anglers receive the percentage of their catch compared with their boat winner’s catch. The actual fish caught are only used to separate a tie on percentage points. Another regularly used method is where each boat winner scored 100 points plus their catch points, the second on each boat scored 90 points plus their catch points etc. The CIPS method where all the boat winners we put in order according to their catch, and then all the seconds etc. is used very rarely if at all in this country and has many of the disadvantages of the total weight method.

Whatever stewarding system is used it is imperative that each angler’s score is agreed on the boat at the end of the day and a signature is obtained. Only in the most unusual circumstances can disputes be better resolved back on land rather than on the boat.


Assuming that it is accepted that the use of individual score cards is impractical then any form of self-stewarding also becomes impractical without one or more competitors becoming unacceptably handicapped. An ideal solution is to have one or more non-fishing stewards whose sole responsibility is to check fish and keep the score. Whilst in experience this has been suggested on a number of occasions, in reality this usually only materialises when a reasonable cash inducement has been made and this naturally increases the already high costs of competing.

This then brings us to the usual situation where the skipper carries out the duties of the steward. Now skippers not only come in all shapes and sizes; some are practically deaf, some have fairly poor eyesight, some don’t really care less whilst others enter into the role with a zeal which is guaranteed to upset some if not all of those on board. They also have other responsibilities (including the safety of the vessel and those on board) and distractions such as calls on the radio and so are frequently involved in a catching up exercise with the scoring. This situation naturally provides ample opportunity for errors, disputes and even cheating.

Minimum Sizes

The use of minimum sizes does have relevance as far as catch and release is concerned in 2 almost conflicting ways. Firstly, if minimum sizes are significantly reduced or removed completely, there will he a tendency for smaller fish to be targeted either by the skipper’s choice of mark or the angler’s choice of hook size etc. There can be no doubt that the fatality rate amongst smaller fish will be higher and so more fish will die. The introduction of a minimum hook size may restrict the amount of “tiddler bashing”, but will also increase the luck element. Alternatively, maintaining standard minimum sizes will require a significant number of fish to be measured with the increase in handling and delay in their being returned to the water, which again will increase the fatality rate. Obviously a length based scoring system where every fish has to be measured will exacerbate this even further.

Measuring Sticks

The requirement for one or more measuring sticks will depend on the decisions reached on scoring method and minimum sizes. Since the only commonly available commercially produced measuring stick is only about 18 inches long, it is likely that any stick provided by the anglers would have to be home made. Since this could easily be the subject of dispute and dissatisfaction, it would probably best if sticks were provided by the organisers.


This paper did not set out to provide a ‘measure and return’ system for boat competitions – there is no one simple solution. Match organisers need to consider the points raised in this document to suit the conditions.

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