by

By the time I paddled up to her, lifelong angler Chaeli Norwood had her first bull red well under control. However, after a few pictures, it didn’t swim away in the normal manner. The tail lifted out of the water as it swam off, and then the 41-inch fish did a slow roll onto its back, displaying a distended white belly. Chaeli walked the fish around in nearby shallows, but when it failed to respond, I pulled the Outback alongside, grabbed it by the lower jaw and towed it into cooler, deeper water.

Perhaps the most useful attribute of foot-pedal kayak drives is that they leave one hand free to properly tow a fish while it recovers. However, simply attaching a lip gripper and dragging a large redfish or snook isn’t sufficient, and can actually do more damage. Due to their high center of gravity — and possibly an already inflated air bladder — most require some manual assistance to swim right side up. Without maintaining that upright posture, most turn belly up, and their air bladders and bellies inflate if towed in that position. It can take a bit of arm strength and wrist torque to maintain a bull red or giant snook in the proper position, and yes, your thumb is going to be raw when you’re done.

This fish was trying to wear out my wrist. Its wagging tail showed plenty of effort, but whenever I released my grip, she again rolled belly up.

The redfish was caught in relatively shallow water, so a rapid compression change wasn’t responsible. There was no visible damage to the fish. The single stinger hook on the plug had lodged in the corner of the mouth, as always, so that couldn’t be to blame. After weeks of rain, however, the off-color surface water was relatively warm and fresh — perhaps a rapid change in salinity, temperature or lower oxygen content had contributed to its woes? I tried a rocket launch, propelling the fish eight to 10 feet deep; the fish swam, but too buoyant to stay down. It reemerged at the surface 10 seconds later.

Only one solution left, short of puncturing the fish’s air bladder, a technique Florida wildlife biologists long advocated but no longer endorse. I’ve always preferred a non-intrusive weighted clamp release, but the whole point was moot — there’s generally no need to carry a deflating needle or weight rig when going after redfish, so I didn’t have either one.

Chaeli’s brother Chase locked a lip gripper on the fish and continued towing it slowly. I headed for the far shoreline, a mile away. An incoming tide, increasing chop from a nearby thunderstorm and way too much disorganized boat traffic frustrated my progress. I dug through my truck to find a substitute for the offshore weight release system I use to send inflated snapper, grouper and amberjack back to the reef. Not much to choose from.

Tire iron. What tool is handier in an emergency than a tire iron?

The trip back to the fish didn’t take long, as I met the kids halfway out near the bridge channel. I connected the 4-lug wrench to the heaviest rod on the kayak, borrowed a tiny bronze hook from Chase, crushed the barb and straightened the hook slightly, then inserted it just beneath the skin in the red’s tough lip. I sent the whole rig crashing to the bottom in 45 feet of water. The pressure at that depth would squeeze out any air bubbles keeping the fish afloat.

I towed the unwieldy rig slowly into the current for a couple minutes, and felt the fish increasingly exert more energy. And then suddenly the rig lightened as the fish pulled free of the bent hook. I cranked the wrench up and remained on station for a few minutes, relieved that the fish didn’t pop back up. Bull reds are tough, and it would have been the first one I’ve lost.

Catch-and-release anglers take on a moral responsibility to do everything possible to guarantee a fish’s survival. I’ve observed kayak and boat anglers knowingly leave floating redfish and overslot snook at the mercy of sharks or Flipper. I always grab their fish and work with them until they are strong enough to swim on their own; the vast majority recover quickly and descend without further assistance. If a redfish appears to require a more dramatic kickstart, employ a kingfish-style torpedo launch — essentially thrusting them headfirst straight down through the water as deep as possible. This forces more water and oxygen through the gills, and the sudden increase in water pressure helps force out internal air bubbles.

RELATED: Don’t Be the Green Boat Guy

Towing or dropping a fish to the bottom won’t save its life if its gills are ripped or a pair of treble hooks is lodged in its throat or stomach. There’s absolutely no excuse for feeding these voracious, aggressive giants a live bait they might swallow. Redfish might be the only species that gets dumber as they grow older — they readily eat anything that swims in their path. Likewise, lose the treble hooks. Anglers will rarely miss a hookup with a big, single hook on the stern of the plug, or, as I prefer, a single stinger hook dangling from the lure’s belly or nose, which lodges in the corner of the mouth on over 90 percent of my catches.

When I got home, I found a spring-loaded wood clamp in the garage and constructed a second weight release system to keep in my inshore H-Crate. Simply tie it to a rod, snap the clamp on the fish’s lower jaw, and pop the fish free when it hits bottom. It beats the hell out of a lug wrench.

I hope it never gets used.