July 6, 2008

Tampa Tribune, Fla., Frank Sargeant Column: Clearing Up Confusion On New Reef Rules

By Frank Sargeant, Tampa Tribune, Fla.

Jul. 6--There is a lot of confusion floating around the docks on the new reef fish rules that went into effect on June 1. Basically, the rule states that circle hooks must be used for all reef species (i.e., groupers and snappers) wherever they are caught, and that all anglers fishing for reef fish must carry and use dehooking devices and venting tools in state and federal waters.

But what exactly is a circle hook? Here's the scoop, directly from the National Marine Fisheries Service Web site:

Circle hooks have the point turned perpendicularly back toward the shank to form a generally circular or oval shape. By this definition, neither standard Octopus- nor Kahle-style hooks qualify; the point beyond the barb must be bent at a 90-degree angle to the shank.

Circle hooks with an offset angle are discouraged because they have been found more likely to damage fish, but they are not banned under the rule in federal waters. However, the offset models are banned in state waters, so your best bet is to avoid them and not worry about the 9-mile limit. All hooks used when targeting reef fish are to be non-stainless, so that hooks left in the fish will rust away.

Circle hooks must be used in all "natural baits," which include live or dead baits of any kind. Note that the rule does not apply to artificial lures of any kind, thus trolling the ship channel for grouper with large diving plugs would not require that the treble hooks be replaced with circle hooks.

And, the rule also specifically allows tipping artificial lures such as jigs and spoons with natural bait -- again, no circle hook is required on these lures. And composite baits such as Berkley's Gulp would not be considered natural baits, so they could be fished on conventional J hooks.

There is no prohibition against having J hooks on board while fishing for reef fish. But what happens if you're drifting a deep flat, fishing live shrimp on J hooks for trout and a mangrove snapper eats the bait? By law, you have to let him go. Dumb, yes, but that's how the rules are written.

When it comes to dehooking devices, the rules are similarly precise. Legal tools include inverted-V fish-flippers, blunt-nosed pliers, alligator pliers and dehooking forceps. Knives, screwdrivers, wire cutters or sharp-nose pliers are not considered dehooking devices under the rule.

The feds also recommend dehookers designed to remove deeply embedded hooks, such as the ARC and the Safe Dehooker, but these are not necessary to meet the requirement. On deeply hooked fish, it is recommended that the line be cut and the fish be released with the hook in place, rather than trying to extract it.

Venting tools are defined as sharpened hollow tube instruments, such as a hypodermic syringe with the plunger removed or a 16-gauge hollow needle set into a wooden dowel. A knife or ice pick is not acceptable to meet this requirement. The venting tool is used to deflate the swim bladder of fish brought up from deep water, so it can return to the bottom after release.

Two good venting tools are offered locally; the Pre-Vent from is the Cadillac of venting tools, with a turned-aluminum body that keeps the needle safe until needed. And the Vent for Life is an economy folding model that you can wear on your belt; .

Proper venting method is to insert the needle 1 to 2 inches behind he pectoral or chest fins at a 45-degree angle to the skin. The tool is inserted just far enough to release the internal pressure. Only fish caught in more than 50 feet of water typically need venting.

Note that the venting tool, as well as the circle hooks and the dehooker, must be in the angler's possession anywhere he harvests or attempts to harvest reef fish, including in all state waters. Even though mangrove snapper caught in 5 feet of water would never have venting issues, the law makes no allowance.

All of the required tools are available at tackle shops catering to reef fishermen, as well as via numerous Internet sites.

To view the regulations, go to the NMFS Web site, .

ODDS AND ENDS: Brandon Bass Bandits meet at 7 p.m. on Monday at Oakfield Lanes on Oakfield Drive in Brandon. The club holds regular tournaments on area waters and welcomes new members; (813) 633-6233. ... Tribune correspondent Fred Everson hosts an inshore fishing school Tuesday from 7 to 9 p.m. at Skipper's Smokehouse, 910 Skipper Road in Tampa. Fee is $25 and includes a copy of Fred's latest book, "Fish The Flats"; or (813) 971-0666.


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