While jigging for salmon with my daughter last year, we caught and released a small rock cod (rockfish). It wasn’t caught very deep, but it still floated when I tried to release it. As the seagulls began to gather around it, and I tried to explain to a five-year-old why it couldn’t swim away, I was kicking myself for not having a rock cod descender device on board. I wasn’t on my own boat and hadn’t expected to catch a rockfish in that area. After that experience, I decided to always make sure I have a descender on board. And now, the Department of Fisheries (DFO) has them listed as mandatory gear onboard.
At one time nobody really thought about rock cod surviving release. It was just accepted that they generally didn’t, and their fate was simply a by-product of fishing for bottom fish. I’ve seen many trails of floating rockfish drifting away from many boats, including my own. Unfortunately, as rockfish are a very slow-to- mature species, they are becoming scarce in many locations. This point was really brought home to me when I moved from the west coast of Vancouver Island to the east coast. Back home, rockfish were still common and easy to find. Once I saw the lack of them in perfectly suitable habitat, it really made me think about the long-term survival of the fishery.
The problem with releasing rockfish is their swim bladder. When dragged up from the depths, their swim bladder expands to such an extent that it looks like a pink balloon popping out of their mouth and prevents them from swimming back down. Just as a diver can’t make a rapid ascent from deep water, neither can a rockfish.
Today, however, the responsible fisherman must carry a rockfish descending device to return the fish back to its habitat with minimal harm. A rockfish descender is simply a small device designed to hold a rockfish while the fisherman lowers it back to where they caught it. This is done either by use of a fishing rod or a downrigger. There is a lot of good data regarding the successful use of descenders coming from California, where they have been mandatory for some time. It is claimed that tagged fish have been released and re-caught several times. Overall, the California rockfish situation is very encouraging to hear about.
Some descenders are very simple and not at all costly. Others are more sophisticated and, therefore, more expensive. Whichever one you end up owning, make sure you have it ready to go and know how to operate it. The faster you get the fish back to its proper depth the better off it will be. Knowing how to get the fish off the device is also critical, as multiple rides up and down probably won’t do it any good.
There are basic descenders that cost under ten dollars. These are simply a tight S-shaped piece of wire to which one attaches a small weight to one end and the fishing line to the other end, with a hook-shaped bend of wire in the middle. It hooks onto the fish’s lip as the weight pulls it back to the bottom. The fisherman then gives the line a hard jerk to release the fish. This style of device doesn’t always work, but it is better than nothing.
After examining the more basic ones for sale, I realized you could easily make your own if you were so inclined. Bending a large barbless hook and tying on a weight would make an adequate device. However, I’m not at this time sure what the Department of Fisheries (DFO) will recognize as a “legal” descender. And besides, as mentioned above, the cost of the cheaper ones is very low.
A more expensive style of descender is the kind that uses water pressure to gauge depth and automatically releases at the desired depth. These types gently but firmly grip the lips of the fish for the ride down. They can easily be set to release at the depth where the fish was caught. I’ve found that this style is much easier to use and is less likely to fail to release. There are several depth settings, with some ranging from 50 to 150 ft, and others 150 to 300 feet. You simply dial in the depth you caught the fish at, and the device will open when that depth is reached. According to the literature, the fish only have to be within two thirds of the original depth in order to survive.
For my own descender, I opted for one of the water pressure models. It came equipped with a mini downrigger trolling snap to attach to my line.
However, I know fishermen who have lost their descender when the mini snap came unclipped from their downrigger. Therefore, in order to make mine more secure, I replaced this with a full-sized downrigger trolling snap. I also added a closable coast-lock quick release for fishing rod use. This way I have two secure attachment points to use my descender on either my fishing rod or my downrigger.
So before you hit the water this season, check the new regulations regarding descenders. And even if it’s not mandatory quite yet or you don’t plan on bottom fishing, please consider investing in a rockfish descender. We all should do what we can to preserve our fisheries for those that come after us. And whatever descender device you choose, the rock- fish will thank you, even if the eagles won’t.
This article appeared in Island Fisherman Magazine. Never miss another issue—subscribe today!