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Fishing can be hazardous hobby

 
Published March 21, 1998|Updated Sept. 12, 2005

Safe bet: The Palmolive hands lady was not an angler. No, I never asked, but any regularity in this sport will produce enough nicks and cuts and bites and scratches to end the most promising modeling career.

The primary sportfishing hazards are:

TEETH: Simply mention this word and many automatically envision sharks. True, the blacktips, bulls, bonnetheads and lemons of our waters carry a hazardous potential. But so do many of the innocent-looking hook-and-line favorites.

Among those known for their formidable dental equipment are barracuda, bluefish, grouper, Spanish and king mackerel, snappers and trout. The latter, for example, has several smaller teeth in its mouth, but two prominent canines in its upper jaw.

Other species lacking sharp choppers can still hurt you, though. Sheepshead, for instance, have short, stout nibbling and crushing teeth made for opening barnacles and other mollusks. They crack shells for a living, so imagine what they could do to your finger. Likewise, nurse sharks lack traditional shark teeth, but crushers intended for crabs and lobsters aren't hand-friendly.

SHARP EDGES: The gills of many fish are protected by bony plates sporting razor-sharp edges. Hapless anglers attempting to hold such fish by the gills will be lucky to retrieve their fingers intact. Notorious for gill hazards are snook, snappers and seabass.

Grouper, though not known for dangerous gill covers, have many rows of treacherous gill rakers. Designed to keep the breathing organs free of debris, the rakers will grab your fingers and hold tightly. Removal is a tedious and painful ordeal.

Also dangerous are thin, stiff fins like those of Spanish and king mackerel. I've seen many mackerel leave their mark on legs and arms when their pectoral or tail fins graze an unsuspecting angler. Often the wounds are mistaken for bites, but given the choice, I'd take a finning any day.

(Another overlooked hazard is frozen baitfish. The tiny fins of common baits like Spanish sardines, threadfin herring and cigar minnows turn into chilly razors when frozen solid. For safety, soften baits by thawing them in water before handling.)

SPINES: First one that comes to most minds is the stingray. Along the Nature Coast, there's no shortage of these flats phantoms, and spring's warmth will increase their shallow-water presence. For clarity, the stinger is at the base of the tail, not the end. When disturbed, the stingray whips the tail upward, stabbing with its serrated spine.

Another malicious poker is the saltwater catfish (common and gafftopsail _ a k a "sail cat."). Sharp, bony spines in the dorsal and pectoral fins stand erect when the fish is alarmed. One look at a catfish skeleton shows the spines have several barbs similar to fish hooks, which imbed and hold their ground. Very painful.

Sheepshead, too, have sharp, stout spines in their pectoral and anal fins. More visible and numerous than catfish spines, a sheepshead's weapons resemble knitting needles. Definitely something to avoid.

Now, don't fret about a bunch of menacing species looking to put the chomps on you. Fact is, most would rather run than confront a human any day. Still, anything with teeth, spines or other sharp body parts can and will bite, poke and cut you if given the chance. Minimize those chances and you'll be just fine.

The key ingredient is common sense. Stick your bare finger down a toothy fish's mouth and you're headed to bitesville. Likewise, grabbing a flopping fish with reckless impunity leaves you with a handful of something you don't want.

If a legal fish is headed for the cooler, cut your rig, toss your catch on ice and retrieve your tackle once the fish goes to sleep. For catch and release, keep the fish in the water as much as possible while removing the hook. This keeps the fish calm and reduces thrashing.

Flattening hook barbs, replacing treble hooks with singles and removing the middle of three trebles on large lures all contribute to speedy releases and minimize angler hazards. Very often a fish will thrash at just the wrong moment and a hook flips out of the mouth and into an angler.

Deep-hooked fish are challenging, but not impossible to release alive. All non-stainless steel hooks will dissolve in saltwater and fall out of the fish's mouth, but make every effort to remove the hook before cutting your line. Needle nose pliers, surgical clippers or specialized hook removal tools expedite removal, thereby protecting fish and angler.

Remember, save the fish and you might catch it again. Save your hands and you'll be able to do so.

A SAFETY

CHECKLIST

Pay attention to the listed hazards when handling these common species:

Barracuda _ Teeth.

Bluefish _ Teeth.

Catfish _ Dorsal and pectoral fin spines.

Cobia _ Back spikes and violent thrashing.

Flounder _ Teeth.

Grouper _ Teeth and gill rakers.

Mackerel (king, Spanish and wahoo) _ Teeth and sharp fins.

Sharks _ Teeth and violent thrashing.

Seabass _ Sharp gill covers.

Sheepshead _ Teeth and sharp dorsal and anal fin spines.

Snapper _ Teeth and sharp gill covers.

Snook _ Sharp gill covers.

Stingrays _ Tail spines.

Tarpon _ Violent thrashing.

Trout _ Teeth.

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WITH TROUT

A speckled trout's pronounced front teeth can cause nasty puncture wounds, so be careful.

WITH SNOOK

Avoid grabbing a snook by the gill plates as the sharp edges can lacerate fingers. Another overlooked hazard is frozen baitfish.

WITH MACK

With their rows of tiny sharp teeth, Spanish mackerel are biting machines and a clear safety hazard to anglers.

WITH COBIA

A row of sharp spikes on the cobia's back is to be avoided.