The topic of catch and release has become a very heated discussion in the fly fishing world. I’d like to start by saying that I’m not against keeping fish. I’m not against eating fish. I’m not saying you need to release the fish that you catch. The purpose of this article is to explain catch and release techniques so that if you choose to release a fish you do it in a way that will limit damage and minimize fatality rates. Since I’m not trying to convince people to release fish, you don’t have to keep reading if you never plan on releasing any fish that you catch.
With all that being said, let’s try really hard to stop shaming each other when we see someone mishandling a fish. There was a time when none of us knew how to properly handle a fish and seeing anglers chastise each other publicly feels wrong to me. If you see someone online posting a picture of a fish they released and they are clearly mishandling it, start by congratulating them on their catch. Let them know that you are glad they are enjoying the sport. Let them know that releasing fish is a great thing to do and that there are methods of doing so that minimize damage. Let them know that you weren’t always aware of these methods either and that you are glad someone showed you. I can’t tell you the number of times I see a young angler new to the sport posting a picture of a rainbow trout they are holding by the gills and the caption says “Released”. The comments from grown anglers shaming and chastising the kid for killing the fish without even trying to welcome him to the sport. It seems like pure ego to me. We need to stop that because it makes us look bad. Let’s be glad that young people are getting into the sport. Let’s help rather than scrutinize. Okay…I’m going to put my soapbox away and get on with practicing responsible catch and release techniques.
Why Worry About Catch and Release Techniques?
When I first started learning to fish, the name of the game was just catching as many fish as I could. Catch and release techniques weren’t really something I was terribly concerned about. I let many fish go, but I was never terribly careful and I just assumed that the fish were very tough and could just be thrown back in the water. As I got older and learned a few things from the people that I fished with, one of the first important lessons I learned was to never handle a trout by the gills. Later I learned about using proper sized tackle to limit fight times and when to avoid fishing due to high water temps or low air temps. Eventually, I learned about how to really handle a trout to limit damage.
This article offers tips specific to salmonids like salmon and trout, but the techniques will go a long way in protecting other families of fish as well.
Most of my experience with salmonids is with trout. I have also caught plenty of salmon, whitefish and a few grayling.
Always make sure to use the proper sized tackle for the size fish you are targeting. If you hook into a 10 pound trout and you’re using a 3 or 4 weight rod and 6X tippet, you are going to have to play the fish very carefully for a long time in order to land the fish without it breaking off. This exhausts the fish and sometimes can stress the fish to the point of killing it. If you are in water with big fish, move up to a 7 or 8 weight rod with 2 or 3X tippet so you can shorten fight times and land the fish more quickly.Â Any time I am catch and release fishing, I use barbless hooks as well. Barbless hooks are much easier to remove without damaging the fish.
When you net a fish, make sure to use a net that is large enough for the fish to easily fit into. Also, make sure to use nets with rubber netting material that have very low friction on a fishes skin when wet. Using string landing nets or nets that are too small can cause serious damage to the fish.
Once you have the fish in the net, strip out some line to put some slack in it. This will help prevent your tippet from snagging on a gill plate or pulling the hook through the corner of their mouth. You can now carefully remove the hook from the fish’s mouth. If you have trouble getting to it, a nice pair of forceps can help a lot in removing the hook.
One of the most important catch and release techniques is how you handle the fish. After removing the hook, you need to remove the fish from the net. Keep in mind that you should never remove a salmonid from the water if the air temperature is below 35 degrees fahrenheit. When fishing in cold conditions like this, keep the net and fish submerged at all times. Once the hook is removed, you can carefully and gently supportÂ the fish’s tail and pull the net out from under it without lifting the fish out of the water.
If the air temperature is above 35 degrees fahrenheit, you can lift the fish up to get a quick photo before releasing it. When handling a salmonid, there are several things to remember. First, get your hands wet before touching the fish. Dry hands remove protective slime from their skin and it can hurt them. Also, never grab it by the gills. Handling the gills of these fish will often kill them. Finally, you generally should never really grip a fresh water fish. Their bodies are not designed to protect their vital organs from external pressure like that.
Gripping a fish can cause massage damage to the heart and other vitals, so if you are going to lift the fish up, here’s what I do. First, I use one hand under the tail for support. Next, I use the other hand under the gill area just as a support. I don’t grip.
Revive and Release
Fish get very tired after you fight them. If you just put them back in the water, a lot of times you will find them floating dead a few minutes later. During the fight the fish will do things like completely deflate their swim bladder to try and sink away from the upwards pressure they are receiving from your line. When you release them, it is best to revive them and let them swim away when they are ready.
To revive a fish, place it back in the water and keep gently cradling the tail. Hold just firm enough to keep it with you but loose enough to allow them to swim away when they are ready. After a few seconds (or a minute depending on the fight time), the fish will swim out of your hand and get back to living life.
I hope that this article helps both beginner and experienced anglers in learning responsible catch and release techniques. If you have anything to add, please do so in the comments section below. Remember, it’s not about shaming each other, it’s about teaching each other. I know I’m not done learning, so if you have something to add, please do so and I will happily learn from it!