Catch and Release Tips

by Mike Arakawa

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Fisherman netting a fishEvery fisherman finds himself in situations where he has to release a fish from time to time. This may be because of minimum size requirements, or he may be fishing a designated catch-and-release area; or he may simply make a choice in a given situation to let a fish go for his own reasons. Whatever the circumstances, an improperly handled fish will stand little chance of survival once released. Following are a few tips on proper technique for handling and releasing your fish.

  • Try to avoid deep hooking. This means using artificial lures and flies if you know you will be catching and releasing fish. Avoid using scented lures or spray-on attractants, since these may encourage the fish to swallow your lure.
  • Use barbless hooks, or hooks with the barbs flattened or filed off. This makes unhooking easier and less stressful on the fish.
  • Land your fish as quickly as possible, and avoid playing it to exhaustion. This may mean using heavier tackle than you normally would in a given situation.
  • Use an appropriately-sized landing net, and avoid nets that will scrape the protective coating off the fish's skin. Most fly and tackle shops sell nets made of soft, knotless mesh which are suitable for catch-and-release fishing. Always make sure the net is wet before touching the fish with it.
  • When possible, do not remove the fish from the water while removing the hook. If you have to do so in order to unhook it or to take a photo, make sure your hands are wet before touching the fish, and handle it as little as possible. Try to minimize the length of time the fish is out of the water.
  • Never squeeze a fish or touch its gills or eyes.
  • If the fish has swallowed your hook, do not try to remove it. Cut the line as close to the mouth as possible. The hook will corrode away over time, and will not cause permanent damage to the fish. (You should avoid using stainless steel hooks, since they will not dissolve as quickly.)
  • Do not let the fish flop around on the bank while you remove the hook.

Once you've removed the hook, your fish may need to be resuscitated before it is strong enough to swim away. To do this, hold the fish upright in the water, facing into the current. Move it back and forth gently to force water over its gills. When it is strong enough it will swim away on its own. If you let the fish go before this, chances are it will still be too worn out from fighting you to survive.

If you catch a fish that is gill-hooked and bleeding, or is otherwise obviously injured severely enough that it will not survive if released, you'll have to make a decision at that point as to the right thing to do. While I am a staunch believer in obeying all applicable laws and regulations while fishing, I also do not believe it serves the intent of those laws to release an injured fish which will clearly die within minutes of going back into the water. This is an ethical decision which every angler must make based on the totality of the circumstances in a given situation. Use proper equipment and technique while catch-and-release fishing, and you will minimize the likelihood that you'll ever need to make such a decision.


Mike Arakawa is the managing editor of StreamFisherman.net.

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