How To Catch and Release Fish Safely

by | Aug 11, 2023 | Beginners, Fly Fishing

Catch and Release is Cool

For me, one of the great appeals of Fly fishing is the ethic around conservation. Like me, many people who fly fish are primarily interested in catch and release. Safe handling of fish is paramount to keep post-catch mortality rate low. One of the primary causes of game fish population decline is improper handling by recreational anglers. It is not enough to assume that a fish will survive simply because it is able to swim off under its own power. The act of being caught in itself leads to fatigue on the part of fish, leaving them at a higher risk of predation. Additionally, stress is an additional factor that may cause issues that result in mortality. This guide will equip you with all the tools you need to understand how to protect our precious game fish after your catch them.

Choose the Right Gear

Fly anglers generally use single hooks but you can make it even easier on a fish by crimping the barb down on your hook. Scaling the hook size in accordance with the size of the fish you are targeting is also important. For example, during the early striped bass season, most of the fish available are between 15 and 20 inches. In this case the larger flies that you may throw for larger fish later in the season need not be used as they can substantially damage the mouths of the smaller fish. Both the length and diameter of hooks should be scaled to the size of the fish you are targeting.

Leader choice is also important. I tend to use the thickest leader possible as this helps to keep fight lengths shorter. This, of course, should be scaled to the species you are targeting. Fish like trout, for example, are considerably more leader-shy than bass. When you don’t have to worry about your leader breaking, you can play fish less timidly which will help you land it quicker.

Another factor that impacts fight length is the drag on your reel. When fishing for strong and/or large fish, a good drag is essential to ensuring that sufficient pressure is exerted on the fish. A poor or insufficient drag can allow fish to fight longer and harder, resulting in them having less energy upon release. Playing a fish to exhaustion is a death penalty for it.

Landing Fish

Try to use a net when possible and keep fish in deeper water until you are ready to net them during your catch and release process. Fish can be easily injured, or lose their protective slime coat by thrashing around in shallow water.
Nets also reduce the amount of human-fish contact.

Handle With Care

There are four steps involved in properly handling a fish:

1. Wet your hands

A fish’s slime coat protects them from pathogens and other environmental stressors. It is, therefore, imperative that it not be damaged. Wetting your hands before handling fish provides a barrier between your hands and their slime coat and reduces adverse effects that may arise through your handling of the fish. You may even purchase fish handling gloves which are designed to enhance the protection afforded to a fish’s slime coat.

catch and release fly fishing

2. Support fish horizontally

Fish swim horizontally, and the water in which they live supports their weight. Their anatomy is adapted to support their organs in a horizontal position. When they are out of water, thus lacking their natural support, substantial damage can occur to their organs. Should you remove a fish from the water, be sure to keep one hand under its midsection and avoid holding it vertically.
Fish’s vital organs are located in the midsection and it must be supported to prevent a fish from being “crushed” under its own weight.

3. Try to keep fish wet

It should go without saying that fish fare better when they are wet. Although they are able to survive for a few minutes without dissolved oxygen, they have evolved to ideally stay wet at all
times. It is ok to remove a fish from the water during catch and release, but care should be taken to ensure it is only for a brief period of time. The length of time for which a fish can be kept out of the water is directly correlated with the weather. During summer months, exposure to air should be minimized or eliminated altogether. Take note of the species you are targeting and how much handling it can actually take, as some fish are more tolerant of air exposure than others.

4. Avoid contact with vital anatomy

You must ensure that you avoid both squeezing fish and touching their gills during the catch and release process. Squeezing fish can cause damage to their vital organs; and although fish gills are protected by their operculum, they can be damaged if fingers, line, or hooks get under it. Fish will bleed out if their gills are punctured. Below is an example of a fish we found online to display the gills area, which should never be touched or handled.

fish gills

Here is an informative article by Trout Unlimited on a parasite known as gill lice which are becoming more common as water temperatures rise with climate change. Keep an eye out for this so that it can be reported to your local Fisheries or DNR department.

TU Article

Provide Ample Revival Time

Fish should be dehooked carefully by supporting the fish using the handling procedures detailed above and backing the hook out of the puncture hole. This act is considerably easier with barbless hooks. Once you’ve dehooked the fish, hold it submerged in water (facing upstream if in a moving water body) until it begins to support its own weight and kicks off. Some fish will show signs of revival only to stall after a few kicks. Be absolutely sure your fish is able to fully kick away, otherwise, if it stalls, repeat the revival steps until it kicks away for good or shows clear signs that it will not survive.

Have Fun

Now that you are equipped with the tools and knowledge you need to protect game fish during catch and release, get out there and have fun! We each have a duty as recreational anglers to protect the fish we catch, as well as those we don’t. Although many fish are harvested through the commercial fishing industry, many fish are mishandled and released with no chance of survival by recreational anglers. Follow the steps above and you will keep you post-catch mortality low.