Catch and Release Safely

A man squats near a lake with a fish in his hands
Cutthroat catch in Glacier National Park

NPS Photo

Catch and release fishing is one way to conserve native fish species. When this practice is in effect, anglers carefully and immediately return the fish to the water where it was caught. Fishermen also catch and release if they choose not to keep the fish. When done correctly, catch and release methods result in high survival rates. But catching and releasing fish successfully takes practice. You’ll want to minimize stress and injury to the fish.

Learn the proper techniques and you’ll soon be catching and releasing fish in a safe, humane way.

Water Conditions

First, make sure it’s appropriate to fish under the current water conditions. If the fish are already stressed, catch and release practices will only make it worse and possibly result in higher death rates.

Avoid fishing in these situations:

  • Low water flow
  • High water temperatures
  • Small, concentrated area of fish

Instead, sit on the bank and enjoy watching the fish and your surroundings. You’ll be preserving fish and fishing for the future.

Fishing Tackle

The most important aspect of successful catch and release fishing is using appropriate fishing methods and gear for the size and species of fish you’re pursuing. The right tools for the job decrease the fish’s stress and increase its chance of survival after release.

  • Use adequate rod, reel, and line – Use equipment with sufficient power and strength to land the fish quickly. Long struggles on light fishing gear can tire and stress fish unnecessarily.
  • No bait – Using bait often results in deep hooking injuries. If possible, avoid the use of scents and artificial baits that encourage fish to swallow hooks. Note: Possessing or using live or dead bait fish, amphibians, non-preserved fish eggs or fish roe is prohibited in fresh waters within national parks, except in specially designated waters. Consult the fishing regulations before using baits in national parks.
  • Use artificial lures or flies – When you use artificial lures or flies, the fish are generally hooked in the lip, making it easier to remove the hook quickly.
  • Use single, barbless hooks – Properly sized, single barbless hooks reduce fish handling time and injury. Two hooks can be removed from treble hooks using wire snips or pliers. Barbs can be removed by flattening the barb against the hook shank with needle-nosed pliers or fishing hemostats.

Catching and Landing the Fish

It takes time and practice to perfect the art of catching and landing the fish. Follow this advice to hone your techniques.

  • Stay close. National Park Service fishing regulations require anglers to closely attend their rod or line. When you’re alert and nearby, you greatly reduce the opportunity for fish to swallow hooks deeply.
  • Be quick. A tired fish takes longer to recover. Avoid playing the fish to exhaustion and land it as quickly as possible. Then, release the fish quickly.
  • Use a landing net. Landing nets reduce handling time, stress, and the potential for injury, especially for large fish that are difficult to manage. Large frames with shallow nets made of rubber or small, soft, knotless mesh are best.

Handling Your Catch

Fish are wild, unpredictable animals. Be sure to handle them with care to avoid injuries to them and yourself.

  • Keep the fish wet and calm. Removing fish from water causes stress, suffocation, and possible internal injury.
  • Provide proper support. Avoid removing fish from the support of the surrounding water any more than necessary. Support the fish in a landing net, or cradle the fish gently with one hand beneath the belly near the water surface.
  • Treat the fish gently. Avoid squeezing tightly, which can damage internal organs and muscle tissue. Remember to never hold a fish by the gills.
  • Use wet hands or gloves to handle fish. Wet hands or gloves will help reduce the loss of a fish’s protective mucus.

Removing the Hook

Taking the hook out of a fish can be tricky, but with practice you’ll get the hang of it. Pro tip: Keep yourself and the fish calm for easier removal.

  • Work quickly. As soon as you have the fish, get to work removing the hook. Keep the fish in the water or hold it upside down to calm and relax the fish. This will make it easier to remove the hook.
  • Use the right tool. Needle-nosed pliers, hemostats, and other hook removers are essential for quick and efficient hook removal.
  • If necessary, leave the hook! If the fish is hooked deeply or the hook cannot be easily removed, then leave it. Cut your line as close to the hook as possible.

Releasing Your Fish

Let the fish fully recover before releasing it. Hold the fish underwater, in an upright position or secured in the landing net. Make sure it’s ventilating before release—you should see the gills opening and closing. If the fish has difficulty regaining its strength, then face the fish into the current. The fresh oxygenated water can pass gently over the gills helping the fish “catch its breath.” Let it swim forcefully away on its own.

In fast moving water, it might be best to move the fish to calmer water where it can recover and swim away on its own. Fast-moving or turbulent water can sweep away or injure a weakened fish. This is particularly important for fish released from a boat in midstream.

Releasing Fish Caught in Deep Water

When a fish is caught from deep water and brought to the surface, gases dissolved in the blood come out of solution and cause the swim bladder to expand. The damage and stress that results is called “barotrauma.” A fish can often survive this event if it’s treated and released properly. When releasing fish caught at depth, know the correct procedure to puncture the swim bladder and release the excessive air, or know how to use a “fish descender” to return the fish to the depth at which it was hooked.

Last updated: April 10, 2017