Catch and Release Fishing

an example of a great hold.
Keeping the fish properly supported and partially in the water keeps the fish calm while handling.

NPS Photo/ C. Medley

Catch and release fishing improves native fish populations by allowing more fish to remain and reproduce in the ecosystem. This practice provides an opportunity for increasing numbers of anglers to enjoy fishing and to successfully catch fish. Releasing native fish caught while in a national park will help to ensure that enjoyment of this recreational opportunity will last for generations to come.

In catch and release fishing anglers immediately release native fish - unharmed - back to the water where they are caught. When done correctly, catch and release methods result in high survival rates. But catching and releasing fish successfully takes practice.

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

Before You Go

  • Learn the regulations. Some parks require the catch and release of native species. Be sure to learn the regulations of the park you plan to fish at.
  • Avoid Stressful Water Conditions. Extremely low flows or high water temperatures could be stressful for the fish. Instead, sit on the bank and enjoy watching the fish and your surroundings. You’ll be preserving fish and fishing for future generations.

Tackle

The right tools for the job decrease the fish’s stress and increase its chance of survival after release.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 minnows or other 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 bait in national parks.
  • 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.

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.
  • Avoid playing fish to exhaustion. A tired fish takes longer to recover due to lactic acid buildup. 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.
Fish caught in landing net.
Using a landing net reduces stress to the fish.

Handling Your Catch

Be sure to handle fish carefully to avoid injuries.

  • Avoid removal from water. Removing fish from water causes stress, suffocation, and possible internal injury.
  • Use wet hands or gloves to handle fish. Wet hands or gloves will help reduce the loss of a fish’s protective mucus.
  • 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.
  • Be gentle. Avoid squeezing tightly, which can damage internal organs and muscle tissue. Remember to never touch or hold a fish by the gills. Gills are particularly sensitive and can be easily damaged.

Removing the Hook

  • Work quickly and calmly. 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.

Photographing Your Catch

  • Preplan the photograph - Keep your fish wet and calm until you are ready for the photograph. Crouch down near the water surface to avoid lifting the fish far from the water. Have the photographer pre-position and focus the camera before lifting your fish.
  • Get a good grip - When all is ready, hold your fish firmly by the tail while placing the other hand under its belly (avoid touching the gill area).
  • Wait for the fish to become accustomed to your touch - When the fish has calmed, lift it briefly out of the water and quickly capture the image. If multiple images are planned, calm the fish in the water before lifting again.
Fisherman posing with fish for photo.
Fisherman holding up a cutthroat trout for a photo in Glacier National Park.

NPS Photo/ J. Frank

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 away on its own.

In fast moving water, consider moving 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.

Learn more about how to properly catch and release by watching:

Letting Go: The Art of Catch and Release

Last updated: May 9, 2018

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