Important Elements of Catch and Release Fishing

Not all fish survive when caught and released. However, proper catch and release methods can result in a very high survival rate. For anglers choosing to catch and release, the following tackle, landing, handling, and quick release methods are recommended.

Tackle - Gear type is perhaps the most important factor in the survival of a fish being caught.

  • Use artificial lures or flies - Use of bait often results in a deeply ingested hook and mortality upon removal.
  • Use rod, reel, and line of sufficient strength to quickly land the fish - Long struggles may significantly increase mortality rate.
  • Use properly sized single circle or barbless hooks - Single hooks are typically more easily removed than treble hooks and usually result in less handling time and reduced injury to both anglers and fish.

Landing the Fish -

  • Avoid playing fish to exhaustion - Lactic acid buildup in muscle tissues will reduce fish survival. More lactic acid accumulates the longer a fish is played.
  • Use a landing net - This reduces handling time, avoids injury potential and reduces stress to the fish. Landing nets with small, soft, or knotless mesh are best.
  • Avoid injury - Keep your fish in deep water until it is netted or released. Fish landed in shallow water can injure themselves by thrashing around. This causes loss of mucus or skin damage, which can affect survival.

Handling Your Catch -

  • Avoid removal from water - Removing fish from the water can result in suffocation and/or internal injury depending on fish size, removal duration, and handling technique. Avoid allowing a fish to thrash around on shore or in the boat.
  • Use wet hands or wet gloves - Wet hands or gloves will help reduce loss of a fish's protective mucus. Mucus helps the fish fight fungal growth and other skin diseases.
  • Keep fish properly supported - Avoid removing large fish from the support of the surrounding water any more than necessary. When lifting, cradle the fish gently with one hand under the belly and the other hand near its tail.
  • Avoid squeezing - Squeezing can easily cause damage to internal organs and muscle tissue. This can best be avoided by not removing the fish from the net until you are ready to let it go.
  • Avoid touching the gills - Gills are a particularly sensitive and fragile organ that can be easily damaged. Any fish bleeding from the gills has a poor chance of survival and should probably be retained.

Hook Removal -

  • Keep fish wet and calm - Remove the hook quickly while allowing the fish to remain as calm as possible in the water. Keeping your fish contained in the net during hook removal can reduce the need for squeezing and additional injury.
  • Use the right tool - Needle-nosed pliers or hemostats are an essential tool for quick and efficient hook removal. Various hook removers are also commercially available.
  • If necessary, leave the hook! - If the fish is hooked deeply or the hook cannot be easily removed, just leave it embedded. Cut your line as close to the hook as possible. Forged steel hooks deteriorate within months and often will not interfere with feeding.

Reviving Your Catch -

  • Avoid early release. Hold until revived - Revive your fish by holding it upright underwater. Support the fish gently from underneath. Ensure it is ventilating and has regained its equilibrium before release. Hold the fish until it swims forcefully away on its own.
  • Orient into the current, but avoid too fast or turbulent areas - Facing the fish into the current allows water to pass over the gills allowing the fish to "catch it's breath." Consider the need to move the fish to calmer water where it can swim easily away on its own without being swept away or injured by fast moving or turbulent water. In lakes or other still water bodies, move fish gently back and forth to force water over the gills if the fish does not appear to be ventilating.

Guidance for Photographing Your Catch

If you are releasing your fish, a photo will be the only record of your catch. Following these procedures will not only improve your photographs, but will also help ensure the survival of your catch. Photographing your catch should be preplanned and accomplished quickly to prevent the injury or death of the fish. 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. 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 (or better yet partly out) of the water and quickly capture the image. If multiple images are planned, calm the fish in the water before lifting it again.

These recommendations for catch and release fishing were compiled from a variety of informational sources and material available through: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Trout Unlimited, the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, The David Suzuki Foundation, and numerous other websites.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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