Catching wild fish is a challenge, a thrill, a rush. The electric jolt of the strike, the urgency of a fish on the run stealing your line, the endless mystery of what the next cast will produce — once that rod’s in your hand it’s nearly impossible to put to down. And with so many new waters to explore and new species to pursue, there is no shortage of fishing adventures to be had.
But as anglers, we must face the fact that, despite our best efforts, we do have an impact on the resources that allow us to do what we love most. The good news is, there are many things we can do on an individual level to tip the scales in favor of the fish and their environment to keep our fishing opportunities flowing far into the future.
It’s time for us all to step up and commit to being responsible anglers.
Is Catch-and-Release Enough?
Embracing a personal catch-and-release policy is one of the best ways to do your part for the health of your favorite fisheries. But what many don’t realize is that simply letting a fish swim free doesn’t guarantee its survival.
Practically every aspect of the angling process is stressful and potentially harmful to a fish. The simple fact that you are entering the fish’s environment, whether wading or in a boat, disturbs the natural balance and puts pressure on the fish.
When a fish is hooked, the act of resisting the tension of your line forces the fish to expend tremendous amounts of energy which can lead to exhaustion. If the fight goes on for too long, toxic amounts of lactic acid can build up in the fish’s muscles, weakening the fish and making it vulnerable to opportunistic predators.
Landing a fish by hand can inflict harm as the fish’s trashing can cause it to smash into rocks, bang against the side of the boat, or get squeezed a little too hard when you attempt to gain control. To top it all off, many fish undergo long periods of air exposure while photos are taken, during which time the fish is literally suffocating.
It’s one stressful event after another, and if proper care isn’t taken to help the fish recover before being released, chances are it won’t make it.
Luckily, by taking your time and equipping yourself with the right gear and knowledge, the majority of any unfortunate catch-and-release endings can be avoided altogether.
Reduce Fight Time
Using gear and tackle that is too light to handle the size and power of the fish you’re after is one of the biggest mistakes you can make in terms of fish survival. Fighting big fish with ultralight rods and a light line can be a lot of fun but often leads to extended fight times that thoroughly exhaust the fish.
Instead, every piece of your gear should be adequately matched to your target quarry — use rods with plenty of muscle, lines with ample breaking strain, and don’t be afraid to put the heat on those fish! Make sure the drag on your reel is set heavy enough to apply lots of pressure while still allowing the fish to take line if needed to avoid breaking the leader or tippet.
Enjoy that satisfying bend in your rod, but don’t drag the fight out too long!
Minimize Hook Damage
It’s impossible to eliminate all damage issued to a fish due to the simple fact that we are driving sharp metal objects — hooks — into their flesh. Fortunately for the fish, research has shown that fish don’t feel pain. However, the risk for lethal injury should be a constant consideration when choosing your hooks for fishing.
No matter what style of hook, lure, or fly you’re using, go barbless. Buy ready-made barbless hooks or use your pliers to mash the barbs down. Without a barb to embed and hang up in the fish’s lip, most barbless hooks slide right out with minimal effort.
Gut-hooking a fish is one of the worst hook-related injuries that can occur. Fish will occasionally swallow a fly, lure, or bait very deep into the stomach, and if you attempt to pull it out, the hook will catch and tear the soft tissue — almost always a fatal injury. If you do gut-hook a fish, don’t feel bad because it does happen from time to time. Make every effort to save the fish by clipping the line and leaving the hook or lure inside the fish. This seems counterintuitive, but the fish’s stomach acids will dissolve the hook, ultimately causing less damage than if you were to pull it out.
When bait fishing, gut-hooking can be largely avoided by using circle hooks, which are designed to pull out and hook nicely in the corner of the fish’s mouth.
Use a Landing Net
Landing fish by hand without a net can be done, but takes lots of practice, and if done wrong can wound both the fish and you. Avoid any last-minute chaos and land more fish with one of the handiest items you can carry on the stream — a net.
With a landing net, you can gain control over the fish immediately. You can also keep the fish fully submerged in the water during the duration of the recovery and release process my simply holding the net in place.
When purchasing a landing net, choose a model that features rubber mesh. Avoid nets with knotted nylon mesh as the material is very abrasive and can damage a fish’s scales.
Handle the Fish as Little as Possible
Once you land a fish and it’s securely in the net, your goal should be to minimize your handling of the fish as much as possible. Give the fish a moment to calm down in the net, then reach down and wiggle the hook free. If you do need to touch the fish — maybe the leader is wrapped around the fish and must be untangled — be sure to wet your hands to avoid rubbing off the fish’s coat of protective slime.
Eliminate Air Exposure — Keep Em’ Wet
While we mentioned that it’s impossible to eliminate all hook damage when catching a fish, one thing you can eliminate is a fish’s exposure to air. It just takes some careful netting and handling while resisting the urge to hoist the fish out of the water for a trophy grip-and-grin photo.
Ideally, all air-time will be avoided entirely. If this is not possible, a fish should only be out of water for 15 to 20 seconds at the very most. Although it might not die in your hands, a fish subjected to extended times out of water will be severely compromised beyond the point of recovery.
Keep the Fish Breathing
Maintaining a fish’s respiration is the top priority when helping a fish recover before being released. For a fish to breath, water must flow in through the mouth, pass over the gills, and exit through the operculum (gill opening). This process does not work in reverse and any water moving in the opposite direction may cause additional stress or harm to the fish.
Depending on whether your fishing moving water or stillwater, you’ll need to take specific actions to keep your catch breathing while helping it recover. In moving water such as creeks, rivers, and tidal water with strong currents, the fish should be positioned nose-first into the current so that the water naturally flows in through the mouth.
In stillwaters such as lakes or inshore saltwater, slightly more effort is required to keep water flowing over the fish’s gills. While holding the fish with one hand under the body just behind the head and the other around the base of the tail, move the fish through the water in a figure-eight pattern to simulate the action of the current.
Remember: Moving the fish backward is unproductive and unnecessary.
Allow the Fish to Fully Recover Before Releasing
You shouldn’t delay the release of your fish, but rushing through the process could yield far worse results. By taking your time and maintaining the fish’s respiration, you provide the support the fish needs to recuperate and get back to its life.
So how long should you spend helping the fish recover?
Let the fish tell you! Once the fish has regained its strength, it should swim off freely on its own and be strong enough to evade any predators it encounters.
Treat All Fish Equally
You may be fishing for the iconic cutthroat trout native to the Rocky Mountains, but that doesn’t mean you should treat the sucker fish you catch every third with any less respect. Being a responsible angler is about recognizing the important role each member of the ecosystem plays and doing your best to have as minimal of an impact as possible.
Respect the Water and Land
Fish are products of their environment, and without the proper habitat and conditions, sustainable populations won’t survive. So while it’s incredibly important that we all handle the fish we catch and release as carefully as possible to ensure the survival of that individual fish, it’s crucial that we take measures to keep the environments in which our favorite fish live as pristine as possible.
Wherever you choose to fish, try your best to make it seem as if you were never there. Pack out all your trash and don’t snip off your tippet into the water. When you cast into a tree — we all do it every once in a while — take the time to retrieve it. Don’t risk your life but make an effort to get that expensive lure or fly back.
More and more, regulations are implemented banning the use of lead weights in certain water to reduce the impact of the toxic material on the ecosystem. Regardless of whether or not it’s enforced, make the personal choice to use alternative weights like non-toxic split shot or putty made of tin or tungsten, both options being more eco-friendly than lead.
Get More Out of Every Catch
Taking the steps to ensure that all the fish you catch and release have the greatest chance of survival is an important part of being a responsible angler. And don't be surprised if you find that putting in the extra care and attention while playing, landing, and releasing a fish adds a new level of enjoyment to your overall experience.
Take action with Fishtripr
At its core, Fishtripr aims to promote the philosophy behind catch and release and help every angler worldwide to protect the waters we fish in and the ecosystem that keeps our fishery stocked and healthy.
If you would like to take action and do more to help your local stream or river, we recommend that you look into Fishtripr's last initiative "The No-Kill foundation". You can make a difference and protect the sport that we all love. Please feel free to share any photos and stories of how you have helped protect your local area on your social media and ours (#ConsciousAnglers) or send us an email and we would be happy to post a story about your accomplishments.
You deserve recognition for your efforts and we are happy to oblige. Send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Subscribe to The Angler's Truth | Fishtripr
Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox