Catch & Release Best Practices

Catch & Release Best Practices

Basically, good Catch and Release practices come down to keeping the fish’s best interest at heart. After all, if you’re going to release the fish, you want to know it has its best chance of survival, right? These tips will help. Learn them, practice them all the time, and share them with others. You’ll be doing your part to maintain our healthy fisheries and help restore those that are suffering!

Consider where you are fishing

Can you safely bring a fish to hand and release it again from an embankment ten feet above the water? From a bridge thirty feet above the water? Over all those rocks between the water’s edge and your seat? If you are serious about the fish’s survival, consider fishing from a spot that allows you to legitimately land and release fish safely and gently. This works in your interest as well – what if you catch the “really big one” this time out? How would you land that one?

What’s the water temperature like? Particularly when fishing for coldwater species like trout, when the water becomes warm, fish have a decreased chance of survival after being released. Warm water contains less dissolved oxygen and fish are under more stress in a warmer water environment. When water temps are high, consider other fishing opportunities that will have less impact.

Choose your tackle wisely

The right size hooks and line strength for the fish you are going to target is a good place to start. If you intend to release your fish, remember that fish caught on flies or lures with single hooks have the best chance of survival. If possible to do so, replace treble hooks with single hooks. If you’re fishing with bait, get rid of your conventional hooks and start using circle hooks. Circle hooks have been around since the turn of the century, but they’re getting a recent revival in the recreational angling community. It’s rare to gut-hook a fish using one, they virtually always hook the fish in the corner of the mouth – and they’re super effective. If you decide to fish with bait and conventional hooks, set the hook quickly to avoid deeply hooking fish. Deeply hooked fish have a good chance of fatally tearing internal organs while you are landing them.

Pinch down the barbs on all of your hooks

Barbless hooks allow for a much easier and quicker release of your fish, with less damage to the fish’s mouth. You can use pliers to pinch down the barbs on your hooks or you can carefully file them off of large hooks. You’ll be surprised how few fish you lose using barbless hooks compared to the number you lost while using barbed hooks. Nearly every angler who fishes often for very long hooks him or herself at some point. At that moment, you’ll either thank yourself for removing the barb or kick yourself for not!

Don’t fight your fish any longer than necessary

Purposely allowing your battle with a fish to continue when it’s not necessary places undue strain on the fish. Exhausted fish often swim away, but die days later because of lactic acid that builds up in their system. The longer they fight, the more toxic lactic acid that builds up. This means you should use the proper line test strength for the fish you intend to catch, and land your fish swiftly, but not carelessly – after all, the point is to land the fish!

Keep the fish in the water

Don’t lift fish out of the water – don’t even touch the fish if you don’t have to. Many fish can be released without ever touching them. Just bend over, remove the hook with your hand or with pliers, and let the fish swim away. Research has shown that keeping a fish in the water dramatically increases its chances of survival. Think of it – after the fight of your life, say going 12 rounds in a boxing ring or running a marathon, imagine having your air cut off! That’s exactly what we do when we lift fish from the water. Fish kept out of the water for more than one minute have a greatly diminished chance of survival, once a fish has been out of the water for three minutes, it has virtually no chance of survival, even if it swims away.

Keep your hands wet when handling fish

If you do handle a fish, and you do it with dry hands, it can cause some of the protective coating (“slime”) on the fish’s skin to come off. This coating is designed to protect fish from disease. Wet hands reduce this risk and can actually make it a little easier to handle your catch. Some anglers prefer soft wet gloves.

Large predatory fish (including bass) shouldn’t be lifted out of the water vertically by the jaw or gill plate. The weight of the viscera of large fish is sufficient to tear internal connective tissue. The connective tissue does not grow in nature to resist gravity in this direction. Lunkers (including bass, catfish, muskies and northern pike, salmon and trout to name a few) should be landed in a net or with one hand supporting the belly if optimal health after release is a consideration.

Maintain control of the fish

Fish that are allowed to bang around on streamside rocks or the bottom of a boat harm themselves and expend a lot of undue energy. Depending upon the fish, you can control it by cupping your hand (or hands) around it, cradling it, grabbing it by the bottom lip, or grabbing it across the back. Under no circumstance should you ever grab a fish by the eyes or gills (despite what you’ve heard before or seen in outdoor magazines). Avoid squeezing fish around the belly, as this can damage internal organs.

Keep small fish vertical when holding them by the jaw, use a horizontal hold for larger fish

If you catch a bass or another fish that you will lift from the water by the jaw, be sure to keep the body in a straight up and down position. Do not attempt to hold the fish at a 45 degree angle or in a horizontal position by the jaw alone. You can dislocate the fish’s jaw, making it impossible for the fish to eat, effectively starving the fish to death.

If you catch a large fish be SURE you hold the fish horizontally. This includes largemouth bass in particular, but also catfish, northern pike and muskies, walleye, salmon and trout. Large fish should never be lifted vertically by the jaw or gill plate. They have lived their life in suspension, and a vertical hold can tear their internal organs, viscera, and dislocate their spine. For a horizontal photo of the fish, wet your other hand (not holding the mouth or jaw) and support the fish under the belly to take the stress off the jaw and internal organs.

As a matter of repetition, the best thing for large fish is to keep them in the water.

Use needle nose pliers, hemostats, or fishhook removers to remove hooks

Pliers or similar tools allow you to remove hooks with better control and limit your “hands on” contact with the fish. Fish that are barely hooked or hooked in the lip can usually be freed with your hand, but it’s a good idea to always have a pair of needle nose pliers for those harder to reach hooks.

Do not try to “dig out” deeply engorged hooks

Particularly when fishing with bait, fish can completely swallow the hook. When that happens, what’s best?

Our research shows that – at least on trout – you should not just cut the line and let them swim away. Yes, they swim away, but most die within 24 – 72 hours. The engorged hook impales the stomach wall, and either tears open the stomach, which poisons the fish internally, or the hook point impales the stomach and then jabs at the heart and liver as the fish swims, and the fish bleeds to death (internally).

Many of us have caught fish with engorged hooks, so we know that fish CAN live that way. However, in our research, the survival rate is very, very low. It was 100% mortality on large trout, for example. Other species (like bass and sunfish) are heartier and may do better, but still many will die.

Conventional wisdom suggests that you should just cut the line at the fish’s mouth and let the fish go.
If it appears that the hook is embedded in cartilage, this is a good strategy. Trying to horse a deeply swallowed hook out of a fish can end up doing more harm than good. In this hooking situation, most hooks will simply rust out after a short time.

Some de-hooking tools also help remove deeply engorged hooks.

We have seen mixed results with both of these tactics. Our bottom-line on the matter is that if you’re fishing single, barbless hooks and artificial baits, you’ll deep-hook fish rarely. Using circle hooks with live bait setups will also help. Prevention is the best medicine here, because once a fish has swallowed a hook, either cutting the line or removing the hook spells trouble for the fish.

Use Catch-and-Release Nets

If you must use a net to land fish, get a ‘catch and release’ net. The material is less abrasive to the fish’s skin and “slime,” and the smaller mesh size does less damage as well. “Cradle” and “U”-type nets are excellent for long fish and safe fish handling. Good C&R nets typically have soft or knotless mesh.

Release fish promptly

The best bet for your fish’s survival is to let it go immediately. Livewells utilizing fish health-enhancing products are the best bet if you aren’t going to release fish immediately. Keeping fish in baskets or on stringers, particularly if they are in current or are being drug by a boat, virtually eliminates any chance of survival that the fish may have had. When you catch a fish, determine on the spot if you are going to keep the fish or not. It is an atrocity to find a few small dead fish at the boat ramp because an irresponsible angler decided “they didn’t have enough to bother with,” but we’ve all seen it.

Revive your fish carefully

In moving water, hold your fish pointing into the current in a slower portion of the river until it is revived and swims away on its own. In still-water fishing situations, there is debate as to whether moving the fish back and forth or just holding it gently in the water is more beneficial to the fish. At, we believe that holding the fish in the water with a gentle push forward as it regains its strength is the best technique. Never “throw” fish – even small fish, back into the water. Even if they “swim away,” the shock reduces their chance of survival.

Take photos as quickly as possible

The practice of catch-photo-release is a good one, it’s our favorite kind of “CPR.” But photos should be taken quickly and with minimum impact to the fish. A fish with an engorged hook hanging by the line has little chance of survival after dangling from its guts, for example. Photos with the angler standing in the water, holding a fish, dripping with water, inches above the surface creates a beautiful photograph that makes a statement. Photos of long stringers of dead fish, kitchen doorway or front yard photos, or a bucket of fish lying on a frozen lake are becoming taboo and are distasteful. If you do keep a “mess” of fish, consider lifting the one or two best fish and taking a photo of those while you’re still near the water – you’ll have a memento that you can be proud of, and that others will be comfortable to look at.

Keep fish that aren’t going to make it

Finally, if you’ve caught a fish and it does not revive and swim away on its own, (keep in mind that it can take a couple of minutes to revive large coldwater species) is bleeding, drifts to the bottom or floats to the top after being released, you should keep that fish for your daily limit if it is legal to do so. Use your judgment.

In closing, we believe that all types of fish deserve respect, regardless of species. Whether ESA listed steelhead or common carp, all fish are a part of the ecosystems in which they live, and all entertain us with a battle when caught. Let’s show them the respect that they deserve, whether we selectively harvest or release them.

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