If You Love it, Set it Free:
Catching a big fish is a wonderful feeling, so why not share that feeling by releasing your catch to swim away free and perhaps challenge another angler another day? Catch and release is more than just an angling fad; it’s a proven conservation technique that can improve the quality of a sport fishery and, when practiced correctly, ensure there are enough fish for everyone.
As fishing grows in popularity and more anglers hit the water, sport-fishing pressure on fisheries increases. Most government programs and agencies do a good job of regulating fish size and bag limits for their waters. However, when left unchecked, heavy fishing pressure combined with anglers keeping their catch can quickly ruin a great fishery. Practicing catch and release benefits everyone by ensuring that there are always plenty of fish to catch and that big fish are left to spawn and contribute to the gene pool.
A secondary benefit of catch and release is that it allows biologists to monitor and study fish populations through tagging programs. Fish species targeted for study are caught by program participants, tagged, and released. If a fish is caught again by anglers, data from the tag along with information about the fish and the location where it was captured can be sent to the agency running the program. In addition to encouraging fish conservation and promoting public awareness of catch-and-release practices, tagging programs provide biologists with valuable data on fish migration, growth rates, habitat utilization, and mortality associated with both angling and natural events. This data provides accurate information about target fish species and recreational fishing activity that can be used to better manage fisheries.
Practiced responsibly, catch and release can help preserve fish populations. However, sometimes it can have the opposite effect if anglers don’t pay attention to how they handle and release fish. Studies have shown that in well-managed fisheries with catch-and-release practices in effect, the average mortality rate for fish that have been released is around 3%. As sport angling becomes more widespread, fisheries can become inundated with large numbers of anglers practicing poor catch-and-release techniques, causing fish mortality to skyrocket and fish populations to decline.
Where fish populations are healthy and harvesting is legal, keeping a fish or two for the table is an enjoyable aspect of the sport. However, when dealing with sensitive fisheries or heavy fishing pressure, it’s important for responsible anglers to learn and practice proper catch-and-release techniques so that we’ll continue to have healthy fish populations and quality fishing well into the future.
Fight the Fish Quickly
It’s important to realize that despite your best intentions, releasing a fish doesn’t necessarily mean it will survive. Ensuring that your prized catch will live on to fight another day starts as soon as the fish is hooked. Keep pressure on the fish, and try not to overplay it. Learn the limits of your tackle, and push right up to them. Bring the fish in as fast as possible to prevent it from becoming exhausted during the battle. A fish that’s drained of energy has a much lower chance of survival, even if it’s properly handled and released.
Land the Fish Carefully
When the fight is over, it’s still important to take care when landing the fish. Dragging a fish up onto the bank and allowing it to flop around on shallow rocks or the bottom of your boat will decrease its chances of survival. Whenever possible, use a net, and keep the fish in a minimum of six inches of water when landing it.
Some fish such as largemouth and smallmouth bass can be landed without a net by grabbing their lower lip, but trout and other salmonids should not be handled this way. If you have no net, land a small trout by gently cradling the fish under its belly. Larger trout, steelhead, and salmon can be landed by taking a firm grip around the base of the fish’s tail. Just make sure to always wet your hands before touching the fish so you do not remove the slime coating that protects it from bacteria and parasites.
Most importantly, never attempt to land a fish by putting your fingers into its gills. Doing so risks damaging the delicate tissue underneath the gill plate, and most fish handled this way will not survive even if they seem fine when released.
Pinch Your Barbs
Using barbless hooks or pinching your barbs will help you unhook the fish quickly and avoid causing unnecessary stress or harm. Studies have shown that using barbless hooks increases the survival rates of released fish and, compared to fishing with barbs, has very little effect on an angler’s ability to successfully land a fish.
Handle the Fish as Little as Possible
If you don’t plan to take a picture, it’s best to release the fish without handling it at all: use your pliers or a quick-release tool to unhook the fish while it’s still in the water. If you must handle the fish, make sure your hands are wet and gently cradle it beneath the belly, supporting its body weight. You can grip the fish firmly, but avoid squeezing it. Fish have delicate internal organs that can be easily ruptured under too much pressure.
Keep ‘Em Wet
Keep the fish and its gills submerged in the water at all times when unhooking and handling it. Imagine competing in a wrestling match for several minutes and then being held underwater while you’re trying to catch your breath. You wouldn’t last very long, would you? Neither would a fish when held out of the water after a long fight.
If you’d like to take a picture of your fish, keep it in the water until your camera and photographer are fully prepared. Consider keeping the fish partially submerged for the photo. If you wish to take the fish out of the water, do it quickly and then return it to the water as fast as possible. Take several shots at once to avoid repeatedly lifting the fish out of the water. A simple rule of thumb is to hold the fish out of the water no longer than you can hold your breath.
Release the Fish Properly
Releasing the fish correctly is just as important to its survival as fighting and handling it right. An exhausted fish released into a heavy current or flung haphazardly over the side of your boat has little chance of survival. If you’re in a river, find a spot where the current is soft but steady, and point the fish upstream. Allow it to swim away from you under its own power. In a lake, hold the fish gently below the surface and let it swim away when it’s ready. If you’re in a boat and can’t reach the water’s surface, point the fish’s head toward the water and drop it so it penetrates the surface like a spear. Never throw a fish, and avoid releasing fish into stagnant water or a heavy current.
Sometimes a fish will get exhausted even if you fight it quickly and handle it correctly. Treating the fish with extra care before release will increase its chances of survival.
How to Tell If a Fish Is Exhausted
An exhausted fish will appear very weak and lie completely still. If allowed to swim free, it may lose its equilibrium and float to the surface belly up.
Reviving an Exhausted Fish
It’s important to gently hold onto the fish until it’s ready to swim away on its own. If you’re in a river where there’s a current, find a spot where the current is soft but steady, and hold the fish facing upstream to allow fresh water to pass through its gills. If you’re in still water, it can help to guide the fish slowly back and forth in an “S” motion to increase the flow of oxygenated water over its gills. Be patient and let the fish tell you when it’s ready to be released. When it regains strength, it will attempt to swim away on its own, and you can relax your grip.
Releasing a fish and watching it swim away strong can be one of the most fulfilling aspects of fishing. When practiced correctly, catch-and-release techniques can help us maintain healthy fisheries for years into the future, so that our children and even their children can have the same opportunities to enjoy the quality fishing we have today.