Proper Handling to Conserve Fish Stocks

Proper Handling to Conserve Fish Stocks
Underwater digital cameras allow you to get photos of a trout in its natural environment, without ever removing it from the water. This photo was taken with a GoPro Hero 3+. Photo: Ross Purnell

When ANGLING innovator Lee Wulff first popularized it, catch-and-release fishing was a revolutionary way to conserve fish stocks amid a growing American population and dwindling habitat. Today, in many places, it is still the best way to share the resource with other anglers.

Keep in mind, however, that in some places a wild fish population (trout, striped bass, panfish) can withstand some harvest. There's nothing wrong with eating a few fish caught in places where a wild fish population has high reproductive capability, or especially in some put-and-take stocked trout fisheries when the trout are not likely to survive the season due to environmental conditions.

If you are going to release a fish, however, it's important to do it properly. Releasing a fish that dies due to improper handling is a waste (in some cases over 20 percent mortality), and if you catch-and-release many fish this way during the course of a day, you could kill more fish than someone who keeps a legal limit.

The best way to release a fish is to do so without touching it. Release the fish by sliding your hand down the leader, grab the fly with hemostats or a Ketchum Release tool (, $20), and twist the fly out. The fish swims away untouched. A barbless hook makes this release technique both easy and effective.

It's easy to release smaller fish without touching them. With large specimens, however, you may want to handle the fish to get a quick photo, or you may have to net the fish or otherwise handle the fish to retrieve the fly without breaking the line.

Here are some things you should keep in mind when you release a fish by handling it:

Most fish are covered in a protective slime. If you must handle the fish, keep this protective coating intact: Don't touch the fish with dry hands, don't throw it in the grass or snow on the bank, and don't net it unless you have to.

All fish have delicate gills, and their internal organs are not protected by a sturdy rib cage like ours. Never squeeze a fish while attempting to hold it or you will injure the fish. Also, the fish will probably pop out of your hands like a bar of soap. The harder you squeeze, the more likely this is to occur.

Instead, gently cradle the trout or other fish with your hands, allowing it to rest/lean on your fingers and hands to distribute its weight. Always hold the fish in the water as much as possible, so the water helps support the fish naturally and all the weight is not on your hands.

If you catch a trophy or even just a memorable fish, you may want a photograph. As above, cradle the fish with your hands and lift it momentarily from the water.

You can also compose excellent photos with the fish in the water, especially if the water is clear. Photos like this show fish in their natural environment, reduce stress on the fish, and decrease the likelihood that you'll squeeze the fish.

Waterproof digital cameras allow you take underwater photos without removing a fish from the water. With good light and clear water, these photos can offer a fresh perspective that is generations removed from the old "stringer" photos our grandfathers seemed to enjoy so much.

If you do lift the fish from the water, make sure your fishing companion is ready with the camera turned on and lens cap off before you lift the fish from the water. (Photo tip: remove your sunglasses before you have your picture taken so people can see who is holding the fish.)

If you are fishing alone, don't put the trout up on the bank to photograph it. This makes for a poor picture, and when the trout flops on the snow, rocks, sticks, or sand, it can injure itself. If you are alone, cradle the fish half in/half out of the water with one hand, and shoot a few close-up pictures with your digital camera with the other hand.

Wearable GoPro cameras are another way to capture those magical moments on the stream, and you can use them hands-free with almost no additional impact on the fish.

Net or Beach

With big trout and light tippet, a net is probably better for the fish (as compared to leaving the fly stuck in the fish's mouth) but use a net with a soft rubber mesh basket. Net bags made from cotton or nylon (worse) are abrasive, which is fine if you are netting a fish to keep, but not if you plan on releasing it.

Steelhead and salmon anglers have been historically guilty of "beaching" fish, particularly if they are fishing alone. 

The idea here is that if you work the fish into shallow water, it tips onto its side and can't swim. This can work to subdue a large salmonid, but too often the fish thrashes on the rocks, making it a poor technique for catch-and-release.

Small fish rarely need to be revived because they are not played to the point of exhaustion. When you catch a large fish on a light tippet, however, you must often tire the fish completely before you can handle it. In these cases, you should carefully revive the fish before you release it. If you release it too soon, it may tumble to the bottom and die.

Hold the fish so it faces into clean, moderate current so the water naturally rushes through the fish's mouth and over its gills. There's no need to "pump" the fish back and forth unnaturally, as the fish's respiration system works only with water flowing in one direction.

In a stillwater situation, cradle the fish in clean water and allow it to pump water through its gills naturally. Try to keep it out of muddy water.

If you handle the fish, don't stick your fingers into the gills. This is the equivalent of having someone sticking their fingers in your bronchial tubes.

In the summer, when the water is warm, properly reviving the fish becomes critical. When you revive a trout, don't do it in warm backwaters or sloughs off the main river. Revive it near riffles where the water is as cool and oxygenated as possible.

As the fish regains its strength, its gills will work faster and you will feel the fish struggle to get away. When the fish feels strong, allow it to slip behind a rock or some other protected area where it has some shelter from the current. Do not release a weakened trout or other fish into fast water.

If the water temperature is near or above 70 degrees, catch-and-release fishing becomes unethical and impractical, as the mortality rate will be high.

Get Your Fish On.

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