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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.

Abel Hemostats

Hemostats were invented by a French surgeon in the 1800s as a tool for stopping blood flow, and they were adopted by fly fishers in the '50s and '60s as catch-and-release gained popularity. As a hook removal tool they are quick and precise, but the clamp engages whether you want it to or not, and they can be awkward to disengage with cold, wet fingers. Abel Hemostats are miniature precision pliers small enough to hang on a lanyard, and the clamp does not engage until you flip the switch on top. Click Here to View Product!

Diablo Adios

The Adios is an extra-wide 36" so you can say goodbye to the idea of a 'tippy ' paddleboard. The traction pads give you a no-slip grip, and the pull-up strap makes it easy to stand up and sit down in the Larry Chair — an accessory that gives you extra comfort and as well as 10" of height for sight-fishing while seated. This feature-rich hybrid also has adjustable foot pegs, storage areas front and back with tie-downs in the stern, and bungees up front, and a 13"x24" cockpit-accessible front dry storage locker. Smooth, flat surfaces allow for suction-mounted rod holders and electronics. Click Here to View Product!

Dyna-King Ultimate Indexer

Ron Abby worked for 32 years toward designing what he calls 'a fly fisher's dream vise. ' Built on the Barracuda chassis, the added indexing feature allows you to rotate the vise to eight pre-set stopping points, but you can disengage it by unscrewing the knurled brass knob. It also has a swing-arm bobbin holder to position the thread and bobbin for true rotary tying. Click Here to View Product!

Fishpond Chica

With adjustable straps and a feminine cut, it's clear Fishpond has put effort into the Chica Women's Vest. A total of nine interior and exterior pockets offers a home for everything from fly boxes to lunch. A large back pouch allowed me to easily bring along extra layers, and fleece-lined handwarmer pockets hold the promise of more comfortable cold-weather fishing. As with all things Fishpond, attractive colors and Western detailing make this a cute vest with big personality. Click Here to View Product!

Hardy Bouglé

What list of 'perfect things ' would be complete without a Hardy Perfect reel? The Bouglé (pronounced BOOG-lay) is a variation of the original Perfect that was produced at the request of Louis Bouglé, a French cyclist, inventor, angler, and competition caster. The original Bouglé was built in Alnwick, England from 1903 to 1939, and this newer version is made in the same shop by Hardy craftsmen. It voices an authoritative check system with an unmistakable Hardy sound. Click Here to View Product!

Native Versa Board

This is a true hybrid. You can stand up on the Versa Board, sit down in the cockpit, or you can add a real sit-on-top seat for comfortable all-day fishing. This board has large-volume displacement for a 300-pound carry capacity and added stability for rough weather or — better yet — large, unruly fish. The Versa Board arrives factory-rigged with two Scotty flush mounts, a Groove Scotty rod mount, two rod holders, and a deck-mounted paddle holder. Click Here to View Product!

Orvis Helios 2 Switch

When rod designer Shawn Combs set out to add switch rods to the popular Helios 2 rod family, he had the same parameters — a 20% reduction in swing weight, and a 20% increase in strength.
'When we were designing the Helios 2 switch rods, we wanted to reduce their swing weight (from the original Helios) without sacrificing any power or accuracy, ' explained Combs. 'The H2's steep tapers allowed us to keep more mass in the butt section for fish fighting and longer casts, but the rods are still light enough to overhand cast like a 10-footer. ' Like the single-handed H2s, the switch rods have midnight blue blanks, crushproof REC Recoil guides, California buckeye burl reel seats with black-nickel skeletons, cork handles, and cork-composite on the top and bottom of the handle. The rods will be available in five different 11-foot models, from 5-weights through 9-weights. Click Here to View Product!

Orvis Pivot

When Orvis product designer Tim Daughton went to a demonstration of a new rubber compound produced by JStep, they had him walk up a 45-degree slope of smooth stainless steel drenched in vegetable oil. With standard sticky rubber, he couldn't make it up the slope. With JStep rubber soles, he walked up the incline like Spider-Man. We all know that water and rocks aren't the same as oil and steel — there are different demands. The soles that worked in vegetable oil were developed for the energy industry for use by workers on greasy oil-rig platforms. But Daughton knew JStep was onto something, and with minor modifications to the rubber compound and a completely different tread design, he was able to change the entire Orvis boot program, starting from the ground up. We tried the Pivot on the West Branch of the Delaware and found that the key to the excellent traction was the 'dual-durometer ' rubber compound in the sole. What this means is that the outer edge of the sole is made from a harder rubber compound for durability and for positive traction on soft surfaces like muddy riverbanks. The inner rubber is made from a softer, less durable rubber that clings to rock like nothing we've ever seen. This may be the first rubber-sole boot where in many situations, you don't need metal studs. $180

Patagonia Spring River Wader

Patagonia has redesigned their women's waders for 2014 and brought several innovations to the market. EZ-Lock suspenders are mounted at the waist and allow for quick conversion from waist to chest waders, and they also unclip to allow for a quick drop-seat feature — those riverside rest stops just became much more pleasant. The fit is trim but allows free movement, and as I often fish with groups of rowdy guys, the drop seat feature makes river life far easier. The waders are comfortable at full height, or worn at the waist, and the wool-lined neoprene booties were surprisingly cool and comfortable even on warmer days. A flip-out dry bag mounted inside the chest provides a safe haven for my cell phone and an extra camera battery. $400

Sage Pike & Musky

Everyone knows about Sage's Smallmouth and Largemouth Bass II rods — deeply loading rods for big flies and big fish in warmwater situations. Sage has now created two more specialty species-oriented rods, the Pike and the Musky. These rods have the same cosmetics and hardware as the 7'9" tournament-inspired rods in the Bass II series, but are 9' long and designed to throw even bigger flies, and they also have oversized stripping guides and extended fighting butts.
The Pike rod is a 9' 10-weight, and the Musky is a 9' 11-weight, and each comes with an appropriate floating Pike or Musky line. Our testers used both models on Wollaston Lake, Saskatchewan, for pike up to 50 inches, and found they were perfectly suited to giant flies up to 18 inches, and surface-churning topwater bugs that attract monster pike in shallow bays. Click Here to View Product!

Sage Travel Tube

Made using an aluminum extrusion process, Sage Travel Tubes have alternating convex and concave curves for a sophisticated look you don't get with off-the-rack tubes. Its distinctive octagonal shape also keeps the container stable on smooth surfaces so it won't roll around on the bottom of a drift boat, the back of a truck, or in overhead bins. The upscale rod 'safes ' have oversize rubber end caps to prevent scratches and dents, and a bottom cap with a custom ID area to write crucial contact information. A quarter-turn, tenon-style cap clips shut for a tight seal against dust, water, and grit. Offered in three diameters of 2", 2.25", and 4" (to hold one, two, or four rods) and three lengths of 33", 44", and 55" for a total of nine sizes to fit everything from your favorite bamboo to a bundle of saltwater sticks. Click Here to View Product!

Simms Contender PFD

This handy device could prevent your untimely death and save your family from grief and heartache. Still not convinced you need one? The USCG-approved PFD has 29 pounds of buoyancy and is covered in a 1680-denier ballistic nylon shell so it will last through the next decade. Click Here to View Product!

Simms Pliers

Lightweight yet tough, these pliers are machined from aircraft-grade aluminum in Bozeman, Montana. The hollow stainless-steel hinge gives you a third traction point, and both the jaws and the cutting tool align perfectly. $160

Sweetgrass Quad

Most bamboo rods are made from five or six strips of glued bamboo. The Quad is a four-sided bamboo rod pioneered by Jerry Kustich and Glenn Bracket at their shop in Twin Bridges, Montana. This version is an 8', 5-weight with two tips, nickel silver ferrules, and an agate stripping guide. Even the olive wood reel seat of this future heirloom is hand-turned by Montana ­craftsmen. Click Here to View Product!

Wild Water HX Series

Inexpensive rods come from overseas right? Well, yes and no. Wild Water owner Eric Dodds designed his HX Series tapers in Rochester, New York, and has the blanks manufactured in Asia. But Wild Water does all the rod assembly here, including reaming and gluing cork rings, and turning the handles on a lathe. The cork and components like the guides and reel seats, come from the Connecticut company REC Components, and after all that, Wild Water can still sell a good, 'assembled in the U.S. ' rod for less than $150. Click Here to View Product!

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