Releasing fish is the best tool we have for preserving quality fisheries. Granted, there are times when a species of gamefish overpopulates a river or lake--but not very often. If you want good sport tomorrow, release your fish today.
Just because a fish swims away after it leaves your hand, however, you should not assume it is healthy. A fish that is carelessly handled, then released, may die later the same day, or may be so weakened or injured that it dies a week or month later. It takes care--and caring--to properly catch and release a fish so it stays healthy. Here are a few guidelines.
Use barbless hooks. An easily removed hook reduces the amount of fish handling.
- Use the strongest tippet you can get away with. Fragile tippets are not "sporting." They are fish murder. The longer you have to play a fish, the more exhausted it becomes, and the less likely it will recover.
- Play fish quickly. If a fish is becoming exhausted from being played too long, clamp the line to the rod and point the rod at the fish. Let it break off.
- Watch the water temperature. When the water is above 70 degrees, coldwater fish like trout and steelhead are under stress and should be played quickly. If it's over 75, don't fish for coldwater species.
- Before handling a live fish, wet your hands. This helps prevent the removal of a fish's protective slime.
- Back the hook out carefully, preferably with a suitable tool such as forceps, pliers, or one of those nifty new catch-and-release tools.
- Keep the fish in the water. If you want to take a photo of the fish out of water, get everything set up, then lift the fish and snap the photo quickly. Then immediately put the fish back in the water. Keep the out-of-water time under 15 seconds.
- Don't squeeze the fish.
- Don't put your fingers in its gills or on its eyes.
- Don't let it flop around on rocks or in the bottom of a boat.
- If the fish is hooked any deeper than the lips, clip off the hook and let it go. Quickly.
- Don't grab the fish by the tail, then lift it vertically from the water.
- If it isn't a bass, don't hold it by the mouth.
- Avoid using a net. Fish get tangled in them and can cause damage to their gills, eyes, and slime coating.
- To revive a tired fish, grasp it in front of the tail and move it gently back and forth so water works through its gills. Don't let go the first time the fish tries to swim away; let go the second time. In a river, block the current with your upstream leg and revive your fish in the quiet water behind it.
- If a fish rolls over on its side or back, it's exhausted. Take special care of it.
- Don't dump a fish into fast water. It can start to tumble and not be able to get in a position so it can breath.