The ethics of catch and release have become deeply ingrained in angling culture. And they should be. As the great fishing author Lee Wulff said in 1938, “A game fish is too valuable to caught only once.”
Releasing your catch can not only extend your day of fishing, but it limits your impact on a likely strained ecosystem and provides the satisfaction that you’re investing in the future of the sport.
Learning how to properly handle fish for release is important for every angler, especially new ones. But the matter is particularly complicated up here in the Pacific Northwest because sometimes, the most ethical thing to do is not release your catch.
Despite what some purists may say, hatchery salmon and steelhead within the harvest limit should be bonked and barbecued. Or baked. Or smoked. Or poached. Or salted into gravlax. Or stirred into chowder…
In my opinion there’s no debate on the subject (the killing, not the cooking) and I won’t hire a guide who mandates the release of hatchery fish.
Strong words? Think about this: hatchery fish, particularly anadromous ones, directly compete with the struggling native runs for habitat, food and mates.
These fish, identified by a missing adipose fin, were bred in a tank by humans for the purpose of being caught and killed by other humans. Not only do we as taxpayers and license holders pay for them, but we’re also paying for attempts to restore the wild runs they have been scientifically shown to hurt.
We anglers badly want those wild fish back.
So don’t hesitate to do your part. If the fish you catch is a hatchery adult (or early-returning jack) salmon, steelhead or trout, it’s legal to harvest, and you’re certain you or someone you know will eat it before it spoils or freezer burns; kill it, bleed it and use every piece you can. It might just improve your karma for catching and releasing that elusive native fish.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, here are some helpful tips on handling and releasing your catch safely and ethically.
To be fair, it’s not like I’ve never been guilty of mishandling a fish. Like all fishermen, I was at one point young, stupid or drunk. I don’t get bent out of shape about it. The important thing is to make sure to handle your next fish as safely as possible. And the one after that.
Step 1 | Pinch your barbs before you even leave the house
When I buy new flies or lures, I try to pinch the barbs before they ever go in my box.
In Washington saltwater areas and many rivers, crimped barbs are mandatory. I personally think it should be that way everywhere.
There is passionate debate about whether this is just a “feel-good measure”, but my belief, based on my own experience and that of others with much more experience than mine, is that barbless hooks do significantly less damage to your fish and are always much easier to remove. And the tradeoff is minimal.
Yes, barbless hooks make it harder to keep fish hooked. But fish jump. Fish run at you. Fish preform circus-like death rolls when approached with a net. Fish come off. That is fishing. The sooner an angler learns that this sport is about the fishing not just the catching, the better at it they’ll be. Steady line pressure helps too.
I’ve watched a big, beautiful native fish float away to die after inhaling a barbed hook that bled and tore on it’s way out. It’s not something I want to see again.
Pinch your barbs. A good rule of thumb I read recently is to flatten them to the point they could slide in and out of cloth without catching or tearing.
Additionally, if your lure comes out of the box with a treble hook, take a minute and swap it out for a single Siwash hook attached to a small swivel. Not only are these hooks much less damaging to your catch, but many anglers including myself believe they actually set and stay hooked better than trebles, particularly when fish roll or jump.
Step 2 | Decide whether you will be keeping or releasing your fish before you land it
Or better yet, before you even go fishing.
I’ve already covered my ethics on the subject of hatchery fish, but when it comes to natives I like to release them with few exceptions.
For steelhead, Washington’s widely endangered state fish, there is simply no excuse to kill a native. None. Regardless of what the law might say on certain coastal systems.
With salmon I lean on the side of catch and release for wild fish, but am not opposed to occasionally harvesting a few when WDFW regulations and abundance allow.
Trout get even more complicated. On some fisheries such as over-populated alpine lakes, harvesting a few trout might help strengthen the population. And if you’ve been eating nothing but freeze-dried backpacking meals for three days, it will certainly strengthen you.
But for most rivers, streams and lakes, releasing native trout like cutthroat or rainbows should be the norm. If you’re uncertain about the system’s health or if it’s worth killing and cleaning your catch, just let it go.
And don’t wait for your fish to be dry on the bank before you make that decision. You should be incorporating it into how long you play your fish, as well as into the strength of line and leader you’re using.
Step 3 | Get your hands or net wet
You’ve decided to release your wild fish. Good call! A dry net or hands can absorb the protective mucus (see: fish slime) that coats a fish’s skin and protects it from infection. Get ‘em wet before they ever make contact with your catch.
Better yet, and particularly relevant if pursuing threatened runs, wear gloves or a mesh bag on your hands to limit contact. If you only have one, use it on whatever hand will be gripping just above the tail (more on that later).
Step 4 | Net your fish, or very carefully ease it into shallow water
Do NOT drag it up onto the rocks, dirt, grass or sand unless you’re planning to keep it. Dry sand and dirt can get embedded in a fish’s gills. Rocks can injure or kill a fish when it thrashes. Grass and leaves can soak up their slime.
When landing your catch, I believe a net is the easiest and least harmful method, especially if its rubber or knotless. Nets make it easy to subdue the fish and remove the hook while still keeping it submerged in the water. They also prevent the need to strongly grip and tail a fish, and limit the chance it will injure itself on the rocks.
If you don’t have a net handy, angle your rod horizontally to the water and ease your fish headfirst into the shallows. Avoid large rocks, sticks or other sharp obstacles that might injure the fish and don’t slide it fully out of the water.
Step 5 | Gently but firmly grab hold of your fish
The grip and grin pose is popular for a reason. It looks cool and it works.
Strongly grab a large fish’s “wrist” just above the tail with one hand, and cup its belly with the other. If your fish is under 16” or so, carefully hold it by the belly with one hand.
Fish gills and eyes are very sensitive to intrusion by foreign objects. You wouldn’t want fingers or metal pliers in your eyes either, so do everything you can to avoid contact with these parts of the fish.
Step 6 | Take a minute and give the fish a breath
The fish just fought you to the point of exhaustion. At the least it’s out of breath, you might be too.
Before I ever lift a wild fish out of the water or snap photos, I give them a good 5-10 second break. The key is to let it catch a few breaths, but not revive to the point of trying to make a break for it or thrash around violently in your hands.
This is a perfect chance for the angler to stop for a few seconds and admire the beautiful creature before you.
If your fish does try to escape, and you think it might injure itself struggling, just let it go. You can always claim it was bigger than it was if there’s no evidence to the contrary.
Step 7 | If legal to do so, take your fish out of the water for a photo for no more than five consecutive seconds
Some guidebooks recommend holding your breath while the fish is out of the water to help judge when it’s had enough. I think the five second rule is an easy, conservative approach for maximum out of the water time.
If your fish is say a wild steelhead or other protected species, or you want to handle it with exceptional care, be sure to leave its head and gills at least partially submerged at all times.
The shot of a fish dripping and glistening above the water is a hell of a lot more epic than a bloody stringer on the lawn. Here’s your chance to take a photo for memories and bragging rights. If your shot doesn’t turn out, give the fish another drink and repeat within reason.
A few quick photo pointers for anglers:
- The sun should be at the photographers back
- Fill the frame as much as possible
- Set the focus before the taking the shot
- Avoid distracting conflicts of line; like a tree rising from the anglers arm or the bank blurring out the line of the fish’s back
- And smile. Goofy, happy, I-just-landed-a-River-Monster smiles are the best.
Step 8 | Release the fish by cradling it gently upright in moving water
You’ve got your hero shot. You may have even just “bonded” with your catch. Now it’s time to say goodbye.
Using forceps or pliers remove the hook if you haven’t done so already. Assuming you’re using barbless hooks it should be easy to pinch the hook at the bend and turn so it comes out the way it went in.
If the hook is stuck down in the fish’s throat or stomach, just cut the leader at the eyelet and leave it. Hopefully it will work itself out within a few days, which is safer than ripping out the guts to retrieve it.
Deeply hooked or badly bleeding fish are ones you should consider keeping if legal to do so. If not, eagles and bears have to eat too.
If you are on a river or stream, DO NOT move the fish back and forth. This will force extra water pressure over their gills, which is unnecessary and does not sound pleasant.
Simply cradle the fish in medium flowing current and allow it to tell you when it’s ready to go. They typically don’t do long goodbyes.
If you are fishing a lake or other stillwater, very gentle forward movement can help give the fish some oxygen and regain its strength, but don’t be excessive!
The time it takes a fish to recover can vary dramatically depending on the species and duration of the fight. So don’t rush it. I’ve had trout that dart off the second you put them near the water and steelhead that need a few minutes of chill time before they take off.
Enjoy it, when their gone, their gone. But not forgotten.
*Note: These tips are meant for coldwater species like trout, salmon, steelhead and char. I don’t know crap about bass or warmwater fish, other than they go crazy for a black Woolley Bugger.