Catch and Release Care

Catch and Release Care 

by James Reese

Brand new to fly fishing? Or have you been fishing for a while? It is a good time to brush up on your catch and release skills. My hope is that as you read the tips below it teaches you something new and encourages you to practice catch and release in a better way. This matters because we are stewards of the outdoors. We need to set an example for people watching us and learning from us. If we as users don’t care about the resource, who will?

Here are some tips and discussion on why it matters.
  • Play the fish fast. Think about what happened the last time you had a long battle with a fish on a fly rod. What did that fish do? Did it swim off with fight and vigor? Or did it sit at the bottom near your feet and recover for several minutes? Playing the fish to exhaustion can stress out the fish and cause the fish to become sick and vulnerable to predation. To accomplish this, fight fish with appropriate weight rod and tippet.
  • Use barbless hooks. Barbed hooks create a larger hole in the fish’s mouth and can cause more damage. We have seen pictures of trout that appear to be smiling like the one pictured here. That fish is not a happy fish, in fact the upper part of the jaw has been damaged and removed. Switching to barbless hooks should not significantly impact fish you lose. If you maintain line tension the fish should not throw the hook easily. It is actually easier to set the hook with a barbless fly!

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Fish on the left with a damaged upper jaw or maxillary. Fish on the right with an intact upper jaw.

  • Keep your fish wet! Before handling your catch, wet your hands. There are two reasons here to keep your fish wet.
    • Reason 1: Fish breathe by passing water over their gills. Without water moving over their gills, the fish is unable to breathe. A rule of thumb that I use when handling fish, If I couldn’t hold my breath that long, neither can the fish. Try to keep the fish out of the water to a minimum. Instead of holding your fish out of the water, try kneeling down and unhooking your fish in a net.
    • Reason 2: Fish have a protective layer of slime mucus over their skin. This mucus is the first layer of defense for fish from infection. Drying out or removing the mucus can cause infection in fish.

  • Land your fish with care. I Carry a net with me on every fishing outing, not because I expect a monster every time, but because a landing net makes handling, photographing, and caring for the fish easier. There are 3 types of nets commonly seen among anglers. Rubber nets, mesh nets, and nylon nets. The rubber nets do the best job of protecting the delicate mucus coating on fish. The mesh nets seem to do an okay job. The nylon nets with the knots are the hardest on fish and should not be used. Dragging your catch onto the bank should be avoided. Besides the removal of protective mucus, your fish could hurt itself flopping around on the hard surfaces. The use of lip grabbers like BogaGrips should be limited to toothy fish where necessary to quickly remove the hook and prevent injury to the angler. Many lip grips can damage the lower jaws of fish.

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  • Handle your fish with care. Fish live in the water and do not experience pressure on their bodies the same way we do. Wet your hands before handling a fish to prevent the removal of mucus. Gently cradle your catch, do not squeeze. Do not put your fingers inside the gills of the fish. The gills are a very sensitive area for fish and there is a large amount of blood flow. If the gills are damaged the fish has a high chance of dying. I know people who "want a better grip" and use tailing gloves to land fish. These gloves remove the protective mucus from the fish. A video of what can happen when using tailing gloves can be found here.
  • How to hold a trout vs. bass? The only real difference between handling bass and trout is that bass can be lipped without potentially causing damage to the jaw of the fish. Best practice is to gently cradle and support the fish with wet hands and without squeezing. Below are examples of best practice ways of holding a trout and bass.

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Here is a recent scientific article on which way of holding bass causes the least damage:

I have not covered everything here on catch and release. If you want more information on catch and release angling can be found here at

Please remember that just because “it swam off okay” doesn't mean that the fish will live. Even a fish that is properly handled can still die, however using the proper catch and release techniques can increase the likelihood of fish survival and that another angler gets a chance to catch the fish. As Lee Wulff once said “The fish you release maybe a gift to another, as it may have been a gift to you.”

James Reese is passionate about conservation and has been fly fishing for all of his adult life. He is active in the fly fishing community and currently serves as President of the San Gabriel Fly Fishers in Georgetown.

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