Skills: The basics of catch and release fishing

Keeping a fish in the water is one of the simpliest ways to better its chances of surviving. Brett Prettyman photo.

By Brett Prettyman

Catch and release fishing does not always end with another angler experiencing the thrill of landing a fish you let go with good intentions. Some fish will perish after being caught even if they appear to be fine upon release.

There are things anglers can do to better the chances of fish survival. These general rules of catch and release fishing are pretty straight forward, but even experienced anglers can become casual in their routine. Here are some reminders.

  • Crimp the barb on hooks. This reduces possible damage to the mouth of the fish and almost always makes it easier, and quicker, to unhook your catch. A barbed hook is also not fun to remove if it happens to find human flesh.
  • Try to keep the time a fish is hooked to the net as short as possible. Don’t overplay a fish. The fish is running a marathon for its life; don’t keep moving the finish line.
  • Keep fish in the water as long as possible. Try to remove the hook with the fish still submerged. It takes a little practice, but is not always as hard as it might seem. A net, and a friend holding the net, helps tremendously.
  • If the fish appears stressed don’t mess around with a picture. There will be other fish. River karma will recognize your effort.
  • Faster water moves more oxygen through the gills. Hold stressed fish in faster pockets of water until you can tell they are ready to move on their own. Consider this like football players sitting on the bench with an oxygen mask trying to recover after a 90-yard touchdown run.
  • In slow water or lake situations avoid pumping a stressed fish in the typical back and forth motion. Some researchers believe there is no benefit from water moving both ways through the gills. Consider moving it through the water in a figure eight or circle motion to keep it going forward with oxygen moving over the gills the way it was meant to happen. This may be easier if the fish is still hooked.
  • If you plan to take a picture make sure the fish is unhooked and not overly stressed before lifting it out of the water. When you do lift it out practice the #keepemwet mantra keeping the fish out just long enough for a picture. Keep the fish in the water—not over land—when taking the picture. Studies show the survival of certain trout species diminishes rapidly after just 20 to 30 seconds in the air.

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Practice the #keepemwet method of catch and release by only taking the fish out of the water when it is time for the picture. Besides, pictures with water dripping off of fish are cool. Brett Prettyman photo.

  • Use rubber nets to with a smooth surface to prevent injuries to the fish and removal of the protective layer of “slime” on the body.
  • Avoid fishing if waters reach excessive temperatures. Warm water stresses trout and makes it is more difficult for fish to recover. Most trout can be easily stressed in water temperatures that climb into the 60s. Temperatures 70 degrees and over are lethal to most trout.
  • Keep fingers away from the gills. One slip under the gill plate can easily kill the fish.

For more details check out this paper from Dan Dauwalter of Trout Unlimited’s Science Team. And, for more tips on how to be a better angler, check out TU’s new book, Trout Tips, available now.

Brett Prettyman is the communications director for Trout Unlimited’s Intermountain Region. He is based out of Salt Lake City and can be reached at

By Brett Prettyman.