What’s the Difference Between Bag and Possession Limits?

Diehard catch-and-release anglers may never have to worry about bag or possession limits of fish. For anyone who keeps fish to eat, though, these are important terms to know.

Bag, or creel, limits and possession limits refer to the number of fish you’re allowed to keep when you go fishing. Although they’re related, the two terms aren’t the exact same thing, and being familiar with both is part of being a responsible catch-and-keep angler.

What are bag and possession limits?

In general, a bag limit is the number of fish a person is allowed to keep in a day. A possession limit is the total number of fish, from all days of fishing, that a person is allowed to possess at a given time.

For example, in Colorado, the bag limit for most species of trout is four. The possession limit is eight. This means I can’t keep more than four trout in any single day of fishing, and I also can’t have more than eight total trout in my possession, including trout I’ve just caught, those in the cooler ready for transport, and those at home in the freezer.

Usually, the possession limit is more than the daily bag limit (twice the bag limit is a common convention). However, this isn’t always the case. Using Colorado as an example again, both the bag and possession limits for crappie are 20. In this case, I could keep a maximum of 20 crappies per day, and if I do that, I’d have to eat some before I could catch and keep any more the following day.

Some fish don’t have bag or possession limits. Often, invasive species or species that are extremely common have very relaxed or non-existent limits. In Colorado, I could catch daily, and also possess, unlimited northern pike.

4 yellow perch on ice

State laws on bag limits

It’s vital to understand that different states have different specific definitions for both of these terms. While this article is no replacement for checking your state’s specific laws, there are some common differences between states.

Daily bag limit definitions are usually pretty consistent: the number you can keep in a day. One of the few aspects that can differ between states though, is what counts as a “kept” fish.

For example, in Alabama, if you’re in a bonafide fishing tournament and keep fish alive in a livewell, you can have more fish than the daily creel limit as long as you release them unharmed after the tournament in the same day.

In many states, however, a fish becomes part of a daily bag limit as soon as it is not immediately released back to the water. This means that if you catch a fish and keep it alive for a while, and then catch a larger one and want to replace the first, the first still counts toward your limit since you did not immediately release it. So, if you already have your limit of fish for the day, you cannot keep any more, even if you release one you already caught. Of course, Alabama mentions that the exception is fishing tournaments, implying that this rule is still the case for hobby anglers.

There are also cases of fish counting toward multiple bag limits. In Montana, if you catch a fish and give it to someone else, it counts toward both your daily bag limit and the bag limit of the recipient.

There are also occasionally rules about catch-and-release fishing after obtaining your limit. Sometimes, if you catch your limit, you can keep fishing as long as you release all subsequent fish. But in Wisconsin, California, and many other states, as soon as you hit your creel limit, you’re done fishing for the day. Many states also don’t specify in their regs booklet whether you need to stop after reaching your limit, so unless you check with a game warden first, it’s usually best to err on the side of caution and stop fishing once you have a limit.

Additionally, some states specify that you need to stop fishing for that particular species after reaching your limit. This can be a bit of a grey area because it’s not always clear what someone is fishing for. If you’re in a coldwater trout stream, it’s pretty obvious. If you’re fishing a pond with bluegill, crappie, and bass, you could catch anything. Sometimes, it’s clear what you’re targeting, though. You can’t be fishing with an 8-inch articulated streamer and claim you’re chasing bluegills.

A fish fillet

State laws on possession limits

Possession limits can get into the weeds, too. In Colorado, the possession limit is defined as the following:

“Maximum number of fish allowed at any time, including in the field, transporting, at home or in storage. Transporting live fish without proper permits is prohibited. Fish taken and later smoked, canned, frozen or preserved for consumption are part of the possession limit until consumed.”

This is a fairly representative definition of a possession limit. Montana, Wyoming, and Wisconsin, among many other states, have similar definitions.

Meanwhile, Idaho’s regulation booklet defines it as the following:

“Maximum number of fish that may be lawfully in possession of any person. Possession limit shall apply to fish while in the field or being transported.”

This implies that once you’ve processed and frozen your fillets at home, they no longer count toward the possession limit, although unless it’s written in black and white, it’s better to confirm with a game warden.

So there you have it. As always, if you’re not sure about your state’s particular laws, reach out to the game and fish department and ask. They’re more than willing to help out someone who’s being proactive about following the law, and can clarify grey areas from the booklet.

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